First Aid for Feeling Adrift or Overwhelmed at Work

If you get disoriented or lost in the woods, the first piece of advice is to stop moving. Take a minute to calm down, survey your surroundings and assess the situation before you take another step, possibly in the wrong direction.  
That advice can serve you well if you feel a bit lost in your career too, or even in the context of a major project or significant challenge where you’re struggling to figure out what comes next. Leaders often have to interpret changing landscapes and forge a new path for themselves and their teams; it can help to think like a wilderness explorer. First things first.
  • Protect your food and water. If you’re a bit lost, chances are the journey (or project) may take longer than anticipated. Prioritize self-care. Burnout is currently the leading reason people look for a new job, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace.
Perhaps a one-month project has morphed into a six-month undertaking. Or your new boss just upended your previous priorities. Maybe you’ve been out with illness or a personal emergency. Faced with workplace challenges, taking care of ourselves is often one of the first things we sacrifice. Take the advice of intrepid adventurers: put your personal wellbeing first.
  • Admit there’s a problem. “Squelch the impulse to remain stoically quiet,” advises Founder and CEO of Exponential Results, Karen Brown, writing in The CEO Briefing. “When we feel that we may not be going the right direction, the best strategy is to call it like it is and re-evaluate.” If you pretend everything is okay, you can miss key opportunities to course-correct and find yourself relying on outdated and erroneous assumptions. Admitting there’s a problem also enables you to call for reinforcements.
  • Check your compass. Now is the time to use those directional aids you’ve acquired through the years. Instead of tracking the sun or stars, tap into your gut/heart/head and listen to what it’s telling you. This can require getting a little distance from the situation and sitting quietly long enough to listen. You might also turn to your closest mentors, sponsors or trusted confidantes. No one else can set your direction, but objective input can help you see where you’ve strayed off course.
Maybe you really want to move into operations, but keep getting slotted into marketing roles. Or somehow your name never came up for an international assignment. If you can identify a disconnect between where you are now, and where you want to be, you can rechart your course.
  • Use your tools. A flashlight, matches and blanket may be your best friends when wandering the woods. When trying to recover from a career setback or wrestling with a tough project, look around to see what resources can be called into service. You will want to maximize use of your own skill sets, but also see where colleagues have expertise that will help, or if your company has resources you haven’t considered yet. That can include career counseling to help you identify new opportunities within your organization. Employee Resource Groups, seminars and conferences, your boss or team, and external consultants might also provide new insights to help you meet a deliverable. You might even head back to school part-time if you need additional credentials to speed your journey.
A Harvard Business State of Leadership Development study found that organizations that see leadership development as critical to their success are 29 times more likely to steward successful transformations. The skills you used to launch your career are not enough to grow your career.
  • Fix small problems. Like a blister in your hiking boot, lots of small problems will crop up while you’re grappling with the really big ones. While you don’t want to get distracted chasing down irrelevant details, you may be able to get some small wins and even tamp down distractions by dealing with the more manageable stuff quickly and decisively.
You may not have enough buy-in yet to move the initiative forward, or have figured out career option A or B. But you can schedule a brainstorming session to get more ideas flowing. Or, you can talk to company colleagues in roles similar to those you’re considering. You might even invest an hour to tidy your desk and update the status of various parts of a big project. Making a little progress can energize you to do even more.
  • Finish strong. How you react in pivotal decision moments or mid-way through a stalled project will often determine how likely it is that you’ll survive to the end and walk back into the sun all in one piece. If you’ve safeguarded your own health and wellbeing throughout this challenging time, and called on all the resources at your disposal, your odds are good.  
Once back on solid footing, don’t forget to capture what you learned in the wilderness and consider returning to step one to refuel yourself for the next journey.

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