The Huddle: How To Cope When Everything Goes Wrong At Work

how to cope when things go wrong at work huddle

In this month’s The Huddle column, The Handbook’s careers columnist and founder of Step Up Club, Alice Olins, shares her tried and tested advice for what to do when things don’t go to plan at work. From her own experience launching a website, which posed many challenges, to how she made it through while keeping her head – these are her tips

I am writing this, reader, still trembling after the work week from hell. For a very long time, my team and I planned to launch a new website in the middle of May. It was a seemingly arbitrary date chosen months ago to allow us enough time to get the last pieces of the puzzle in place. Plus, we added on a hefty chunk of time ‘just in case’, because that’s how it is with websites.

The start of May was looking promising. Despite running a business and the many coaching sessions that (always happily) divert my attention, I’d blocked out the entire week leading up to launch. This was all so that I could be there when the designer and developer called, responding with speed and energy. Sure enough, I was able to do just that because, unbelievably, everything was looking pretty good. Yes, there were a few bits that needed tweaking but, on the whole, the run up felt pretty chill. In fact, we were so on top of things that we decided to launch ahead of schedule. 

And then the sh*t hit the fan.

We were so on top of things, we decided to launch ahead of schedule. But then the sh*t hit the fan.

It almost feels too raw to go there yet but I want to share my experience because, despite the calamity that erupted around me, I remained “impressively calm”. Yes, I can say that with humility as those were the exact words our Community Manager, Clare, used to describe me when the business slowly descended, into the rough waters of the world wide web – like a big, technical Titanic.

Spoiler: we finally launched the site a few days later, after the entire team’s emails also went down for more than 24 hours, we lost our learning platform, and our web address failed to move across – all while acronyms I’d never heard before were being bandied about quicker than I could catch my breath.

Now, I’m happy to report that our beautiful new site is up and running, and was absolutely worth the pain (even if, at the time, I considered jacking the whole thing in and becoming a nun).

Joking aside, though, I also noticed my own resilience. In the midst of the chaos, I was able to think calmly and have been able to bounce back. Having had a chance to reflect on what happened, I want to share a few tips about what kept me sane, which you can hopefully draw on too when work (or life) punches you in the gut.

5 Steps To Staying Calm When The Sh*t Hits The Fan

1. Lean On Your Support Network

While much of the research on resilience focuses on individual strengths, it is social support that often matters the most. When we know that we have others around who will listen and guide us forward, it strengthens our ability to recover from challenges and move forward in a positive, adaptive way. If you struggle to recognise your supporters, create a mind map of those you’d call in an emergency. Having a visual reminder of your inner network helps build resilience.

what to do when something goes wrong at work
Step Up Club Photo Shoot @ The Hearth in Queens Park. London February 2022. Picture by Zute Lightfoot on behalf’s of the Hearth

2. Allow For A Two-Step Emotional Response 

When things go wrong, being resilient doesn’t mean magically deleting those negative emotions. In fact, many studies say it is better to immerse yourself fully in your troubles (for a boundaried amount of time), and then move on. When the website didn’t launch and I knew it was going to be a bumpy week, I closed my laptop, went for a walk and felt furious. And I was well within my right to do that, but I kept a cap on it. After dinner, I went back to my desk and, from then on, decided that calm was the only option. Feel, accept and then move forward.

3. Set Realistic Goals

It’s unlikely you will solve all of your problems in one fell swoop. Rather than burdening yourself with unrealistic expectations, take time to plan your step-by-step attack. First, we need to find the route of our technical issues. I outsourced this to one of my team, and set myself the goal of patience. The next goal, is then to communicate and own our challenges. I did this myself through writing LinkedIn and Instagram posts, as well as emailing our database. Then we had to ‘solve, repair and launch’. As things evolved, we revisited our goals and tweaked them to suit the changing situation.

4. Be Decisive

It doesn’t always feel comfortable to make clean, decisive decisions, especially when things are against you. Finding resolve when your head is all over the place takes strength and confidence. But trust me when I say that it’s worth the mental energy because it allows you to buy back some control. No, you might not always make the right decision, but you have made *a* decision and that’s progress.

5. Try To Get Comfortable With Discomfort

Repeat after me: This is growth; I am learning; What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. These might sound glib, but they are all full of truth. Difficult times help us to develop self-awareness and new skills. When we see ourselves overcoming challenges it builds self-efficacy – a subset of confidence. Something might not have gone your way – that’s a fact you’re going to want to accept pretty early on – but this kind of challenge is an opportunity in disguise. Make that your mantra.




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