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New job anxiety: How to cope in 9 easy steps

Let’s start with a quick story. It’s not directly about new job anxiety, but don’t worry, we will get there quickly.

Ted Bauer

One of our writers changed schools in fourth grade; he went to a school that had started in kindergarten, so many of the students already knew each other. On his first day, he was supposed to be taken to the cafeteria to get to know the class. Instead, his “sponsor” student took him to the classroom, where no one was. He sat there, with legitimate 10 year-old anxiety, until the class streamed in from the cafeteria. He had been completely alone. 

Now think of your first day on a new job. A new job is the adult version of switching schools. So much will be different. Your commute (pre-COVID). The projects you work on. The people you work with. Your title. Your relationship to work. Then there’s new job anxiety about learning the people, the politics, the relationships, the processes, the ways of work actually getting done. It can be actually somewhat terrifying.

In fact:

Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC, CEDS-S, says that “It is normal to feel quite drained/exhausted at the end of the workday due to learning an all-new job, meeting new people, and being ‘on’ all day. Increased heart rate, upset stomach, decreased appetite, disrupted sleep, and poor concentration are all normal symptoms of anxiety associated with starting a new job.”

“Not being able to sleep the night before a new job or anxious for a day or two, that’s probably normal. But not being able to sleep for the month, losing weight, having panic attacks and trending worse week after week may speak to an anxiety disorder,” notes Eric Patterson, LPC.

Indeed. Many of us have probably experienced some version or degree of this.

And we’re at a potential inflection point around the sheer idea of new jobs. Millions lost their jobs globally during COVID, and millions of those millions still aren’t back to work. 

Plus: now, with vaccines doing a bit better, organizations need to make decisions about what work will look like. Many white-collar workers had a good deal of flexibility during COVID. Things were challenging, no question, but there was a lot of autonomy around how time was spent. 

Many workers want that same flexibility, even if there’s an office return -- and if they don’t get that flexibility, they will consider changing jobs. Up to potentially 1 in 2 employees on surveys are indicating they will switch jobs post-COVID.

That’s a lot of new jobs, and thus a lot of new job anxiety.

So how do we deal with new job anxiety, then?

How to get over new job anxiety

A few approaches to consider:

Practice self-validation

Some of this is on the manager, for sure. If you are a manager of people, and someone new comes onto your team, on their first day you should sit them down and tell them “Hey, we just went through a competitive, multi-person hiring process and you became the employee. We have total faith in you and we know you will do a great job.” 

What better way to bring someone onto a team than that? That’s the managerial side of the equation. 

What if you’re the employee? As you arrive at work or log onto your first video calls, take a slow, deep breath to reset, and remind yourself of this single strength. Imagine yourself using it on the job. Keep it at the forefront of your mind to boost your confidence and reduce your anxiety. 

Also consider keeping a gratitude journal, or a journal where you record three things that went well every day -- at the end of a week, you’ll have 21 positive experiences to reflect on and gain strength from. 

To a certain extent, we all have a fear of not being good enough, and that definitely reflects in new job anxiety.

Talk to your friends

Dr. Ericka, Board Certified Psychiatrist, Goodwin Wellness says, “Doubt is a huge source of anxiety. Remind yourself that you can do the job by thinking about all of your qualifications.

If it’s hard to give yourself positive feedback, call a close friend or relative, and have them tell you all of the great things about you and how you are more than qualified for the job.”

Plan a reward

If there’s something you like doing -- happy hour, a gym class, ice cream, etc. -- schedule it for the end of the first day or the first two days of a new job. 

That way, whatever anxiety you do end up feeling can be ameliorated by something fun, good, and nice on the back-end.

Get everything ready the night before 

This might be the most logistically appealing way to approach new job anxiety. Map out the route you will take to work -- or, if in video call era, map out the calls you have and where the gaps are, where you can eat, when you might be tired, etc. 

Map out what to wear. Research some of the people you will be meeting with. See what they share and discuss online -- maybe you can find commonalities as an ice-breaker in your first discussion with them.


This doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be helpful in terms of reducing anxiety and calming you down before the first day at a new job. 

Related: Get a good night’s sleep, ideally about 8-10 hours if possible. Turn off gadgets and all that before bed. You don’t want something from social media elevating your heart rate, making sleep harder, and you don’t want to see any emails that could make you nervous. 

Before work, spend a few minutes practicing some mindfulness exercises

Allow yourself to be anxious:

Laura Richer, MA, LMHCA, NCMHCE, CHT, founder of Anchor Light Therapy Collective recommends to:

 “Normalize anxiety. Allow yourself to feel it. It is normal to feel anxious when we are about to experience the unknown, especially when it is something that we put a lot of weight on, like a new job. Anxious jitters and excited anticipation trigger the same adrenaline response and can feel remarkably similar in the body.”

Remember that all these people have been in your spot too

Some people at a job are very task-driven, heads-down, focused, etc. When someone new starts, they might barely notice you and not make much contact, because they’re focused on their deliverables. 

Some people are more aware or more extroverted, and they will come to you. It’s a mix of (A) and (B) in terms of getting to know people. But everyone has been there. 

We’ve all been the new kid, the new employee, etc. The experience is fairly universal. All these people got through it and became trusted teammates, veterans, and even promoted employees. You can too.

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How long might new job anxiety last?

For most people, it’s likely 1-2 days or the first week of work. It varies completely by the individual, though. 

Because imposter syndrome is very real, and especially real in the context of work, some people are in jobs for months and still feel a version of new job anxiety. Generally, however, it will subside in a couple of days. 

Getting a first major project is often where it pivots, because then it’s less about trying to brand or position yourself or do the small talk that people invariably dislike, and it’s more about showcasing your talents as an employee.

The need to fix onboarding and new job anxiety

Onboarding has been a hot topic for about three to five years now in the HR space, in large part because other terms connected to the early stages of employment have also become “hot.” 

Onboarding is deeply tied to employee experience -- it’s the first step of being an employee, after all! -- but has connections to employer branding, candidate experience, and more. 

The fact is, onboarding is important. Very important. If you want to reduce new job anxiety in your employees, you need to have a good onboarding program. 

But 90% of executives see onboarding as a challenge currently, which makes sense when you consider somewhere around 1 in 5 new hires leave before the six-month mark. What would make someone jump ship that fast after going through a potentially long hiring process? 

There are lots of reasons, of course. They could have gotten more money somewhere else rather quickly as a passive candidate. 

But in many of those quick departure cases, they were active candidates, meaning that within six months, they’re already looking for jobs -- and probably applying to them on your time while driving up a high turnover rate that has the potential to destroy your team.

How does that even happen?

Well, probably because many organizations don’t even focus on onboarding that much at all:

Only about 3 in 10 view their program as “highly successful,” and 2 in 10 don’t even have a program. That’s the bulk of the problem here. And paradoxically, one of the reasons companies don’t focus as much on onboarding is because they want new hires who will “hit the ground running,” i.e. can instantly be thrown into the deep end of project work. Unfortunately, that “hit the ground running” idea doesn’t line up with the science of how people enter new roles.

How do we make onboarding better, then?

We’ll start with Facebook. They’re under siege a bit recently, for sure, but how they onboard speaks to a powerful idea.

Here’s an interview with the author of a book called Chaos Monkeys. It’s about Silicon Valley culture. The author had a company that was acquired by Facebook. Here is an interesting paragraph:

Your first day at Facebook, you’ll have two emails in your inbox. One is a sort of generic, “Welcome to Facebook.” And the second one is, “Here’s a list of software bugs to fix.” On your first day, you’ll pull a version of Facebook’s code to your personal machine that’s your version of Facebook. You’re encouraged to go ahead and make changes, upgrades, improvements, whatever, from day one. You’re actually entrusted with that much authority. Facebook is literally a quarter of the internet everywhere in the world, except China. Here, some 22-year-old engineering grad has a version of it on his machine and he’s going to push a change to it today.

See how this is different from “Let’s walk through the office and do some generic intros with middle managers?”

This is Day 1 legitimate target-hitting. You’re going to make a difference, in some small way, at Hour 4 of employment. That’s big. It could create more new job anxiety, yes -- because you’d have to perform on your first day -- but for some, it might actually be soothing, because instead of generic introductions and small talk, you can get right down to showcasing your talent and value.

(Note: this is especially true for someone who ranks highly on the F4S work trait “Achievement”. For someone high on Affiliation or Belongingness, skipping the intros would be a recipe for distress.)

We’ve discussed this before in the context of “relational onboarding.”

Now let’s move to John Deere. From an article on “the importance of moments:”

There’s a group at John Deere in India, where they face a really competitive labor market for engineers. On the first day, a new employee is met by a friend they had been corresponding with who shows up with a favorite beverage, and they walk to their cubicle. It’s already set up. In fact, the first email is from the CEO of John Deere, who talks about the legacy that we have, 175 years of innovation. The fact that we’re making products that make people food and give people shelter, so we’re doing important things for the world. He welcomes people to their first day. On the desk is a model of the first file that John Deere ever patented. It was a plow that you could pull behind your oxen or your horses that didn’t get caught up in root systems when you were plowing a field.

See why this would be important and offer instant context for the value of the work to be done now that you’re part of this team?

Next up: Rackspace.

This photo sells fun!

That’s from the onboarding process at Rackspace, which includes music, games, food, a limbo bar, and more. This might seem juvenile to some -- aren’t workplaces supposed to be professional at all times? But as noted business consultant and thinker Robert Poynton (among others) have argued, letting adults embrace the idea of “play” (often left behind in your teens) is a great motivator and incentive to want to come to work and do your best there. 

Rackspace (and other companies) build these elements of fun right into the onboarding process. Imagine coming home to your significant other after a day of fun team-building activities like the above photo versus a day of filling out HR forms. Which job are you more excited about? Which one can you already see yourself still at in six to 12 months?

If you’re having fun, will new job anxiety be reduced? Quite likely.

And finally: Buffer, the social automation platform, uses a three buddy system in their onboarding process. The three buddies are:

  1. A “leader” buddy: This is an experienced member of the team the new hire will enter; this type of buddy is trained on having tough conversations around work elements and culture fit. It’s similar to a conventional mentor. 
  2. A “role” buddy: This is someone who understands, or has previously held, the direct role that the new hire will play. They work with the new hire to understand the specific role and how to maximize performance in it within the first 45 days.
  3. A “culture” buddy: This buddy helps the new hire learn the unique aspects of Buffer’s internal culture, and helps them navigate to spots where they can fit in or even propose team events.

A new hire is introduced to the buddies prior to official Day One, which speaks to an important element of any onboarding process: There needs to be activity between a signed offer letter and the first day on the job. That can be as simple as giving the hire access to a portal where they can complete forms, (lessening day one paperwork), or it can involve the introduction of work buddies or other team members. 

The bottom line

The fourth-grader in the opening story turned out OK. Even though he was stranded in the classroom and not the cafeteria on the first day, he made friends and performed well academically. 

You will be OK too. But new job anxiety is very real, and it’s very important that you manage it out either personally or for your direct reports, if you are a manager. Make your onboarding process stronger. Care about people and allow them to thrive. You may never eliminate new job anxiety, but it can be reduced.

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