my coworker is constantly convinced he’s going to get fired

A reader writes:

I need some advice about how to handle a work colleague. My colleague is good at his job; he has not received any bad reviews. This will be his second year in the position. We have an entirely new administration, as well as a new employee evaluation system handed down by the state. I understand that this is a stressful environment for everyone involved. But my colleague stresses WAY more than is necessary. As I mentioned, he is good at his job. But he suffers from very low self confidence and self esteem. Because of this, he has absolutely convinced himself that he’s going to be fired. There are rumors (as there always are) that certain departments will be streamlined or restructured, and he holds onto everything he hears as an almost absolute truth.

He and I are friends, so he comes to me for advice. I have tried to explain to him that while there is always a possibility that anyone could be let go, that overall he is good at his job and has received no bad reviews, so he cannot be doing anything poorly enough that he should be concerned so intensely about being fired.

However, he is always quick to point out that the administration responds (in his mind) more favorably and frequently to me than they do to him despite the fact that it’s my first year on the job. I have tried to point out that I am the manager of an entire department which provides resources for the entire building, so the administration are my direct supervisors – whereas he is one worker in a multi-person department that has liaisons to work with and report to the administration – hence why they talk more to me than to him.

However, he remains convinced that he will be terminated regardless of how well he is actually performing. He has begun applying to other jobs and has apparently gotten at least one interview. He’s told me on multiple occasions that he loves this job and has no intention of leaving. At the same time, he assumes he is leaving and psyches himself out. What else – if anything – would you recommend that I say to him? He keeps asking for my advice. He is my friend and I don’t mind offering my advice…except I feel like a broken record saying the same things over and over again and he never seems to really believe/accept the things I do say regarding this matter. Help?!

This sounds exhausting.

I suppose if you want to keep at it, you could say some of the following:

* “I’m getting the sense that there’s nothing that will convince you that you’re not on the verge of getting fired. Have you thought about what’s really at the core of your worries?”

* “You’ve told me that you don’t want to leave, but you’re actively searching for another job because you think you might be let go. Has it occurred to you that if your worries are all in your head, then you’re in the process of psyching yourself out of a job you like?”

* “It’s smart to look at other jobs if you’re truly worried, but given that you’re taking all the right steps for someone who thinks they might lose their job, is there a way to turn down the piece of this that has you worried all the time? Feeling this fearful all the time won’t help and is probably making things a lot more unpleasant for you than they need to be.”

On the other hand, given how exhausting it must be for him to be this worried all the time, maybe he really is better off getting out of there and going somewhere where he’ll feel more security. So you might approach it like that too — as in, “I don’t think you have cause for this much worry, but since you’re clearly really rattled by it, it might make sense to just get out of here and into an environment where you won’t feel this much insecurity.” (Of course, I wonder if he’ll feel more security anywhere — this sounds an awful lot like generalized anxiety that’s going to come up wherever he’s working.)

Beyond that, though, you can’t fix this. You can ask the types of questions above, but if he’s in the kind of anxiety spiral it sounds like he’s in, you probably can’t get him out of it.

{ 128 comments… read them below }

    1. Anoners*

      I agree. I’ve dealt with this and I know how hard it can be to see things rationally. If that’s the case, seeing a professional could help ease some of this for him.

    2. Jill-be-Nimble*

      That’s what I came here to say. There are some good therapies (Cognitive Behavioral therapies, etc.) that can help with these types of obsessive, repetitive thoughts, even if he’s resistant to medication. OP might kindly suggest talking to someone more qualified–s/he has great intentions, but is probably not qualified at this level to be this person’s sounding board.

      1. OP*

        I’m the OP of this post. I did encourage him to get therapy and/or counseling and he is beginning to stick his toe into the waters of this area. Like you, I pointed out that while I’m happy to talk and offer advice, that I’m also not a therapist and can’t really help out with whatever the base causes of this might be!

        1. Jill-be-Nimble*

          Good luck! I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of this advice. It’s hard to accept on both sides–as a friend, you really just want to be there for them, and as the person in trouble, it’s hard to accept that the person you trust isn’t necessarily the best person to run to. In the long run, it’s better all around to encourage therapy and then leave it alone. Like everyone else here has said, though, you can offer it and then shutting it down/turning it around is probably for the best after that. I’m sorry that you’re stuck in this maddening loop!

    3. Celeste*

      Agree 100%. Anxiety disorders are a meat grinder for relationships, as you are finding in how he comes to you for reassurance. He needs to learn that he can’t get a calm feeling from you, it needs to come from within. He needs an evaluation to find out what other areas of his life are affected by the this; I’m certain that it isn’t just work. The answers will help to decide if he needs medication or talk therapy, or both.

      I think you need a script for the next time he comes to you, about how you see things so differently than he does, that you are really feeling like he should get a consult about a potential problem with anxiety. Let him know that there is help for these strong and negative feelings, and they don’t have to derail his job. Let him know you care and you are happy to talk to him, but you think for several reasons that it’s time to come at this problem from a different angle. Don’t tell him he has a problem, suggest that you are concerned that he might and that a professional is the one to consult about it. Consult is a great word, because it’s so open-ended. He would be going to ask a question, and see how the conversation goes from there. Maybe it’s something else, but he has reached his limit with you for assistance you can give him with these feelings.

      If he refuses, you are going to have to set your boundaries for what time and attention you can give him over this, since you are not a medical professional.

    4. Adam*

      That’s what I thought. OP, since you’re friends to a degree do you know if he’s been like this in other jobs or areas of his life? If it’s just this one segment of his life he has these thoughts then perhaps it is best he leaves, but if it’s more prevailing it’s definitely a sign he could use some counseling.

    5. Sigrid*

      Completely agree. OP, if you’re good enough friends, maybe you can suggest counseling for anxiety. It can help tremendously.

    6. Lizabeth*

      This…however suggesting therapy is one thing; them going to therapy is an entirely another one. Have a friend that we have “suggested” therapy in various different ways until we’re blue in the face for a similar anxiety problem – always a “no can do” on their part. Now…we ignore it except for the occasional “we can’t help you help yourself, you have to do it” and leave it alone.

      1. OP*

        The first few times I suggested getting help, he flat out refused because there’s a “stigma” attached to getting mental help. I’m not saying there is or there isn’t, but I pointed out that a mental problem doesn’t and shouldn’t carry any less weight than a physical problem. I gave the example that no one would think less of him for getting medical help for a broken leg – a problem that would negatively impact his life and make him miserable. So why should he feel badly about getting medical help for mental or emotional stress – a problem which negatively impacts his life and makes him miserable. That example, I think, got through to him. Then he complained that he was worried that news of his diagnosis would prevent him from getting another job. I pointed out that legally no doctor could discuss anything about him without his express consent first, so that was a non-issue unless he personally decided to share that information with potential new jobs. I get the feeling that there will always be “something” that discourages him from looking for help, but who knows.

        1. Adam*

          Unfortunately there is a stigma some see with those who seek treatment for mental issues, and being a man he’s likely less inclined to seek help in that manner as well, afraid that it’s a “sign of weakness” or something.

          That’s one of the real struggles with dealing with the issue: it’s often not inherently obvious as something that could need professional help like a physical malady would, and when a dysfunctional thought pattern has been ingrained that deeply in your psyche it can be hard to imagine alternative possibilities.

          So the only thing you can really do is be supportive of him to the level you feel appropriate, and set a firm boundary of where you remove yourself from his issues since they are his to sort out. Hopefully he’ll reach a point where he realizes that he really does need help and seeks it out. Good luck!

          1. Ellemoria*

            There’s no stigma if no one knows. It’s completely his business, nobody else, not work, not friends, not even family. Speaking as one who lived under the threat of layoffs for well over ten years, I came close to what you’re describing. Health insurance is for health, and mental health comes under that umbrella. All health is precious, especially when it comes to what’s between your ears.

            1. Adam*

              No disagreement here. I’ve done a few tours of therapy myself. But the thing is someone would know: himself. And that’s really the whole problem. If he does in fact have a problem, he’s got to admit it and then really be willing to do something about it before he can get better. And as they say, that’s often the hardest part.

        2. ella*

          I don’t mean this to sound heartless (I’ve done the rounds of therapy myself so I know how hard it can be to make that first phone call), but there’s also a stigma attached to being an unadaptable ball of stress all the time.

    7. bullyfree*

      I agree too. It sounds like the anxiety was triggered by the rumor and his thoughts are fixated and traveling a continuous loop. It’s a survival mode loop and eventually it could burn out his mind and body. It’s amazing he can still do great work while carrying such a heavy load of anxiety. I hope he can get the help he needs because the sky would be the limit workwise and career-wise if he wasn’t distracted by the anxiety!

  1. badger_doc*

    Ugh… trying to reassure insecure people is SO exhausting… I have a friend who is 30 and recently out of a relationship. She has started online dating and has been out on 7 (!) dates since starting, yet she constantly laments how she isn’t pretty enough to get dates, will never get married, no one will want her, yadda yadda… No matter how much I try to reassure her that she is beautiful, or use data on the number of dates she has had in such a short time, or talk about all of her past boyfriends who found her attractive… She STILL thinks she will never find a husband. It is so tiring sometimes. I don’t have much advice for the OP in terms of dealing with this except to just cut it off at a point. I might try Alison’s advice of turning it back around and saying, well, if you feel that way, maybe you should go somewhere you feel more secure. I might actually try that with my friend, although I can’t imagine what she would do if I told her, “Maybe you won’t get a husband. Then what?”

    Good luck OP! Maybe you can also recommend counseling once a month so they can work through whatever issue they seem to be having with their insecurity of getting fired? Sometimes it helps to have a non-biased person tell you that those thoughts are irrational.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s actually the Carolyn Hax approach to people in your friend’s situation, and I love it. So, maybe you won’t get married — let’s assume you won’t and start figuring out how you want to live your life happily under that scenario.

      1. LBK*

        And ironically, once you learn how to be happy with however your life turns out and not hinge your happiness/self-worth on a relationship, you’ll probably be more attractive to people. As Katie said below, insecurity drives people away and reinforces itself.

      2. Ruffingit*

        +1 for the mention of Hax. LOVE HER! Still hate the workplace columnist over at WP though. Hax once had a column about a workplace problem and she called in Karla the horrible work columnist to chime in. I posted a link to Ask a Manager in the comments. It was deleted by TPTB. Jerks. Karla is a menace and I am on a campaign to get everyone over here. Washington Post is thwarting my efforts.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Ugh, don’t get me started. One of Karla’s early columns had inaccurate legal info in it, and I never read it again, in order to protect my sanity and peace of mind.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      Ooof. I don’t want to take this off on a tangent but she really shouldn’t be dating right now if that’s her mindset. The insecurity is going to be really obvious to anyone she dates, push them away, and will just convince her that she’s right to be insecure.

      1. some1*

        Yup, I’ve dated “Just Wants a GF” (asin, any Gf) guy before I was old enough to recognize it. Nobody wants to be with someone whose main goal is not being alone.

        1. LBK*

          Having been the “I just want to not be alone anymore regardless of who I’m dating” person for a while, it’s so hard to realize that’s what your doing. It really wasn’t until I started dating someone who WAS actually the right person and someone I specifically wanted to date that I realized how stupid I’d been in my prior relationship choices.

      2. Natalie*

        Or worse, she could be really attractive to Not Good People right now. That ain’t gonna end well.

    3. the gold digger*

      “Maybe you won’t get a husband. Then what?”

      You don’t have to wait to watch the rest of season five of “Friday Night Lights” until your husband has time to watch it with you.

      You never have to deal with in-laws.

      You never have to argue about the proper way for storing silverware or what direction the toilet paper rolls.

      1. badger_doc*

        haha I just started reading your blog, gold digger–you are hilarious! I can’t wait to read more!

      2. Windchime*

        Agree with TGD. Also: You can go to bed when you want. The cat can sleep on the bed if you want. All purchases are decided on by YOU, not by committee. You can have popcorn for dinner if you want.

        The list is endless.

    4. Anonymous (the other one)*

      I feel for you. I had to end a friendship with someone who constantly complained for five very long years about her relationship status or lack thereof. That was the tip of the iceberg with her drama and anxiety and I just couldn’t take it anymore.

      I suffer from anxiety myself to the point of being medicated for it so I get it. I know how this feels. At the same time, you cannot continually complain to your friends and family and do nothing to help yourself. It’s like the guy with the broken leg who refuses to see a doctor, but wants reassurance from everyone around him that his leg is actually broken and what a trauma that is. It’s broken, it’s a trauma, please get help from those equipped to help you. ARGH!

      1. OhNo*

        I know I’m late to the party, but this is the best metaphor I’ve ever seen. I’m going to use this the next time this situation comes up (which I feel like it does a lot in my friend group, unfortunately).

        1. Anonymous (the other one)*

          Glad you like it and feel free to use it as needed. Sorry to hear your friend group has the issues where this is necessary. I’ve been there and it’s exhausting.

  2. Gwen Soul*

    I have been in his shoes before (mostly due to bad past experiences). I was valued, my boss loved me and everyone said I did a great job, but it took me a good three years to feel like I really was “safe” here. I even undermined myself in bad ways such as telling my boss I could do it all and didn’t need to hire anyone because I was worried they would replace me with whoever they hired. I have since gotten over this and have a direct report and it amazing, but took a long time to get to that point. Not sure you can do anything; it has to come from him. I wish I had gotten over this earlier because I feel I and my department would be in such a better position.

    1. Laura2*

      I suspect this is partly what’s going on. If he’s been fired or laid off before as the result of a reorganization, it can be really hard not to think it’s going to happen again.

      1. Dan*

        I was laid off from a company going through the “small company getting acquired by big company” transition. When I interviewed for the next job, I point blank asked them if they were happy being a small company, cause I didn’t feel like going through that again.

        The VP I spoke to was pretty blunt and told me that he knew my old company well, and that the acquisition was pretty f’d up and I shouldn’t take that as a sign of how things always go.

        The fact that old company’s previous owners/management team got sued by the new company certainly didn’t discredit VP’s position.

      2. BRR*

        Place me in this category. I was fired from my old job (which was also my first full-time position) after 5 months and 4 months before that as an intern (doing the exact same duties). No warning. I’ve been at my new job for about 8 months and have gotten good reviews but I still panic about being fired all the time. Whenever I do something extra special like find a huge flaw nobody noticed I always think, “good I just proved my worth for a little while longer.”

      3. OP*

        This is his first position out of college, but he successfully survived the first year of employment without much difficulty, from what I’ve understood.

        1. LJL*

          He may become less needful of reassurance as his track record of success lengthens. time does help, but it’s useful to be able to point to that success.

      4. SJ*

        I thought the same thing. I’ve been laid off twice and I’m always paranoid. There’s a fine line between heightened awareness and anxiety, however, and this guy should perhaps look into counseling.

        And save his money. Because hey, it could happen.

        1. the gold digger*

          I have been laid off before. It’s horrible. Every time my current boss says, “We’re not even covering our salaries!” (we are the sales and marketing department), I start to hyperventilate.

          (NB: We are the new sales and marketing department. I have been in this job – a new job that was created when I was hired – less than six months. The company has never done marketing before. OF COURSE we are not going to perform miracles – but my boss’ panic is stronger than my rational thinking.)

      5. Windchime*

        Yeah, we just had a big layoff a couple of weeks ago. Rumors were flying beforehand and one scary rumor (from someone who might be in a position to know) was that my entire department was going to be canned. I am already an anxious person and my levels went through the roof. So I went to someone who knows — my boss — and asked him outright. He was able to give me reassurance that our team wasn’t going to be canned. And that was enough for me.

        The layoffs were still upsetting so I get where the OP’s friend is coming from. In this job market, nothing feels stable or secure.

  3. AMT*

    Therapy, therapy, therapy. This doesn’t sound like something that a coworker’s reassurance will help. Say something like: “It sounds like this is more than just normal work stress. Do you think it might be a good idea to talk it over with a professional?”

    If you’re good friends with him, or if you know him outside work, you might even ask someone else (e.g. one of his friends or relatives) to approach the topic if you don’t get through to him.

  4. Artemesia*

    People like this are beyond annoying. I don’t know when people got the idea that being delicate flowers and whining endlessly was attractive but it is of course likely to attract the wrong sort of attention. I would be inclined to tell him that the constant complaints bring you down and make you nervous about your own job; you don’t need the negativity. AND that by constantly acting like he is about to get fired he may be putting the suggestion into the heads of management. People tend to take us at our own valuation of ourself. Someone who constantly complains about being a loser is generally viewed as a loser. The worker who goes on at great length about mistakes they make will be viewed as a screw up. People who tell little anecdotes of personal success on the job e.g. a class that went great, a student who did something wonderful, a client who was pleased by the company’s product, a great day at an open house for a client, great feedback on a proposal — people who talk like that tend to be viewed as effective.

    If nothing else, he needs to understand that he is his own personal PR firm and the view others have of him will be shaped to some extent on the image he chooses to project.

    The OP is already giving him the appropriate feedback i.e. nothing is for sure in employment but you appear to be doing fine. Now it is time to be blunter about telling him to stop complaining and if you are close enough maybe suggest therapy.

    1. In Da Cube*

      Just want to say that no one with anxiety chooses to be a “delicate flower”. Anxiety is hell and not something anyone would choose to live with. I’m sure that’s not what you meant, as I see you also suggest therapy, but unfortunately many people do feel that those with anxiety just need to stop whining and toughen up. If only it were that simple.

      1. EM*

        I agree with your sentiment; however — just because you have anxiety doesn’t mean you should be constantly bothering other people by complaining and talking endlessly about it.

        I’ve had anxiety issues in the past, but I know when to keep my trap shut. It sounds like this guy has some anxiety issues going on, but also NO self awareness. It’s not professional or even polite to keep up an endless stream of negativity to other people in your work space.

        I don’t understand how some people can’t recognize this. When I get anxious, I vent to my husband or my mom, maybe 1 0r 2 close friends. I don’t bring it up constantly at work to other people, thus making them uncomfortable and possibly anxious as well!

        Nobody likes to be around someone who is consistently negative. I feel like that’s not terribly difficult to figure out.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I don’t understand how some people can’t recognize this.

          Wha???? Okay, I just came out of a dark, dark decade. Like, I’m a month free of anxiety that has ruled my life for so long that I didn’t remember what it was like to *not* have anxiety and I didn’t really consider myself “anxious” so I’m afraid I can’t agree that it’s not terribly difficult to figure out.

          There’s a big difference in being negative or anxious about one specific thing, compared to chronic anxiety (generalized anxiety disorder.) I almost got divorced, after 15 yrs, because of my negative outlook on life, but I really felt like it was just part of “who I am” rather than “anxiety.” Like you, I do/did understand that people don’t want to hear complaining or whining, but I don’t think I recognized it coming out of my mouth. And in my line of work, there’s always a crowd ready to agree and chime in, so it was really at home where it was most damaging.

          1. EM*

            OK, well, first of all — in my experience, not every person who is anxious/has anxiety issues is also negative, and not every person who is negative has that negativity stemming from anxiety issues.

            I honestly don’t mean to be offensive, but if you have suffered from anxiety for over a decade without realizing it and, in tandem, had a very negative outlook on life that you didn’t recognize, that to me, points to a lack of self-awareness and/or a lack of social skills rather than the anxiety itself. Again, I’m sorry if that comes across as offensive, I don’t mean it to be.

            Perhaps your anxiety contributed to your negativity, and I’m sure it did in ways, but it’s not like that for everyone. Like I mentioned, I’ve had anxiety issues since a teenager, but I’m not a negative person and I don’t think my anxiety leads me to have a general negative outlook on life.

            There’s also a big difference in being in a situation/work place where you are surrounded by disgruntled/dissatisfied colleagues who are also ready to complain with you at the drop of a hat, and being in an organization where it sounds like from the OP’s description — you are one of the few overtly negative people around.

            Additionally, it sounds like the OP has straight-up told this person they are being negative and that it is difficult for her (the OP) to constantly hear that. It doesn’t seemed to have helped the situation. Even if this person sincerely did not recognize they were being negative/bothersome beforehand, this should have been a wake up call.

            1. OP*

              Quite honestly, nearly everyone I work with is very nice. Just in this short year, I’ve made a lot of co-workers into good friends. Even the few that seem “negative” tend to be more just busy and frazzled rather than truly negative personalities.

              I have straight up told him that he is negative and that it can be a downer to be around sometimes. He’s gotten some better, but in general, he still thinks negatively.

              In general, for me, this situation has gotten better because it’s a case of “use it or lose it” with sick days and personal days and add that to the fact that he’s been interviewing a lot, I rarely end up seeing him anymore. (Not to say that I’ve stopped being his friend or don’t want to talk to him, but just the constant complaining at work aspect has improved simply because he’s not physically present much to complain!)

        2. Del*

          I don’t understand how some people can’t recognize this.

          The insidious thing about mental illness is that it very, very often attacks a person’s ability to recognize that something isn’t right with how they’re processing. So it can, in fact, be “terribly difficult to figure out” for someone who’s mired in the middle of it and perceiving the entire world (including their own self-perception) through the distorting lens of their problems.

          Additionally, even if they know intellectually that their perception is skewed somehow, that doesn’t give them the ability to see in what way it is skewed, how skewed it is, or what the un-skewed version of what they’re perceiving would look like.

          1. Jillociraptor*

            That’s true, and the opposite is also true: in many cases, you know that what you’re thinking / ruminating on is illogical. You know that worrying about it will not help. But that doesn’t stop your brain from fixating, and that level of fixation makes it really hard not to talk about it.

      2. Artemesia*

        I spent most of my career anxious and wish I had in fact gotten therapy early on and my head screwed on straight. My impression of fellow anxiety prone people is that they do have a script in their head of themselves as delicate, and special; it is a somewhat narcissistic pose. One of the reasons cognitive therapy is so often successful with this problem is that ‘fake it till you make it’ is actually accurate to a large extent as to how people develop confidence and calm. It is quite possible to choose to behave in ways that reinforce the person you want to be — or to choose to dither and whine and inflict yourself on those around you which just reinforces the anxious state.

        Some people are mentally ill and need medication and intensive therapy, but most of us neurotics can change our behavior and the way we feel by changing our behavior first and working on our feelings later. I bet if the OP’s co-worker stopped whining and committed himself to making 3 positive comments about his work to his co-workers every day, that his anxiety would drop.

        1. fposte*

          I’m still thinking about what you say on the narcissism. I think sometimes it can be true that we valorize our wounds and frailties, but I think also that distress and pain tend to draw us into ourselves regardless of their nature, whether it’s long-term anxiety, today’s bad headache, or a progressive illness. With stuff like anxiety that leaves you mostly functional but doesn’t self-resolve either, there’s this weird extended duration of that distress-induced self-involvement that’s passing for a normal life but there are still alarms going off all over the structure.

          I’m certainly with you on the upshot and the benefits of behavioral change (did you see the Onion’s amusing parody research report that “anxiety is resolved by thinking about it real hard”?). I just think that the self-involvement may be part of a bigger tendency of the organism rather than something as clinical as narcissism.

        2. One of the Annes*

          I’ve found this to be true for myself. I’m a very anxious person by nature, but you wouldn’t know that by what I choose to project at work. I’ve found that just putting on my “I’m a competent adult, and I can handle anything that comes my way” persona makes everything more manageable. (Of course the antianxiety drugs don’t hurt either : )

    2. OP*

      YES to all of the above. There are times when I haven’t answered his texts about things. And when he does become annoyed and notice, I’ve simply had to say, “I’m sorry, but you’re negative a lot of the time and it brings me down. You’re a good person and you’re good at your job. But you won’t believe that about yourself. Sometimes I just need a break from the negative thinking!” Not perhaps the nicest thing to say, but it did get the message across and he is some better about being less negative.

      And as fate would have it, it would seem that he has…for lack of a better description…worried himself right out of his job. He told me constantly that he felt like he wasn’t “welcome”, that people didn’t like him, etc. All, of course, based on unfounded paranoia. All the people we both regularly interact with think he’s a very nice, but easily stressed person. Nothing more or less than that. When time for next year’s contracts came, only a handful of people in a workplace with several hundred people got pink slips – and he was one of them. I really do believe it was all because, from the start, HE didn’t believe in himself. At one point recently, a co-worker had gone on vacation and had unexpectedly brought me back a small present. He found this very frustrating and exclaimed, “WHAT THE HELL. EVERYONE LIKES YOU!” I just said, “That’s because I’m nice to people. People like it when other people are nice to them! People like you too! But if you think other people hate you and subconsciously act like other people hate you, then eventually they will hate you.” I suspect it fell on deaf ears as he found my present somewhat galling. But really, I think it all came down to negative mindset reaping the exact negative results he was worried about, unfortunately.

      1. Celeste*

        If Eeyore is getting payoff for his downer feelings (confirmation that what he believes is true), I guess it’s really not in his best interest to change.

        Sometimes all you can do is stand back and let people be themselves.

      2. Mike C.*

        How do you know he saw signs and became worried rather than the other way around? Paranoia and “listening to your gut instinct” are nothing more than degrees of magnitude.

        1. OP*

          Do you mean that he was worried from the start and saw “signs” where there was nothing really going on? If that’s what you mean, that wouldn’t surprise me either. Like I said, there is always a certain amount of workplace gossip about hiring and firing, but he’s also more than capable of creating his own worries…

        2. AnotherAlison*

          I agree Mike. I think it’s completely possible that he could have picked up a very slight negative vibe even in the interviewing stage that carried with him. I give people that vibe a lot. : )

      3. Chloe Silverado*

        Honestly, while what you said to him may have been hard to hear, it is actually the nicest thing you could’ve done for him.
        I went through a period where I was experiencing terrible anxiety and depression. I thought I was balancing regular conversation with what I perceived as normal venting or self deprecating humor, but in reality most of my conversations were filled with negativity. It took 2 friends saying exactly what you did before I realized it was a problem. I’m still working on it, but my negative talk problem has improved substantially since it was pointed out. I was able to address it with my therapist and proactively work to change my habits. It may not have clicked for him yet, but hopefully your honest words will allow him to realize that it is a problem.

        1. Kerry (Like The County In Ireland)*

          As someone else with an anxiety and depression problem, being told “you say/do this and it is a problem” is very helpful. I never realized what a rut I was in in regards to my fears and negativity until I got better. And I only got better because even I could not ignore and work around my problems.

      4. Artemesia*

        Exactly what I would expect. He basically was a one man band PR system to shout to management ‘I am a looser and everyone hates me and I am going to get fired, oh yes I am’ until it seemed like a good idea to those making the decision. Sorry he didn’t get it in time to prevent this as it sounds like he is a person with the capacity for doing a good job and being successful.

      5. Mephyle*

        And reassuring someone with anxiety can become counterproductive when it causes them to articulate their fears over and over again.
        Them: I’m unlovable and no one will ever want to marry me/I’m fat/I’m going to get fired.
        You: No you aren’t/won’t. Because this and that reason.
        Them: Yes I am/I will.
        And so on, and your countering their negative thoughts prompts them to say them out loud yet again, which reinforces the thoughts.

  5. E.R*

    If you can provide a recommendation for a therapist or counselor to your friend, and encourage him to make an appointment, it would probably offer the best opportunity for “recovery”. A nice counselor with some basic Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques really helped me overcome some insecurities related to work about a year ago. It really helped.

    Whether or not he is on the chopping block (and it sounds like he’s not), he needs to learn how to deal with uncertainty and instability in his work life so he can be happier and healthier.

    Perhaps your workplace would cover this via benefits as well?

    1. OP*

      We do have some limited totally free counseling through a nearby University and regular psychiatric care at a doctor that accepts our healthcare coverage is accepted just the same as a GP would be. I’ve even let him know about a doctor finder website that our healthcare offers. We’ll see if he takes advantage of any of it. (He says he will. You can lead a horse to water…)

      1. ClaireS*

        I can attest that taking the first step to getting professional help can be really, really hard. Even with coverage through work, it can be very expensive and it can be hard to find the right person. Plus, the stigma of needing help can be a huge barrier (even for open-minded people).

        That being said, you are absolutely right that as a friend, all you can do is lead a horse to water. A spouse or close relative can have more power but in your situation, you’ve done all you can do.

  6. Katie the Fed*

    I’ve actually seen this with some of the Millienials who have come to work for us. The ones who graduated college when the market was shit, and who had to live in mom and dad’s house for two years working retail or looking desperately for a job are often kind of scarred by it and are having trouble getting over their anxiety.

    I agree that therapy might help, although it can be awkward to suggest to someone that therapy is the best thing for them. But you could also try getting him to face his fears, like with the dating example above. “OK, what if you DID get fired tomorrow? What would you do? How would that change what you’re doing today?”

    Yeah, this is rough. Sorry :(

    1. Dan*

      I think we’re all colored/tainted/tarnished from our own reality. Didn’t they say that survivors of the great depression don’t spend any money because they want to prepare for tough times again?

      It’s going to be interesting to see how these experiences shape their children’s college education. In previous generations, it used to be that college was a slam dunk, and the almighty BA/BS was a ticket to the middle class, so borrowing that kind of money was a no-brainer.

      But when you’ve graduated from college with six figures of debt and worked retail while sleeping in your parents’ basement, I’m curious how many of those folk will send their kids off to college with the “borrow no matter what the cost” mantra.

    2. Steve G*

      true, and this is a time where labelling someone millenial is totally not meant as stereotyping. I wasn’t graduating school when the economy collapsed, but I did move back to NYC in 2007 and it was totally shocking how bad the job market was, and it just got worse and worse, I was so unprepared, but I could imagine graduating then and always having a bad attitude about the job market.

    3. alma*

      Yes, I think this kind of anxiety is the dark side of the whole “be grateful you even HAVE a job, whiner” mantra that’s come to characterize our economy. Some people, and I include myself as someone who’s experienced this, internalize that to a degree that can actually be harmful.

      1. Manders*

        This is a really good point, and something I experienced myself when I graduated in the (hopefully latter days) of the recession. I think the only real way to combat it is to have a disciplinary process with clearly defined steps, and to lay all those steps out during the training process so no one lives in fear of being blindsided by a firing.

        I’m doing really well in my current job, but even with loads of positive feedback I spent a lot of time thinking that I would be fired for small mistakes. My office doesn’t do any kind of formal performance review or disciplinary plan, so I didn’t have any objective measure of whether I was meeting expectations.

        1. Suzanne*

          This man does seem to have anxiety issues, but it could be a sort of PTSD from a very bad work situation(s). I had a horrible, impossible job a few years ago, and didn’t realize how bad it was until I left. The next job was terrifying because of the fear that it would be just as bad as the one I had left. It wasn’t, but it took a while to believe
          I had another job that I enjoyed , but management fired people like breathing. After 2 years, I had been there longer than anyone on staff (which only consisted of about 15 people). Over half of them had been fired. It’s very difficult to do any kind of decent work when you are constantly looking over your shoulder.

          So, if any of these types of things had happened to this man, no wonder he’s paranoid. I hope he gets some therapy, but if he’s lost his job, he no doubt has lost his insurance as well.

          1. OP*

            I believe he said that he could still remain on his parents’ insurance for two to three more years even if he didn’t find another job. (Though he’s gone on a ton of job interviews, so hopefully something materializes and then he’ll have new insurance.)

  7. Dan*

    At my last job, I had good reviews and was well liked enough by my managers that they were trying to position me for increased responsibility.

    I got laid off anyway. So there’s that.

    Prior to my layoff, I told my shrink I was “concerned.” She said she wanted to investigate whether or not I was always worried about something, or if I had legitimate reasons to be worried.

    After I got laid off, I walked into her office and said, “So you still wanna call me a worry-wart?”

    1. Artemesia*

      LOL. As a chronic worrier, I can relate. I once got laid off in a merger right after being promoted and having had nothing but positive feedback. At merger our whole department was dismissed as redundant — all of us. I generally worry as a sort of prophylactic pessimism — it feels so great to find out I am wrong. This was one of the few times my anxieties turned out to be rewarded with being right; usually I worry and then am thrilled when things turn out better than expected. I don’t recommend this approach and wish I had gotten help to approach life more positively back in the day. Now that I have figured it out, it is too late to have saved all those decades of anxiety.

    2. Jennifer*

      These days, everyone at all times has to be worried about a layoff. I don’t think there’s a way that anyone could (or should) feel secure.

      1. OP*

        True. But I feel like this is self-destructive worry rather than a healthy amount of “hey, life is weird and things happen that you don’t expect so be aware of that possibility” type of worry.

  8. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’ve been in the co-workers shoes before. The budget numbers looked bad and we heard some vague rumors of cost trimming. Managers kept reassuring people that things would be just fine. And then good people started losing their jobs and everyone else was required to pick up the slack without pay increases. Guess who ended up with better jobs? The paranoid people who started job hunting months before the layoffs.

    1. OP*

      As it would turn out, apparently he’s a hot commodity now. Despite being laid off from this job, he’s had (based on what he’s told me) interviews with a number of other companies. And in many cases thus far, he’s made it to the second or third round of interviews. So…I guess in that regard it’s good that he’s had his act together. And I do try to remind him that he can’t be really terrible at his job if so many places and people are repeatedly interested in hiring him!

    2. LBK*

      There’s a difference between being cautious/realistic and starting to job hunt vs. constantly whining and being openly negative and allowing it to impact your performance. You don’t have to turn into a miserable person who can barely do their existing job in order to job hunt (and in fact that negativity will often rub off on your job hunting as well and give interviewers a bad taste).

      1. OP*

        Exactly! I tried to point out exactly that. That he could be cautious (nothing wrong with that!) without being a Negative Nancy. I pointed out to him that hiring managers want someone that they think they/the other workers can actually enjoy and work with as well as being qualified for their job. After I was hired for my job, I was actually told that one of the things that they liked most about me was not my experience, but rather how enthusiastic was. They could tell, based on my attitude, that I would do my best with whatever and that was why they hired me. Hence, maybe he wanted to consider that both in attempting to retain his current job (before we knew he was even being fired) and while job hunting (after we knew he was fired). It may be cheesy to say, but mental attitude really does have A TON of impact.

  9. Sunflower*

    I think only the coworker can really know the right choice for him. TBH the guy could be totally right or he could be worrying for no reason. I feel like this is always a gut feeling- yes sometimes there are clear signs that you are going to lose your job but sometimes it’s just a feeling that things have slightly shifted.

    However, OP, I think the best you can do is offer any of that advice to him and then let it go. If it persists, simply say ‘John, we’ve talked about this before.’ and get back to work. Regardless of what exactly is going on in this guy’s head, you can try to help but something tells me you aren’t going to be able to fix the situation.

    It’s very likely he could move into another job and face the same fears there. He could also move into a different job and these fears could go away. Regardless, he should seek out some counseling. Chances are if this is anxiety driven, work isn’t the only place he’s suffering. I also wonder if there are counselors who specialize in this particular part of workplace stress (I’d have to think yes)

  10. Interviewer*

    Maybe he has reason to be anxious, or maybe he does have an actual disorder that could use treatment – but your question is how to handle him. And I would tell him that he’s come to you every single workday for the past x months about this same topic, with no clear progress – he still feels very anxious.

    I would tell him that since it’s really not going anywhere, he might need to talk to someone else about how to handle this level of anxiety. Preferably outside of the office. Do you have an EAP? Does he have a good doctor he can ask for a referral?

    Telling him that maybe he’d be better off somewhere else is like fanning the conspiracy flames for someone this anxious. They read between the lines on everything. “Why do you think I should leave? What have you heard? Have they told you when it’s happening?” Not worth mentioning, in my book.

    I say all of this as an HR person who spent 2009 completely unable to carry a box anywhere in the office, because everyone thought I was about to pack up their stuff and escort them out to their cars. That was a rough year.

    1. OP*

      You’re right. I totally would not have touched with a ten foot pole the whole “what if you do get fired?” scenario. Just too many potential (bad) interpretations of that framing.

  11. Brett*

    Wait, is this a K-12 environment? And the co-worker is untenured with new admin and a new eval system? (It was the “handed down from the state” that made me think K-12.)
    Firing untenured teachers is ridiculously easy, not very tied to reviews (especially FILO layoff states), and very career damaging in a lot of states. And extremely common right now with the trend towards student growth based teacher evaluations.

    Maybe your co-worker is right to be paranoid.

      1. OP*

        He was right. But, like I said above, I really do think his loss of job was entirely tied to his own lack of self esteem. I got the impression that he just wasn’t “gelling” with the rest of the department. (Which, when you think everyone hates you, is it really surprising?)

        1. Mike C.*

          Why do you believe it was due to his lack of self esteem rather than his lack of self esteem being due to signs he felt were pointing to his firing?

          1. OP*

            Based on some private things he’s said to me, I gather that he’s been (by his own description) somewhat of a loner with few friends who never felt fully accepted in any one place. And similarly, he felt unwelcome at work too. (Obviously, I can’t know for sure what his lack of self esteem stems from, but based on things he’s said it would seem that his insecurity stems into past experiences and other current areas of his life.)

    1. Brett*

      K-12 right now is its own special case of workplace traumatic stress disorder. It breaks a lot of people.

      My wife is a former public K-12 music teacher, and she and her colleagues read the writing on the wall with test scores and got out in mass. Only one of the 20+ music teachers she studied with survived past 5 years, and none of them reached tenure.

    2. Jennifer*

      Yeah, in my state every single teacher is laid off by default every year now (and some are rehired), according to the ones I know. Dude is right to be paranoid, honestly. I know it’s irritating to deal with, but….

      1. OP*

        He, of course, has a right to be paranoid. Anyone is education has a healthy amount of paranoia about being fired even if you truly are good at your job. BUT, I feel like there’s a difference between healthy paranoia and, shall we say, obsession paranoia. It’s one thing to say, “I might lose my job. I need to be aware that’s a possibility and do what I can to prepare for that just in case.” Versus saying, “I will be fired. Everyone hates me. Everyone takes but no one gives. The principal hates me and is going to fire me.” (All of which he’s actually said at separate times.)

  12. Anon 70*

    Why wouldn’t we be worried? You can be fired at any time for any reason (or no reason) in 49 of the 50 states. How ridiculous!!!!

    1. Jennifer*

      High fives for honesty. Everyone has to be worried about that these days because nobody is indispensable.

  13. Student*

    He needs help coping with anxiety, not job advice. All you can do is reassure him that, to the best of your knowledge, he’s doing well. Ask him how he’s coping with his concerns (sounds like his job hunt is his coping mechanism). Ask if there is something concrete you can do to help him. Otherwise, just let him vent if you want to be a good friend and don’t try to fix it for him. If he seems to be engaging in something truly self-destructive or paranoid, like lashing out at the boss, then try to get him to consider counseling.

    There is also a (small) chance he is doing this for attention – I have one co-worker who does this and it seems to stem much more from a desire for attention than from a real fear of being fired. That particular co-worker just wants his ego stroked and is fishing for compliments. I understand that from the greater context of conversations that I have with him, though – the job woe-is-me-I’ll-be-fired routine is just a small part of his acting out for attention in my co-worker’s case.

    1. OP*

      I hadn’t considered the attention seeking angle. He’s told me that he’s never had a lot of friends. Perhaps he enjoys the attention that comes from a) having a friend you see regularly and b) having that friend constantly offer reassurances about how awesome you are.

  14. NonProfity*

    I work with a ton of people who are new to professional settings and I’ve found that a lot of them go through similar experiences, though not all of them are this intense. One thing that I’ve found helpful is talking to them about the imposter syndrome ( and how common it is in our field (non-profits/government). For some, just knowing that the people they respect and admire have had or have similar feelings makes a huge difference.

  15. Stephanie*

    Oh, I’m so this person (I kept most of it to myself, however). I was fired from my first job and was insanely paranoid at my next job. And then I got laid off from my second job.

    So whenever I do find my next job, I just need to figure out how to not be paranoid there. =/

  16. Jake*

    I’ve never been an anxious person. Ever. I am constantly asked how/why I don’t worry more than I do.

    In my first job out of college, I was terrified that I was doing a poor job. In spite of glowing reviews, lots of positive feedback from managers and peers, I thought I was at best an average performer. It took a raise that doubled my peers and a promotion before I started to believe that I wasn’t on the verge of losing my job. Then it took my boss assigning me as a mentor to one of my peers that was hired at the same time as me to realize that I was anything more than below average. Then it took my manager making me a team lead to realize that I was even an average worker.

    The point here is not to humble-brag (I don’t need to, I am very good at my job), but more to point out that I believe this to be an incredibly common phenomena in younger workers. I wouldn’t chalk it up to general anxiety.

    1. OP*

      I don’t know that this phenomena is exclusive to younger workers. Or even very common in younger workers. I think it’s more based on a certain personality type regardless of age.

  17. Nemo*

    I had a friend/coworker who, like your co-worker, badly needed a therapist, but was very resistant to the idea. Eventually I convinced him to go to a workplace/job related therapist. The fact that the therapist was supposed to help people with work issues was enough of a cover to overcome his resistance, as he could think of them more as a job coach. Maybe that will also work in your case?

  18. MrO*

    Problem is….is that there is no job security. Americans are especially screwed. He needs to relax to enjoy/live, but in reality our jobs are often temporary from no fault of our own. Entrepreneurship, with all of its challenges, is looking far more humane every day…

    1. fposte*

      Our whole *lives* are temporary through no fault of our own, and that’s not just American, that’s global. There’s no level of certainty that’s enough for clinical-level anxiety, because it’s not about facts.

      1. Jean*

        “Our whole *lives* are temporary through no fault of our own”
        So true–even if one isn’t suffering from clinical-level anxiety!
        When I had to tell my “permanent” coworkers that I would be leaving the office soon because my temporary assignment was almost finished, one of them tried to cheer us up by responding “well, in the long run we’re all temporary.” Although this sound awfully funereal it helped me accept the fact that no job lasts forever. It would be another decade-plus before I learned about the zen concept of radical acceptance, but that’s what this guy was trying to tell me. (“Radical acceptance” is a way to end your suffering by ceasing to deny or protest a given situation. You don’t have to LIKE it or LOVE it, but at least you’ll stop banging your head against the wall!)

        1. Jane*

          I have learned- as best as I can to accept- and I am a Christian so I know this crap ass job is not all there is and that my suffering is redemptive. I often offer up my work for others pain/sins.

  19. Not So NewReader*

    I agree with you, OP, one who frets about being fired or laid off seems to draw that to themselves. Part of the problem is the primary focus in on the firing or the lay off and NOT on the job itself.

    FWIW- I had a friend/coworker who insisted she could never learn to do X. It was a ridiculous statement, it did not fit her at all. I had a hard time not “throwing my hat on the floor and jumping up and down on it”. That is how far out the statement was.
    So I said “Who told you that?” She pointed out a group of people. I said “Whoever told you that was an AH. They have no clue what they were talking about. Of course you can do X.” Later, she went on to master X quite well.
    I think part of what worked here was the cuss word because I try not to cuss at work, so that was a little shock. But it also made her think about what she told herself- her own self talk. No one wants to be lumped in with a group of AHs.

    Additionally, we sometimes go towards what we believe. If she started believing she could not do X that would be hugely self-defeating.

    Perhaps you can ask your coworker what he thinks he needs to do a better job and insure his job security. Each time he says to you, “I think I will be fired” ask him what he has done to day/ this week to make himself more valuable to the company.
    Yeah, anxiety can be rooted in past experiences. But it gets food and energy from things in current time, such as not doing one’s absolute best every day or not being adequately prepared for the day. (Note: Some days are better than others- I am talking about overall.) Definitely spending too much time in worry would detract from his work over time.

    I find with anxiety that the key drivers have little or nothing to do with what the person is saying out loud. Usually it is something else. Also ask him if he has allergies. Allergies that are not addressed can really escalate anxiety that is already there.

    1. OP*

      I’ve never heard about allergies and anxiety potentially working together. Very interesting!

  20. anonymous*

    I’m really anxious about getting fired from a job I started a few months ago with a group of new temps. My performance is much lower than everyone else. My manager had a group meeting and gushed about how she loves all of us and we’re doing awesome and we’re the best group of new temps she’s had and she’s sure she can hire several of us later on…then talked about how people would have a little bit of time to improve if they weren’t doing well, but that they would really need to improve and reach the same level of everyone else (implying that if they don’t, they’ll be fired). I hate how she did the “I love you all, you’re all wonderful and doing so well” speech (which doesn’t apply to me) and then went into the the “you’re probably going to get fired” speech (which was only directed at me). Makes me feel horrible to hear how awesome and loved everyone else is, and then horrible and embarrassed for being singled out (even though she didn’t address me directly, it’s really obvious I’m the only one she was talking about). I wish she could have just talked to me privately. Whenever she says anything nice about the group I have to think about how she means everyone is doing great but me.

  21. anon-2*

    Perhaps he has been told on the QT to start looking.

    Perhaps there are conflicts with his management/supervisors that fester behind the scenes but are covered up well.

    Perhaps he has received strong negative feedback, or certain bad signs from those “up the chain” and you either don’t see it or aren’t privy to it.

    How many people have been laid off “out of the blue” – without a hint, clue, etc.?

    Don’t say the person needs therapy unless you are sure NONE of the above are true.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The issue isn’t that he’s worried about it. The issue is that the fear appears to be taking over his life and conversations.

      1. OP*

        ^ Exactly. It’s controlling him. The other day he said to me directly, “I’m sorry. I haven’t been myself for…the past six months.” So, not that it’s bad to worry (sometimes worry can be self perserving – and even therapeutic to some), but bad in that even he admits that his quality of life is really going down hill because of the months he’s spent on job worries.

      2. anon-2*

        Losing your livelihood? Having your career derailed? Yeah, that can cause fear. Been there, experienced it.

    2. fposte*

      Additionally, it’s therapy, not a coronary bypass. It’s not dangerous, and most people could benefit from some, so it’s not like the situation has to meet some standard of need or else it’s irresponsible to recommend it.

  22. Our Big Fat Wallet*

    I used to work with someone who had a similar personality. When the economy took a turn for the worse in 2008 she was convinced she would get laid off. She always did good work and had good relationships with everyone at work. Her performance reviews were positive. I tried reasoning with her several times and it just didn’t work. It seemed like it was more deep than anything I could talk her out of. Although I have since left, she still works there and I assume still feels the same way. I think its either a personality thing or perhaps a mild case of anxiety. Regardless, hopefully she has calmed down since then and has realized how good her performance is

  23. Hugo*

    He has a valid point. This is corporate America 2014. Job security might as well be displayed in a glass case alongside fossils. You could become a corporate exec at a place like yahoo and get $50+ million for getting fired after a little over a year on the job, though. That’s my backup plan.

  24. FD*

    It could be a combination of both the job and an anxiety disorder, too.

    Even if he does well enough to get good performance reviews, it’s certainly possible that a lot of the job duties are things he doesn’t feel comfortable with.

    For me, something that can help is thinking:

    “I feel afraid when I think of doing _________.”

    Obviously, he’s afraid of being fired, but a good question for him to ask himself is, does he feel afraid of being fired because of a specific area, or just in general?

    I.E. he might feel anxious about being unable to sell well enough to hit his quota, or making a critical mistake in a database. If a specific area is causing most of his anxiety, and it’s crucial to the job, than looking for another job could make a lot of difference.

    On the other hand, if his anxiety stems primarily from the thought of getting fired, rather than any particular areas, than that’s probably something that would probably be acting up in any job.

    I hope he is able to get some help! Anxiety is really awful, especially when it’s tied to your work.

    1. OP*

      I got the impression that his anxiety is tied, just in general, to being fired. Not that he seems to find any one specific area of weakness, but just in general, “I’m going to be fired”.

  25. The Maple Teacup*

    Your coworker remains convinced he’ll be fired no matter what his performance is? Damn. I feel for him because I’m in the same boat. Earlier this year I was terminated without cause even though I was a good worker. Now I’m struggling with unsubstantiated paranoia at my new job. Here’s what helps me. 1) look at the big picture and not just what others are telling you. If there are rumours floating around about streamlining (or whatever) and you’ve just been assigned a new project….. Put more weight on the assignment as data you’re sticking around. 2) have you been written up or corrected by management? If no that’s a good sign. 3) accept that there are no certainties. Only probabilities. And that a person doesn’t have all control over their employment. Save money as a buffer against job loss and hope for the best.

    And if anyone has a magic pill to stop us people from worrying, please tell me.

  26. Poi*

    I know this is way late but I’ve had experience with this situation, myself being the paranoid one. It’s frustrating to see others getting on with the new admin and you feel outside looking in. Others can explain it away any way they want but it doesn’t help. The only thing he can do is ask the admin if he’s on the right track. I did and of course everything was “just great”. I didn’t buy it, stayed paranoid and eventually figured out I had to weight the pros and cons of leaving vs hanging in and get on with life! Sign me Still Employed.

  27. dnarich*

    This may also be a situation in which the management team simply fails to convey any sense of confidence about the team. I’ve worked in several organizations where senior management engages in virtually no communication with junior management or line workers, and over time, this, coupled with sudden decisions to let go departments, or to let go of individuals that appear to everyone else to be productive, hard working employees, with no communication/explanation given. Paranoia on the part of employees is certainly sometimes caused by the employee, but it is also often a consequence of a very non-reassuring management style.

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