Insecurity and anxiety: these are two states of mind which everybody suffers to some degree. The unfortunate reality is that, within some of us, these feelings are amplified significantly. Sometimes, the feeling of anxiety can be crippling.
You see, professional services firms – especially big 4 audit, or major law firms – are geared towards high performers; those high fliers who can handle whatever the bosses throw at them with consummate ease. There is so much emphasis on maximising output, long hours, and achieving. While this may work well and propel you through the early stages of your career, we rarely stop to genuinely ask people how they’re doing. Even worse, when we do know somebody is struggling, we aren’t quite sure how to help them. If you’re lucky enough to be feeling like you’re in a good place in terms of mindset, it’s particularly difficult to empathise with someone who may be experiencing some sort of insecurity.
A true story of crippling anxiety
For some, this can make the environment a nightmare. I was recently alerted to this reality by an old colleague who reached out after I started Trench Life. She wanted to share her story in the hopes that we might all learn to be a little more ready to deal with situations like this. This is the true story of someone who’s experienced years of working in a nightmare.
Here’s an extract of her letter to me:
… I have subscribed to your Trench Life page and am very encouraged by the content. I would like to share a little of my story so that hopefully some content around similar issues is accessible to young professionals on your page.
At one point early on in my career, I realised that I had made a very small and insignificant mistake on my timesheet. Despite, how small the mistake was and my open communication with my manager about the error, I could not shake the feeling of guilt and dread. I began to think that if I could make a mistake like that, then I must have made numerous other mistakes.
This was the beginning of my complete downward spiral. By the end of the year, I was going back to check work papers I had completed at the beginning of the year. I became consumed by the thought that I must have made a huge mistake. This lead to panic and I began to believe the things I made up in my head. I genuinely believed that I didn’t deserve to have my articles signed off. [ed: “Articles” is a 3+ year training contract required in South Africa to qualify as a Chartered Accountant].
I even had myself believing that I probably did all my expense claims wrong and would be going to jail for fraud! This crushed my confidence and I felt that I could not make any judgemental decisions without triple-checking it with a manager. So whilst, everyone else was elated at the thought of being signed off [as a Chartered Accountant], the idea scared me to the core.
This probably sounds ridiculous as there may not be anyone else in the world afraid of finally qualifying and the extra responsibility that brings.
I eventually had counseling and was diagnosed with anxiety and OCD.
The whole experience made me acutely aware of the impact of mental illness and stress in the workplace.
Jane [Name changed for anonymity]
This letter broke me. I probably read it ten times over before I was able to really digest what Jane was saying.
Let me start by saying that, in the time that we worked for the same firm, Jane came across as someone who fits perfectly into the mould of the professional services elite. She appeared confident, she was technically savvy and you would think she’d have no issues flying through the early stages of her career at the firm. Suffice to say I was shocked. More than that, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed that I had fallen into the trap of simply assuming that everyone is out there crushing it on a daily basis.
I’m saddened that Jane’s experience at the firm was hampered by these insecurities and that someone so talented had to struggle through this, largely on her own. I felt so strongly about Jane’s message that I asked her if she’d be okay with me turning her message into a post. In the hopes that it’ll help somebody – anybody – who has similar feelings, I worked with Jane to put together some of her learnings from working through her own nightmare.
What to do if you’re feeling insecure or anxious
Your feelings of insecurity or anxiety might not be crippling, but I’m sure that every single one of us has struggled with some form of insecurity about our jobs in the past. Here’s what helped Jane through her toughest times.
1. Be kind to yourself
Remember that professional services firms are set up as training grounds for you to become the best professional you can be. (Because this is how we add value to the firm’s clients)
Mistakes are expected and all firms have controls in place to pick up the mistakes that might actually matter. For the most part, your leaders want you to learn and accept that sometimes you won’t get something quite right. As long as you’re trying your best, that’s all we want. Embrace that and don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes. Everybody makes them.
2. Speak to someone if you’re struggling
Communication is everything. Assume that everyone in the firm is as ignorant about those around them as I clearly was in Jane’s case. The only way to let people know that you’re not quite doing okay is to tell them. The beauty of most firms is that they’re filled with problem solvers. Not only that, but they’re also filled with people who genuinely care about the wellbeing of those around them. Find the person(s) in your firm who you trust to confide in. Let them help you.
3. It’s okay to seek professional help
As willing as your colleagues are to help, many of us are not equipped to help you as much as you might need. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a professional as they will be able to help you understand how you are feeling. Most firms have programmes in place where you can anonymously get the help you need from qualified professionals. Ask your employer about these facilities and then make the call.
Jane’s done extremely well since she’s gone down this route. As she mentions, she was actually diagnosed and has since been able to receive the appropriate treatment. It’s something she will continue to work through for many years to come, but the help she received has enabled her to function effectively, move internationally, and start down a path with a new employer.
If you’re not sure where to start, this website lists mental health resources for many locations in the world.
4. Don’t assume others are coping better
It’s easy to look around you and think everyone clearly has their life together. Let me be the first to tell you that everyone struggles with something in their careers. Insecurity and anxiety are there for each of us and some are really good at pretending everything’s okay. You’re living your own life and working through your own career. Don’t benchmark your feelings against the way you think others are feeling.
5. Ask for feedback
Chances are, you’re doing a better job than you think. Ask for upfront and constructive feedback. There may be tips that you could use to help ease the pressure or manage your time better. And when your manager tells you you’re doing a great job? Believe them!
6. Learn to say “no”
Jane admits that saying “no” is something that she is still a long way from getting right. She’s not the only one. Each year, I train consultants on how to manage expectations and how to say ”no“ the right way. It’s something we all find difficult where we all want to create the perception that we’re the high performers our firms expect us to be.
Some things that you always need to remember:
- You are only one person;
- The audit/case/client/report/work will still be there tomorrow;
- Your firm will still be there tomorrow.
Understanding and communicating your workload doesn’t mean you are a poor performer. It means you’re self-aware and not setting yourself up for failure. It’s important to be a team player and do your part to meet a deadline, but your health and wellbeing are more important. If you’re trying your best and you cannot reasonably deliver on an expectation, that’s okay! Try to be honest about it to avoid disappointment and feeling overwhelmed.
You’re great, and it’s okay to have a bad day
A lot of Jane’s points seem logical, but those thoughts don’t always come naturally to us when we’re having a bad day.
Remember, while we’re all out there crushing our jobs each day (you included!) it’s only natural to have a bad day from time to time where you’ve made a few mistakes. Go home, treat yourself to a glass of vino, and come back ready to dominate the next day.
Your career is not defined by a few mistakes which you made. Let people remember you for the way you responded after you made the mistakes.
To all the Janes out there: you’re doing a great job and you’re not in it alone. Let someone help you make each day better than the last.
Have you struggled with any form of insecurity or anxiety in your career yet? I’d love to hear your tips for others based on how you dealt/are dealing with it. Please leave us a comment below.
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This was an extremely interesting read. Like Jane, I have experienced so much and still to experience these issues. Everything from being a high performer, being afriad of failing, taking on too much, not focusing on mental and physical health in the effort of trying to get things done at work, sleepless nights and all the way to fully understanding and telling myself and others that Im one person and work will be there tomorrow however thats always easier said than done. When I left my articles due to the pressure of my previous managers, I moved to another company. A few years later, I was offered a post in a different department and I thought things would be different but alas it never was going to be. I am told that Im doing a great job, people rely on me. Im trusted. Dont get me wrong, I love that I learnt so much and I have built many relationships with some genuine people but I often question how I would ever say I dont regret anything when my time comes to look back back at life when I leave this earth because as it stands I cannot say Im truly living my most authentic life.
Mark Atkinson says
Lawson, thanks for commenting!
It certainly can often be a very difficult environment to navigate where it feels like people are unrelenting with their expectations. The only way I’ve been able to stick at it for the last 6-7 years is by having very frank and honest upfront conversations with the leaders in the firm. It’s not always easy and it’s all designed to push you out of your comfort zone to promote professional growth as you learn very quickly. Once I was able to embrace this and keep in mind that it’s only a job, I’ve found ways to truly achieve what I think is a great balance. (One of those ways did involve a move to Australia, though. 😉 )
Good luck in finding your balance. For now, try to focus on all the positives you already mentioned and find ways to turn your overall experience into a good one. If it’s not the environment you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to move on.
Lawson Naicker says
Thanks Mark. What I did fail to mention that you touched on was having those conversations with leadership. It was about a month ago, I had to have the frank discussion without having to feel like I failed…and to my sursprise I was made to feel accommodated and it felt great to try and work towards balancing the scales again. Later I found that my work was still held in high regard…so clearly ones thought can make or break a person.
On your move…I have been contemplating the same for about a year now, alas generally when at an audit firm…if one is not qualified in the core field of the business…secondments are generally few and far between if not non-existant so I will have to consider and work towards finding other ways of bringing about that change.
Thanks for this article and The Trench in general. Really a cool hang out spot. I’ve always been known as the writer among my peers and family, so hopefully I can share my insights at some point on areas that interest me. 🙂 Happy punctuating!
Mark Atkinson says
I think you hit the nail on the head. Leadership is normally there to help when we speak up. We really are limited by our own mindsets sometimes!
Let me know if you’d like to chat about making a move overseas. I’ve actually got a post or two planned on this as well.
Thanks! Shoot me an email if you’d like to share something. Always happy to help with fleshing out and idea or editing a post!
Will definitely do so…I definitely have questions! Will catch up soon. Until then looking forward to more great reads.
thank you so much for this wonderful read. I’ll share it in my work WhatsApp group. Please, I’d like to keep in touch with you via email preferably.
Mark Atkinson says
Thank you mate! You’re welcome to keep in touch. The Trench Life contact form comes to me directly. Hope you’ve subscribed to our email updates!
I read your post – I think anyone who is about to pursue a career with a big 4 audit firm should consider all sides of the spectrum before joining one of them.
I feel very strongly about this topic – but my angle is based on the audit firms themselves and how they are pretty much the root cause, the common denominator and the problem to many of these stories and concerns for employees. The overworking, profit margin squeezing and work prioritizing mentality that they show is not healthy and is a downward spiral for too many employees. They simply don’t do enough to be concerned about the mental wellbeing of (especially) article clerks. I was fortunate and lucky enough to be a Peer Group Leader for my year group at articles and was a big advocate to make a change on the matter. Meeting after meeting with my year group and some seniors, complaints through the roof, tears and emotions – it all fell on deaf ears and nothing was done about it. It mostly gets swept under the carpet and I couldn’t believe what was happening in such a big audit firm. Anyway, I could go on and on but for now let me just say that in my opinion, the root cause of the problems you bring up (insecurity, anxiety, sleepless nights, worrying etc) comes from within the organization – and so the sad part is, it can be changed!
Thanks for sharing – cheers
Mark Atkinson says
Hey Richie, thanks for your comment.
While I have experienced many of the same things you have mentioned, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the last few years is that any organisation is the sum of its parts; the people that form it. Working in South Africa, Sweden and now Australia for the same big 4 firm, I’ve had completely different experiences and I believe a lot of that comes down to WHO each one of those offices was.
It’s not big 4 audit firms that take advantage of people, sweep things under the rug and ignore mental health. It’s certain PEOPLE within those firms, sometimes. (Okay, a lot of the time)
I hear your plight, but it’s difficult to agree with the generalisation. It IS possible to prioritise wellbeing AND have a successful career. Sometimes this means we need to move halfway across the world (like me) to achieve that balance, but it’s possible. 😉
Appreciate your thoughts.