my job makes me feel like I’m the worst kid in gym class — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I work a job that is typically considered high-stress in a low-paying industry. My workplace and the satellite offices will get together on days the workplace is closed to clients and take us for a (paid) day of team-building fun. We go bowling, play paintball, go to arcades, that sort of thing, in teams that are randomized across offices so we mingle. These outings typically include free restaurant meals and sometimes free alcohol.

The problem is that I have terrible motor skills. This is not “just” clumsiness or a problem of fitness. The long story short is that I should have received more aggressive PT and OT after a years-long period being bedridden as a child. I just don’t have typical adult body coordination and, despite some later in life PT, I never will. My hand-eye coordination is zilch. I can’t drive or ride a bike or play most video games. I have difficulty tying shoes and my handwriting is only legible because I took years of calligraphy classes. This usually doesn’t affect my life too much — but I can’t bowl! Or aim a gun in paintball, or shoot pool, or throw darts, or successfully do any of the other barsports-adjacent activities that we do at these staff days. My body simply cannot do the thing.

Everyone else has fun at these things, but people definitely get exasperated when I end up on their team. I’ve watched the “ringers” of our workplace (we have a few former pro athletes) quietly — and not so quietly — switch over to a team when they see I’m on it to balance it out. I’ve been at this organization longer than most and having to humiliate myself and irritate a rotation of my full host of coworkers every six weeks is taking a toll.

I don’t know if I can ask that we switch to other activities especially given that everyone else, including coworkers who are living with more impactful physical disabilities, do fine. Being embarrassingly bad at foosball tournaments isn’t exactly a disability to be accommodated, but I feel like I’m not a part in the bonding rituals. I feel terrible dragging everyone else down and it’s really alienating to know I am the infamous bad luck charm of our entire organization. I don’t even know what I’d suggest as a replacement, given that the options we have already are very much inclusive of fitness level and it’s not anyone else’s fault I have weird muscles. I love my job otherwise but this is bizarrely disheartening. Any advice?

Please speak up! This sounds awful for you, and it’s not right that it’s happening so regularly. It would be one thing if they organized these sorts of activities once or twice a year, but every six weeks?! That’s incredibly frequent.

I’d also bet some cash that you’re not the only one who finds the “let’s showcase our physical coordination” days to to be too much. I know I’m a bit of a broken record on this topic, but employers have an obligation to be thoughtful about this sort of thing — especially when it’s happening every six weeks — and to make sure the mix of activities they’re selecting is truly inclusive. That doesn’t mean they can’t organize the occasional bowling or darts tournament; they can. But if they’re organizing team-building with this frequency, they need to do more to mix it up and account for a wider range of physical ability and interests on your staff. (And I know you said the activities are already inclusive of fitness level, but … they’re not. You being a case in point.)

So please do talk to whoever organizes these and ask if they can include more variety. Could they consider, I don’t know, a picnic? A movie outing? A cooking class? A tea and coffee tasting? A paint-your-own-pottery session? A non-physical volunteer project? Or even just … a free day off? You don’t actually need to team-build every six weeks and, particularly in a high-stress field, I guarantee people would appreciate a day off. (And really, if it’s high-stress, I’ve got to wonder if it might be slightly less stressful if you weren’t losing one full day every six weeks to go play darts and so forth … but I know that’s not the point of your letter.)

Alternately or in addition to that, can you give yourself a different role on the days where the activities involve motor skills? Can you volunteer to be the score-keeper, the referee, or the photographer? (You can do that even if those things aren’t really needed.) I bet there are a lot of different roles you could just announce you’ll be filling that would get you out of doing stuff you’d rather not be forced into. If you’re worried about pushback, you could explain ahead of time to your boss or whoever organizes these that that’s what you’re going to be doing and why.

But please do speak up. And if you feel awkward about it, remember that the professed point of all these activities is team-building. They’re not achieving their purpose if one person on the team is being systematically alienated by them. A decent employer would want to know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *