The grip of the recession is still upon us, I know, and perhaps the wise would say this is absolutely no time to look for a new job. Yet the truth is that some of us are suffering in jobs no longer worth the stress of having them. I find myself helping clients answer this question, which is tearing at them, often in the middle of the night.
The specific circumstances under which this question emerges vary, but a common thread is overload, a sense of being overwhelmed with work and/or poor work relationships, with more tasks heaped on every day, pushing the work week to 60 or more hours, sometimes 80 or more, the client caught between a rock and a hard place. As the work hours soar there is less and less time to do the reflection necessary to make the decision to change positions and to prepare for that change. One of my clients suggested she was like a mouse on a circular exercise wheel running so fast there is no way to get off, even for a moment, in order to question whether this is actually a good thing to be doing.
I have to say, Wall Street may be quite happy about reported increases in worker productivity, which can drive corresponding increases in corporate profits, but by virtue of the experiences of these clients the benefit is a very short term one at best and nothing to gloat about or rely upon.
These clients no longer feel they have is either a choice or voice. They have convinced themselves they cannot say no. They cannot say that the workload is no longer reasonable, that more resources are required and here’s what they are, that they are burnt out and the job is killing them. Instead they work twelve hour days that stretch across the weekend in the hopes of “just getting through this.” The problem with “just getting through this,” of course, is that there are even bigger projects on the other side of this, and one lost weekend suddenly turns into the expectation that every weekend involves at least a day or more of work. Unfortunately, such clients, concerned about their reputation as being responsible, also give the impression that it’s okay to take on this work (still saying to themselves it is temporary), in turn teaching those to whom they report that people are capable of doing more and more without limit, implicitly setting a new standard for everyone else in the workplace. By the way, I’ve noticed these clients tend to work for people who put in even more hours than they do, people who have even more completely lost their lives to their organizations and seem to be demanding similar behavior from their reports, as well. It’s all entirely crazy, but that’s America right now — and we don’t have a way out unless some very real boundary setting begins to take place.
What happens to these people without some form of intervention is that they work hard, harder, harder still, go through a process of private agony trying to answer the question (Should I stay or should I quit?) until one day they do simply quit. The engine falls apart and refuses to be put back together. They don’t have another job. They just cannot go on. They reach a tipping point and it no longer matters. They go home to rest. They may be the best people in the shop or office, but one day the toll becomes too great. The boss is surprised, wants to lure them back, gives them the line that they are almost over the hump, doesn’t understand how they have reached the end of their rope because all along they’ve been such good and dedicated employees.
This is a process of hidden, unconscious, or self-deceiving burnout. In burnout, a person goes well beyond the little bell that should have gone off in his or her head that said, “you’re tired” or “you are hungry now” or “it’s time to go home and be with loved ones.” Instead the little bell gets ignored out of fear and a sense of responsibility. Not ignoring it would mean standing up to the boss in a way that could mean loss of reputation, criticism or the possibility of termination, then or later. The worst part of this whole process is that it becomes personal and corporate self-deception. People actually begin to accept this world as the new normal, as we all go to Abilene together. Usually the boss feels pretty powerless, too, just as other managers and executives do, all the way to the top. (It’s sad listening to a manager try to justify working 24 hours on a weekend while the rest of the family goes on a camping trip.)
Clearly what we need to do is re-invent the bell. As a first step in that process of personal and organizational repair and de-programming, I ask my clients to make two separate, simple lists related to their task load: What I can do. What I cannot do. This, by itself, may bring with it simultaneously a sense of threat (“OMG, I’m acknowledging there is something I cannot do!”) and relief (“When I look at the list, yes, I can see how totally unreasonable it is.”) It is usually higher on the relief side because the client can see that feeling overwhelmed is actually a totally appropriate response, but sometimes the client also rebels, refusing to list the tasks he/she cannot do because of the sense of jeopardy to employment status or, more personally, to a self-concept of loyal, responsible employee/victim.
The second step is to fill in the following grid, which is not the same as the first two lists. Rather, it explores the experience of work and it’s organizational impacts. I’ve filled in some sample responses, but these really are situational to the person, nature of the work, and the organization.
The point of this exercise is to remember what the bell sounds like when it goes off.
The third step is to find a voice to express and hold firm at the choice point. This is initially in terms of tasks, what can and can’t be done, but then also in terms of the personal and organizational value-based standards expressed by the grid. This third step is about having a meaningful conversation with the boss in which explicit limits are set. If this sounds dangerous to you, it may well be. Perhaps job loss is around the corner. But if you and your soul are dying and workplace behavior by higher level leaders is verging on insanity, why wouldn’t you set a boundary? Why wouldn’t you trust your own judgment, your own integrity? You have those things, you know, and they are your treasures — treasures meant to be used to live a good life.
So be smart about this. Don’t hold on to the illusion that working conditions will get better when there is no evidence to the contrary. Don’t imagine that somehow others will automatically “get it” — peers, reports, or those you report to — and come with you or even understand you. Don’t assume that because you are special something different will happen. But then do spend the time reflecting on the question and preparing for departure if you decide that’s the best, most reasonable, most self-affirming answer. Get the resume ready, save the money, find the recruiter, and go for it. Then, when you are really ready to have the talk, lo and behold, maybe things can change in your workplace. Or lo and behold, maybe you will discover you were right about this situation all along, that it is untenable. Either way, you’ll be okay because you were thoughtful, conscious, thorough.
There are those great lines at the end of Mary Oliver’s famous poem, The Journey, about saving the only life you can save. Pay attention to those lines. When you do your work and you find yourself in a tough position, you actually have a great deal of freedom and power. You are in the process of unchaining yourself. You’ve looked at your situation all the way through and you are ready to say, loud and clear, “you can’t have this from me.” When you’ve done that inner and outer work, whatever happens — you retain your job in a better way or are forced to find the next opportunity, knowing it will come — you stand on the firm ground of both what is eminently practical and spiritually indispensable.