I Don’t Want to Be the Office Grandma

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I work for a social service agency where I’m also a client. The more I have moved up the ranks of the agency the more I have become paranoid everyone knows my story and my shame and my guilt have grown. I know it is not that big a deal to help myself and my family but to hear fellow co-workers talk about cases feels like they are talking about me. I feel like people know bits of my story but not my entire truth and it is hurting my career. I don’t feel brave enough to confront anyone. All I feel is shame. It is eating me alive. How do I start to address it and who do I confide in?

Anonymous

I am so sorry you are carrying this unfair burden. It must be exhausting to live with so much shame while also trying to do your job and raise your family. You have a few options, but none of them are ideal because I am not sure what is instigating your paranoia. (I absolutely trust your instinct that something is off.)

Can you trust your boss or your H.R. department? If so, you might approach them, outline your concerns and ask them to remind your co-workers about what is and what is not appropriate in terms of how they discuss clients. Maybe you could just rip the bandage off and come out, so to speak, identifying yourself as a former client so you don’t have to worry about your colleagues learning your client status otherwise.

But what I really want to tell you is that I implore you to free yourself of the shame. There is nothing wrong with using social services. They are there to support people in their times of need.

Now, you don’t know for certain if your co-workers are talking about you or being so unethical as to look at your confidential case files. You may never know, but what you can control is how you respond to what your co-workers might be doing. If they are gossiping about you, invading your privacy or judging you, the shame is theirs. They are the problem. Not you.

You’re a great mother and you work hard. You’re advancing at your job. You know what you’ve had to deal with and what it took to get to this place where now you work at an agency where you are a client. Whatever you were dealing with, you’re overcoming. You should be so proud of yourself. Hold your head high. Look what you’ve accomplished. Look how far you’ve come.

I have been working from home since late March. Until September I was able to maintain a work/life schedule and met all deadlines, while enjoying my private interests, like gardening or painting, during the day. But lately, I don’t care if I meet my deadlines at work. My hours spent “working” have become sporadic or some days nonexistent.

Initially we had to agree to maintain a set work schedule and there was a requirement to set weekly goals and report to the supervisor weekly but that has dwindled to a (maybe) once a month. Throughout the summer, the reporting requirements eased. Co-workers would take days to respond to emails, if at all. Work schedules fluctuated. I didn’t need to maintain a strict schedule and no longer felt guilty if I was away from my computer for more than an hour. I also learned that my work was not that demanding — what took me eight hours in the office I was completing in four at home.

I need to reset my mind-set about work (it pays the bills). Do you have any advice?

— Anonymous, Wyoming

Why do you need to reset your mind-set? You’re getting your work done. But clearly you do think there is a problem here. So, how do you develop motivation and discipline in a situation where these things are not demanded? I think most of us struggle with that, especially now that we’re working from home, without much externally imposed structure. If you could just set a schedule and stick to it, you would have done that.

Because of the coronavirus, the obvious solutions — dressing for work each day, working in a space in your home designed for work and only work, returning to the office or going to a co-working or other public space during the day — are probably unrealistic or solutions you’ve already tried.

It would be entirely reasonable to ask your supervisor to restart setting weekly goals and reporting. You can even say you need that structure to be your most productive. Or you have to demand accountability from yourself. You cannot afford to lose your job. Act like it! And I don’t say that cavalierly. I can see that you’re having a hard time. And I totally understand the allure of personal interests over work. Who among us hasn’t slacked off during the day with gardening or video games or whatever?

I wish I had better advice for you. You’ve figured out how to coast but know you won’t be able to do so forever. No one can create the necessary imperative to course correct but you.

I’m in my early 60s and I’m heading back to government policy work after a 10-year absence. Because of my previous 20-year experience in the field, I was offered a senior position. I find myself very nervous. I’ll be the new gal working with colleagues many years younger who have far fewer years of experience, but more current experience.

Do you have any advice for someone like me? How do I share my knowledge so it can be heard and not dismissed out of hand? How do I craft mutually respectful relationships with my younger colleagues? Already I find their enthusiasms — strong opinions and strong concerns — exhausting! (I’m joking — sort of.)

I should add that I believe I’ve been hired because of my decades-long experience but also to help lower the temperature in an often stressful, political work environment. I find myself cringing at an image of myself as the office grandma.

— Anonymous

Congratulations on the new position. It is perfectly natural to be nervous but everything is going to be OK. And given that you are putting this much thought into collegiality, you’re positioning yourself well to ensure a seamless transition. The most important thing is to avoid being condescending or overly self-deprecating.

Yes, there is an age difference between you and many of your new colleagues, but it is only an obstacle if you treat it as such. You have a great deal of experience. There’s nothing wrong with demonstrating your competence, and doing so with confidence.

At the same time, be open to expanding your knowledge and learning new ways of doing the work you’ve been doing for decades. Show your colleagues you can learn new tricks. Don’t generalize about “millennials” or “Gen Z’ers.” Don’t assume that differences of opinion rise strictly out of the generation gap. And if you find their enthusiasms exhausting, that’s fine!

Young people can be exhausting because they have energy and have not yet accreted too much cynicism. But I would look at their energy as a positive thing. Maybe their energy will be infectious and reshape some of your thinking and concerns. And maybe your experience will given them new perspectives on what they value.

To craft mutual respect — give respect and expect it in return. Enjoy this opportunity. Go be great. And try not to worry about being the office grandma You’re going to be far more preoccupied with your age than anyone else. Sixty is the new forty, right?

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at workfriend@nytimes.com.

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