I think there is something very wrong with the fact that, as a relationship therapist, I am having more and more conversations with people about their work lives. Here’s a snapshot of the last few days:
First, I heard from one client about how an ex-colleague took his own life because of the bullying culture established by a senior figure in their workplace. Later I heard about someone going on annual leave in a different firm and their manager telling people (completely untruthfully) they were suspended for suspected sexual impropriety.
The next day, I talked to an emergency services worker who had been showing signs of vicarious traumatization for over a year. Despite writing to his managers about the structural problems in his job, nothing has changed, and he has had to go on sick leave following a panic attack that showed him he could no longer do his job safely.
In my next session, I talked with a client about a recurrence of his depression, and he reported that the key precipitating factor was feeling bad about his work performance. I already knew that he has been doing extra work because his long-established team is now working with reduced numbers. Yet he was feeling like he was failing at work, rather than his workplace was failing him.
Workplaces in both the public and private sectors are increasingly expecting employees at every level to produce more with fewer resources. This is dressed up as “efficiency” and “productivity”, but in the conversations I am having looks like “exploitation” and “working people to illness and death”.
When I began practising nearly 30 years ago, entrepreneurs were the only clients I had who demonstrated such unhealthy work practices as working seven days a week, never turning their phones off and thinking about work incessantly. In the last 5-10 years, this kind of behaviour has become normalized:
“Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade,”
That quote comes from a NY Times article about the workplace culture at Amazon. Although Jeff Bezos is still, thankfully, something of an outlier in the blatancy with which he is willing to talk about how he exploits his workforce, it is clear that many others are seeking to follow his much-vaunted “leadership style.”
Unless you have a very senior role in your workplace, you probably have little influence on the overall culture. You are still responsible for your own well-being. I encourage you to do an accurate “cost-benefit analysis” of the way you are working. Are you realistically assessing the costs of working the hours you do, of how much of your energy it takes? Is your partner complaining about your lack of availability, or do you feel like there is no time for you to do the things you want to do?
In the pursuit of the benefits of material wealth, many people are putting their relationships in jeopardy. If they ignore or minimize the costs of being perpetually exhausted, emotionally wrung out, and unavailable (and the toll that takes on intimate relationships and our ability to parent), they are doing poor accounting. Losing your relationship because you are so stressed and overworked trying to meet your financial goals is self-defeating, just at the pragmatic level (divorce is expensive), let alone the emotional toll it takes.
It can be challenging to set boundaries in our present culture if your workplace is exploitative, but many people do manage once they are clear about their priorities.