How to fit in at a new job
Learn how to survive and thrive at your new workplaceBy Rebecca Field Jagger
My clock said 3:17 a.m. I translated it into the real time - 3:02 - and then wondered why I’d even bothered to set the alarm for a few hours later: There was no way I would oversleep, not on the first day of my new job. My dream job.
Then I started thinking, But what if people don’t like me? What if I’m not really qualified? Oh, stop it, I told myself. I got the job because I deserved it. I worked hard. I’ll do great.
To get my mind off the time, I mentally reviewed my new-job strategies, established in the early days of my career when an abundance of enthusiasm proved to be the perfect antidote to a lack of experience: Be flexible and go with the flow, never say no, don’t be afraid to voice opinions and ideas, and dress for success.
The diversion worked. The last thing I remember thinking before I drifted off was that if I could just get through the first-day-on-the-job jitters, it would be clear sailing.
I was wrong. And according to the experts, some of my strategies were wrong, too.
Women are the new men when it comes to feeling job stress. So says Jayne Hanna, a Toronto-based psychologist who in recent years has seen an increase in the number of female clients suffering from the pressures of the workplace. “In terms of gender differences, traditionally women have been more likely to base their self-worth on how their primary relationship is going. For men, it’s their career. But the tides are turning. Women are now feeling more stress because success in their careers means more.”
And both men and women often feel tremendous pressure during the first few days, weeks or even months in a new position. No matter how much the gig was coveted or how many hoops you jumped through to get it, a new job can create as much inner turmoil as other well-known stressors such as an illness or moving. “Anything novel, even if it is positive, is stressful to some degree,” Hanna explains.
A woman’s stress may be compounded due to her natural inclination to want to please, says Hanna. “Women tend to be responders; we try to pick up on what people want, and deliver it.” The result is a lot of internal questioning: Do people accept me? Are they happy they hired me? Am I delivering what I promised?
Adding to the burden, of course, is the increased likelihood that a woman is doing double duty at home. “Men help out, and many men do more than their share. But the general tendency is that women look after running the house,” says Hanna. As any working woman knows, on top of our day jobs, we are usually the ones taking care of everyday chores such as scheduling the family’s medical appointments, after-school activities for kids and home main¬tenance. Many women who work are daughtersof stay-at-home mothers so, unlike their male counterparts, they can’t draw from their mother’s work experiences.
We went to two California-based executive coaches, Thuy Sindell and her husband, Milo Sindell, for some advice. They wrote the book Sink or Swim! New Job. New Boss. 12 Weeks to Get It Right. They share some common mistakes people make when starting a new job, and offer suggestions for overcoming them.
Taking on too much
Thuy Sindell believes new-job stress is rooted in unclear expectations; that is, there is no specific map of your responsibilities and long-term objectives, just a brief job description. “When we are brought in to do a job, we typically don’t know what success will look like,” she says. Often, to compensate, a new employee will adapt a do-it-all, never-say-no approach. The strategy could backfire, so be careful that you don’t take on an unsustainable workload.
Insecurity about your level of knowledge can lead to trouble. In an attempt to validate your position in your new workplace, you may spew off facts and offer up unsolicited advice. “Ask yourself, Am I coming across as a know-it-all?” says Thuy Sindell.
“We are social creatures. If we don’t feel connected at our workplace, we are not inspired to go,” says Thuy Sindell. She offers these pointers. “Don’t be an alien life form waiting for contact. Say, ‘Hi, I’m new.’ If you’ve been there three weeks and have spoken to few people aside from your manager, it gets awkward.” Introduce yourself to everyone; there might be an opportunity to collaborate down the road.
Over - or under- dressing
Understand the fashion culture. Look at what people are wearing, and model it in the first couple of weeks. But err on the conservative side, says Thuy Sindell.
A great way to decrease stress is to know the rules of the workplace, says Marty Nemko, a career coach, the author of Cool Careers for Dummies, and the host of the San Francisco–based National Public Radio show Work with Marty Nemko. “There are rules in the employee handbook, but many are unwritten.” He offers the example of communicating with a co-worker. Do you send an email or will that be perceived as impersonal? Do you walk over to the person’s desk or will that be perceived as intrusive? Do you phone them or shout across the room?
To find out, Nemko suggests that after you have accepted the position, perhaps during a brief meeting you’ve set up with key people prior to starting, you pop the question: What should I know about this workplace that might not be written in the employee handbook? “Write their answers down so they know you’re serious,” he advises.
For me, after a rough first month—during which I did everything wrong, from taking on too much to talking too much—the support of a few co-workers and the confidence that comes from learning the ropes gradually transformed my new-job stress into new-job excitement. Finally, I got to enjoy the best part about having a dream job—every morning, you just can’t wait to get to work.
What if your new job isn’t the right fit?
If the stress of a new job doesn’t subside, at what point should you resign? Advice varies. Psychologist Jayne Hanna says you should consider leaving when it is negatively affecting your life and health. Executive coach Thuy Sindell suggests trying to hang in for at least a year. And Marty Nemko, a career coach and author, says it depends on your answers to several questions, such as:
• How stressful is the job?
• How improvable is the situation?
• Have you taken all prudent steps to amel¬iorate the stress (such as getting coaching from a co-worker who does similar work but appears to be less stressed)?
• How viable would you be in the job market if you were to quit?
• How well could you financially afford a period of unemployment?
• How well could you psychologically deal with a period of unemployment?