Keeping Your Head (when all around you are losing theirs)

I'm going to be honest with you--the last three weeks have been the most stressful I've ever experienced at work. Between moving into a new position and finding out that things are not as hunky-dory as they looked to being manipulated by an office control-freak, it's been quite the month. My head has been spinning, my sleep disrupted, and my emotions on edge. But, as I finally find the time and space to take a breather, I find that my head is still on my shoulders (what a relief!) and I've learned some things along the way.

Here are some ideas that might help you, too, in the sometimes-interminable effort of keeping your head.

1. Decide who does and does not have the privilege of determing crises.

To some people, everything is a crisis. Or, at least, everything they need is a crisis. In fact, my experience says there's at least one of these in every office. It doesn't matter if their deadline is several weeks away, they will try to make your life stressful until you do whatever it is they need you to do. It might start with an innocuous email or a cajoling phone call, but it quickly turns nasty as they make request after request that you don't need to meet.

Notice: These are the people who make your shoulders stiffen and your jaw clamp. They're the ones you avoid because you know they're going to ask your for something else that doesn't need to be done yet.

Do: Set your boundaries firmly. Tell them when you will have your part finished and let them know that they can call you if they don't receive it then. If they call you before that, let them know that they are disrupting your work and making it harder to finish what they need. If it persists, confront them with their behavior and reassure them that you fully plan to do your part.

2. Keep your hours firm.

When people are panicking, it's easy to get carried away and start working long hours. The truth is, though, that we only have a certain number of "good" hours in us every day and that we won't work well for the rest. Find a balance between you, other relationships, and you job that will work for all three and stick to it. There are definitely times to give more to the job that usual, but even then, let people know when you will be leaving.

Notice: How long can you work before you feel like your brain stops functioning? At what point during a long work day do you feel like you just have to walk around because you can't sit still for one more second? In general, pay attention to the functioning of your body and your mind.

Do: Post your hours at your desk or in your office. Talk to your boss and your co-workers about when they can expect to see you, even if it's just casually. Designated a trust friend or family member to call you at the time you said you'd leave.

3. Know what you can and cannot do.

It's so easy to bite off more than we can chew. We want to be useful and involved, and so we try to do more than we can. Sometimes, the job's expectations seem to force us into this--we chose the job, so we must have chosen the expectations, too. But we are only human and we can only do so much a day, week, month, or a year. Additionally, we only have so much knowledge. We can't make ourselves learn the new system in 8 hours if it's totally foreign to us.

Notice: When do expectations seem to be heaping themselves on you? What triggers feelings of being overwhelmed? Is it a person, a sort of project, a time of year?

Do: Take pride in what you can do and in what you do get done. It may not be "enough" or "perfect" based on anyone else's standards, but it's yours and you did it. Take some time before deciding to jump into anything new, particularly when it's something you've never done before. Let people know if you're nervous about a deadline or a project.

4. Tell the truth.

There's a culture of judgment in corporate America that often expects more out of people than they can give and then holds them overly accountable when they cannot produce what is expected. Employees fear that, because they don't want to be seen as lazy or unproductive. But the truth is, we're only human. We can't pull reports out of thin air and we can't make other people respond to us more quickly than they want to. It helps to say these things, to get them out in the open air and out of the private hidey-holes where we usually store them.

Notice: We tend to feel like we have to lie when we're around people who make us uncomfortable. They may be intimidating, mean, super-productive themselves, or hold a higher position than we do. Note when you feel like you can't be yourself.

Do: Make yourself tell the truth. It can be hard to say, "I don't know what you want from me," or, "My office staff usually does that and they're all at lunch right now," but doing it helps us come to term with our own limitations, both in the individual setting and in life in general. If you can't tell the truth on the phone or to someone's face, do it by email.


These are defintely not the only ways to keep your head in a hard work situation, but they're a good start and they've worked for me. What's more, surviving a difficult situation gives you confidence in yourself and your skills that you may not find anywhere else. Being tested by fire often produces more results than years and years of training. (And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!)

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Guest's picture

Hmm, for #4, I've seen people tell the truth and get sacked for it.

From what I've seen, it's best to lie and make yourself look as good as possible, and if you can take someone else down while doing it, all the better.

I'm quite cynical about the working world, if you can't tell. Heh.

Guest's picture

As far as being honest goes though, I'd would definitely take the circumstances and the boss's character into consideration. If you have a boss from hell, being honest could end up backfiring. Discretion is imperative.

I loved your article, though and learned a lot from it. Thanks!


Sarah Winfrey's picture

Ronni--I guess I would come down on the side of not wanting to work for someone who wouldn't respect the truth, but then again, I have this sometimes-excruciating love for truth.

Patti--I suppose it depends on how much you need the job. If I had to lie to keep one, I hope I would leave!

Thanks for the comments!

Will Chen's picture

This is one of the most useful articles I've ever read. Thank you so much for sharing your tips with us Sarah. =)

"The truth is, though, that we only have a certain number of "good" hours in us every day and that we won't work well for the rest"

This is tough to remember. We Americans just can't accept the fact that mandatory down time is an important part of productivity.

Guest's picture

Coming home from the office after an almost 16 hour day, the tip that most resonates with me is decide who has the privilege to declare a crisis. I know a lot of my stresses at work are caused by me NOT setting boundaries and this question should be one of the first things I ask before putting in a 16 hour day to meet a deadline.

Guest's picture

I really appreciate your commitment to honesty. In a sense, most of what you have written is about honesty, either with yourself, about what you can handle or with others about what they can/should reasonably expect from you. I feel a little sorry for people who feel like honesty is a liability in the workplace. I guess if you felt like your job is your life, then you'd feel a little desperate about not wanting anyone to know you have limits, but having no boundaries eventually leads to feeling like everyone owns a piece of you, and it becomes hard to define who you are and what you really want out of life.

Guest's picture

Just came back to my office after a short, anxiety-filled meeting, and Googled "when all around you" to find some advice. Your post was the very first hit, and it certainly did the job. I guess you're right--there are people like this in every office, and unfortunately I tend to be a sponge for other people's anxiety.

Your four tips are going to be printed out and posted prominently on my bulletin board to help me stay centered. Thanks!