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How to recover from a mistake on the job

By Nicole Saidi, CNN
updated 1:50 PM EST, Mon December 17, 2012
Have you ever made a mistake at work? How did you deal with it? Readers opened up about their own gaffes.
Have you ever made a mistake at work? How did you deal with it? Readers opened up about their own gaffes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Story of nurse who took a prank call prompted commenters to talk about their own errors
  • Making a mistake can be scary, but there are things you can do to improve the outcome
  • What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below or post a video on CNN iReport

(CNN) -- When James Theodorou reflects on mistakes from past jobs, he cringes to think about the role he played in printing 4 million copies of a well-known U.S. magazine with the wrong date on the cover.

It was the early 1980s and Theodorou was working as an offset stripper, who performs platemaking and stripping for presses. He said he could only wait in horror as his little mistake was distributed across the country.

The memory is burned into his brain. It resurfaced earlier this month when he learned of the nurse in the United Kingdom who put through a prank call from two Australian DJs to the ward where Prince William's wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for acute morning sickness.

Who was nurse Jacintha Saldanha?

While the circumstances of the nurse's death remain unclear, the incident prompted Theodorou and many other CNN.com readers to share stories of dealing with stressful situations on the job, making mistakes and moving on.

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Mistakes are an opportunity to see how you can do something differently, said commenter RealityChk101, a software engineer from North Dakota who has had "code blow up in my face several times, sometimes with disastrous results," he said.

"In almost every case I have had to take the action of documenting every little thing that went wrong, why it went wrong and how this was never going to happen again."

The commenter, who asked not to have his real name used, said he once was mortified to find that he had somehow stripped last names from everyone in a database. His co-workers made up a song about him, to the tune of "Candy Man," asking "Who can take the last name, and throw it all away?"

After his initial panicked reaction, he calmed down and came up with ways to rectify the situation.

"I spent two days calling those 500 people, getting their last names," he said. "Management figured that was punishment enough."

The commenter said his situation pales in comparison to the stress nurses and hospital workers deal with daily, where lives are at stake.

"Hospitals are by their nature a stressful place: you have births, sickness and death, all under one roof," he said. "Caregivers are bombarded by every type of emotion on a daily basis."

The incident caused him to fear that he would lose his job. But talking to co-workers proved to be helpful, he said.

"In most of those cases, my co-workers were supportive, and when I needed more support, I just unloaded emotionally on my wife of 33 years."

Seeking support from others can be helpful, especially in cases where you think you might be in danger of losing your job, said Christine Porath, associate professor of management at Georgetown University. They may help you see things differently.

Porath said people of all occupations often place their self worth in their jobs because they see them as much more than a task.

"Their heart and soul is in their job, so their identity is wrapped in it, which is great, but when your job is threatened or you make a mistake, that makes it all the more harder."

It helps to get a bit of perspective on the situation by disengaging and "stepping away from the workplace to focus on everything else that you have," she said.

"I think it makes the support aspect all the more important. You really need to focus on other parts of your life."

Employers also benefit from keeping their employees happy, said Porath, who researches the effects of incivility in the workplace. Most people are focused on the outward display of anger and far less aware of the devastating effects of being afraid or sad about one's status in the organization, she said.

These latter two emotions are the ones that are more likely to cause people to leave their jobs, she said.

Since his first public gaffe, Theodorou said he has learned to handle workplace stress by maintaining an emotional detachment from the task at hand while making decisions.

"By using logic, and following the (standard operating procedures), everything is no longer personal, just business. Even errors. I then go home and engage my hobbies."

Theodorou had no choice but to try to do better on the next issue of the magazine. He slowed down and went over his work again carefully. He made a checklist and had another technician perform a quality control inspection before starting the four-hour process of printing the covers.

"It only added about 15 minutes to the job, but they were a well-spent 15 minutes," he said.

Corporate recruiter Steven Raz said the recession can increase people's concerns about doing well at work.

He advised that if you do make a mistake, you should have a plan to correct it. If the mistake is big, get help.

"It's always recommended that if something happens like that, and it's too big to handle, that's when you should bring in your boss," Raz said.

Some people may be tempted to say nothing, but that can be dangerous, he added.

"If you tell the truth, you don't have to worry about what truth you've told," Raz said.

What do you think? Have you ever made a big mistake at work or encountered a stressful situation? How did you get through it?

Share your views in the comments area below or post video commentary on CNN iReport.

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