Q: My boss has been making me look bad in front of his boss. He'll tell me to work on certain high-priority projects and then, when his boss asks him the status of a lower-priority project, asks me if I've done it yet. How can I handle this without rocking the boat too much?
A: You're being put in an awkward position, and the most effective way to deal with it starts with a calm conversation. You may have a lot of emotions associated with this: probably anger or frustration, but perhaps also confusion about what you should actually be working on. Acknowledge your feelings, and then focus on setting them aside so that they don't cloud your judgment or lead you to hotheaded behavior that you may regret.
Take an unemotional look at these incidents, considering whether there are other interpretations. It may feel as if he's throwing you under the bus to protect himself, but would others see it that way? Imagine how a bystander may view it. Both the words he uses and his tone will factor into this. "Remind me when you'll be working on this" sounds very different from "Is that done yet?"
Think about the situation from his perspective, as well. Even if he is behaving inappropriately, it'll be useful for you to try to understand the reasons.
He may be insecure about his own performance and trying to make himself look good, or he may be threatened by you and trying to undermine you. Or maybe he has forgotten the project status or he simply is clueless about the effect of his words.
Finally, determine how you'd like these situations to be handled, and how much action you're willing to take to address it. For anything to change, you're going to have to put yourself forward.
Start by setting up a meeting with your boss at a low-stress time. Plan what you'd like to say. Be clear and nonaccusatory, describing the situation neutrally and using "I statements" to express your feelings.
If it continues to occur, you'll need to be more blunt, or even consider commenting in the moment: "Do you want me to switch gears and work on that?"
Because this would put him on the spot, recognize that there are risks. But if it's a big enough problem, then you may want to find a different boss anyway.
Family issue adds to stressful job
Q: I'm dealing with a family member's health issue and have a demanding job. I could use some practical advice on keeping myself together.
A: In addition to taking care of your family member and your employer, make a priority of taking care of yourself.
Health issues often come wrapped with fear about the outcomes. Even if the condition isn't life-threatening, it can result in anxiety-inducing changes. On the work side, high-pressure jobs have their own challenges under any circumstances. You may also be feeling anger, or even relief that positive changes may result. So, to start out, notice how you're feeling. Sit quietly, take some deep breaths and acknowledge your emotions. Accept that you're going to have a wide range of responses to the challenges you face, and recognize them without judging yourself.
Imagine what it would look like to have an inner sanctuary where your only focus is your own well-being. Consider strategies that have helped you deal with stress in the past or new approaches that you might try. For starters, your list might include meditation or prayer, exercise, time outside, interaction with friends or family — make the list as long as you can. If you choose to, ask others what they do to manage high-pressure situations, then borrow their tactics.
Try creating some structure. When you wake up, take some deep breaths and affirm your intention to have a positive day. Consider a resource such as the book Five Good Minutes, which includes quick morning practices to help get your day off to a well-grounded start. Plan times for movement, fresh air and spiritual moments.
Notice when you're getting stressed out. Know your warning signs — tension in your shoulders, shallow breathing, headache — whatever they are for you.
Get support from other people. Friends are a great resource; the key is letting them know what you're going through. It can also help if co-workers are aware of the extra pressure you're under. Also consider support groups related to whatever health issue is being addressed. It can be very beneficial to be with others who are facing similar challenges.
Maintain yourself so that you can bring energy and good spirits to meeting the other needs in your life.