‘Do I Care Too Much About My Job?’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Get Ask a Boss delivered every week.

Dear Boss,

I’m a programmer who is in my eighth month at my current job. I’m a woman in my late 20s and have never held a job for a full year before — while most of the jobs were internships or temp/contract jobs, I’ve also quit one that made me miserable and been laid off from another. Because of all this, I’m trying to stay at the current job for at least two years before I seriously look for something else. 

It’s not terrible. In the context of “I am trying to pay my bills in a way that doesn’t destroy my health or make me miserable,” it is better than most jobs. But I often get extremely stressed out and come home exhausted most days, and I think a big part of it is that I get too personally invested in the work. 

I get really emotional about the quality of other people’s work. Although I am the youngest and most junior person on my team, the new project we are starting is in a software framework I am more familiar with than most of my co-workers. In addition, people are used to working on an old legacy site without much quality control and basically no testing, so as they move on to working on the new site, they carry a lot of bad habits and make a lot of avoidable mistakes. 

In addition, the project is pretty disorganized — our project manager and our team lead are both busy with other projects in addition to this one, and it’s unclear what deadlines mean or what we should prioritize, and when I try to ask about it I don’t get answers that are helpful. Often people are defensive. There have been multiple times I’ve asked what the status of a project is, or what testing will be done before we demo something, and the response I get is some variation of “what, you think I’d put this out without testing it?” When I try to bring up resources people could learn about to save time and prevent errors, I am often met with “we don’t have time for that.” People are often sarcastic or snarky or derail serious conversations with jokes. 

I find this all very frustrating. I’ve had varying levels of success discussing individual problems with individual people. Sometimes it works — one of the worst offenders in terms of making jokes apologized to me after he crossed a line and I got upset with him — and sometimes it doesn’t, as with the aforementioned defensiveness, or when the more senior people on the team insist that we don’t have time to write documentation or teach people how the technology works so they can write good code. It affects me because I’ll work hard on something and someone else will change it without understanding what they’re doing and suddenly what was carefully organized code is full of errors and bugs. I try hard to communicate well and listen to others but it feels like sometimes I may as well be talking to a brick wall.

And I tend to get emotional. I’ve cried at work, I’ve cried after work, I’ve been too angry to concentrate, I’ve avoided telling anyone about problems because I’m afraid to get shot down, I’ve spent hours ranting to friends and family about it. The emotional attachment is making me less effective in communicating about the problems. I think I’m coming off as neurotic and nitpicky and out of touch. My concerns get dismissed a lot (I think some of this is rudeness or sexism but it would be easier to navigate if I were less invested and better at picking my battles). 

If the circumstances were different I’d be looking for other jobs but as it is I would like to build a solid work history and also, I have no guarantee that the next place would be better. I wish I could stop caring so much, that I could just go to work and do my job and come home and stop thinking about it.

For context, I am diagnosed with anxiety and depression but I am handling them to the best of my ability. I take antidepressants, I have a prescription for anxiety meds to take as needed, I exercise most days a week, and I do talk therapy. So while my mental health issues surely contribute to the problem, I am pretty maxed out in terms of what I can do about them, and so I really want to focus on developing a better attitude and coping skills toward work. Do you have any advice for putting a reasonable amount of effort into my work and letting it be “just a job” to me?

Being personally invested in your work is a double-edged sword. On one hand, personal investment in your job makes work more interesting and fulfilling, and generally keeps you productive and showing up when you’d rather stay at home and sleep.

But when you’re more upset that things aren’t going well than the people above you are, and when that frustration is interfering with your quality of life, you’re too invested. It doesn’t make sense to pour more emotional energy into worrying about problems than the people whose job it is to fix them.

And really, it is someone else’s job to worry about these things. As the most junior member of your team, it’s not yours. That doesn’t mean that you should disengage entirely, but it does mean that you should get really clear in your head on what is and isn’t within your control — and what you are and aren’t being paid to worry about.

To be fair, it can be hard to do that when your colleagues’ disorganization directly impacts you. If you can’t get clear answers about deadlines or priorities, that’s legitimately frustrating. But it’s also true that sometimes there’s a certain amount of ambiguity at work, and you’re expected to roll with it. Sometimes the answer really is “there’s no specific deadline for this but it’s a moderately high priority.” Sometimes the answer really is “the priority level depends on information we don’t have yet.”

Or sometimes it’s just disorganization and bad management. But when that’s the case and you’re in a junior position, often the only thing you can do is accept that this is how your office functions and mentally move on.

That’s going to be a helpful approach to take more broadly too. There can be real relief in telling yourself, “This isn’t the way I would do it, but that’s not my call to make. I’m going to focus on my piece of the work and do that really well, and I’m leaving the rest to people here who are being paid to care about that.”

Speaking of which … it sounds like you might be creating some of your own frustrations when you try to help other people do their jobs better, like when you asked what product testing someone was planning, or when you suggested resources people could use to save time and prevent errors. Those were perfectly fine things for you to do, but now that you know that this particular team doesn’t welcome that kind of input, it doesn’t make sense to keep providing it and thus perpetuate a cycle that feels torturous to you. It’s okay to decide, “For whatever reason this team doesn’t want that kind of input, so I’m going to stop offering it.”

For what it’s worth, part of the reaction you’ve received to those things may be that you’re coming across to your more senior colleagues as if you think you know better than them. And maybe you do! The things you’re taking issue with sound like reasonable things to be concerned about. But it’s also true that sometimes it makes sense to make trade-offs in one area of a project in order to put resources or time into another, and sometimes things that look like obvious mistakes to one person are actually smart compromises because of time constraints or higher priorities. That’s not to say that you’re definitely wrong about the things that bother you. You might be perfectly right. But it can be helpful to remember that you don’t have the same vantage point on the work that your colleagues do, and they may genuinely know things that you don’t. Even if that’s not the case, though, when you’re the most junior person and no one else sees it your way, and they already shut you down when you tried to make your case, you’re not in a great position to push your point.

Lest you think that I’m telling you not to speak up about things that truly do matter, a good test is to ask yourself: Will this matter to the company or to me personally in six months? In a year? The vast majority of the time, the answer will be no. On the rare occasions that it’s not, that’s when you press the point.

But truly, the biggest thing here is to get really clear on the reasons why you have this job. You’re not there to solve all your company’s problems. You’re there to do a good job on your small piece of the whole, to do decent work that pays you, and to build a stable work history. That’s it! Maybe there can be something freeing in that — in knowing that you are excused from solving your team’s problems. You can finish up your work day and go home and enjoy not thinking about your job. At some point you’ll probably have a job where that’s not the case. But right now it is, and there’s liberation in embracing that, if you choose to take it.

Get Ask a Boss delivered every week.

Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss@nymag.com.

‘Do I Care Too Much About My Job?’