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The question

I have never been a person who "wanted" to work, or who couldn't wait to enter the work force at the age of 16, or whatever age. Despite this, for the first decade or so of my work experience, I managed fairly well. Six years here, three years there. But for several years now, I have found myself completely unable to deal with situations where I feel stupid or incompetent, where I'm not treated with respect, where my talents (as they are) aren't recognized. In some cases, I manage to get a great job because I look good on paper and squeeze my last remaining references … and once there, I become convinced that the job is way too difficult for me, and I can't possibly learn it and really shouldn't be there, wasting the time of my new employer and co-workers.

The older I get, the more I am aware of my own personality, problems and habits, and the more out of touch I am regarding how to be a good worker, especially in a job climate where I am competing against possibly hundreds of other applicants. How do I remain sitting in my new chair, in my new work environment, when the familiar anxiety and urge to flee overwhelm me? In the past, I have sometimes considered all of the people who support me, emotionally and sometimes financially, and how disappointed they will be in me if I quit yet another job.

This new job is really my last chance to continue living independently as an adult without racking up insurmountable debt. With that kind of pressure, what can I do not to crack, what can I do to get through those agonizing first days and/or weeks when I am exposed to all sorts of new systems and technologies? Obviously, my new employer can know nothing of my anxieties. Is it ever appropriate to request a slow and steady training, without of course mentioning that is possibly the only way I can quell my anxieties and remain in this new and frightening workplace?

The answer

You seem to be putting an almost insurmountable amount of pressure on yourself to perform, perfectly, right from the get-go. This is rarely an expectation of an employer. Many employers simply expect new employees to spend some time getting to know the business, the people and the surrounding culture. Take a moment to read up on what your group is working on and to understand some of the history of projects that are being undertaken.

Take some time to understand the company's computer systems, such as how to book meetings, meeting space and the employee intranet. Every company has a different setup, so in no way should you feel guilty if you need to play around with the system, understanding how everything works. This is part of your self-orientation – an important part of starting a new job.

To overcome some of the anxiety and expected feeling of being overwhelmed with information and change, try starting a job on a Wednesday. Many people assume you are supposed to start on a Monday but the start day is part of the negotiation process, as is salary and vacation time. Starting a job on a Wednesday only leaves three days to start getting settled, then a two-day break before you start a full week. It takes some of the stress away and allows some time to process what you learned earlier

You may also want to engage in onboarding coaching. This involves working with a coach for the first three or six months of the new role, aiming to help with the transition, and to position you to succeed. Common areas for onboarding coaching include laying a foundation of what the first three/six months would look like, and also how to assemble your key advisers/sources within the company. The onboarding coach is also someone whom you are accountable to and can rely on for help with your feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious and confused.

You also may have access to an employee assistance program, which also provides support to employees who are experiencing difficulties in work and in their personal lives. This is a service that tends to be part of an employee benefits plan, and is confidential.

The key message here is to downgrade your expectations of yourself, and what you can expect from the first few weeks or months in a new job. Give yourself some time to adjust and grant yourself the permission to learn gradually and enjoy your experience.

Eileen Dooley is a certified coach and lead consultant for Cam McRae Consulting in Calgary.

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