Mental Health

“The Workplace is Killing Us”

Recently a friend — actually an ex-colleague from the software company I worked for prior to a slow-rage-quit that got me back to grad school as part of the career change process* — asked if I had written anything about the impact of workload stress on relationships. The short answer before today was no, not specifically, but today’s your lucky day! (Thank you, Don, for being the inspiration for this weeks post, BTW; I’ll cut you in on a half-percent share of the book royalties when this essay eventually goes to the Big Time 😉

My online bio pages both at my own site and at the Bliss site make it very clear that I wasn’t always a therapist. For twenty-five years I worked primarily in IT as a tech writer, deep in the bowels of software development teams and processes. I still keep a toe in the IT waters; I have an interest, uncharacteristic for non-tech psychotherapists, in data security, even when it makes me sound a lot like Cassandra preaching catastrophe to those who prefer to not know the doom rolling in toward them.

In the year-plus I’ve now been at Bliss in particular, I note how often people are requesting to book with me specifically on the basis of that IT background. It tells them, right off the bat, that not only do I speak a common language — it’s amazing how well project management lingo adapts to relational change processes — but I also absolutely “get it” when it comes to understanding the impact working in High Tech has on… well, everything, frankly.

My IT career started officially in 1993. I sent my first email in 1985, however, and haven’t really been offline since. I grew up in the world of math and computer science students and the all-nighter crams to finish assignments and projects under deadline. I came of age in the industry before and during what we now only dimly remember as the Great Dot Com Boom & Bust, and I’ve survived I don’t even know how many accelerating waves of technological progress ever since. Eventually, I came to hate so much of certain aspects of the industry that I unfortunately unconsciously sabotaged my way out of my last job, rather than speak up in self-advocacy to save my own arse. (I really need at some point to take my ex-manager out for a beer by way of an apology for that; he went out on a limb for me, and I did not repay him well.) It worked out extremely well for me, ultimately, in that now I have finally completed the transition to full-time therapist, work that I feel is soul-fulfilling, meaningful, deliciously challenging, (sometimes heart-rendingly exhausting), always engaging. And I like to think I’m modestly good at it. I’m ALSO a Very Good Writer, most of the time, and I’m very good at navigating and managing the process of figuring out and explaining processes, which is a key trait for technical writers specializing in end-user documentation. My LinkedIn bio starts with the brazen declaration that “I explain complex processes to people, and complex people to each other.”

What all of this means to my clients in 2018, at the end of the day, is simple: I GET IT.

Almost every client who seeks me out for the IT background is coming in for issues relating to stress:
stress at work, about work
stress at home (partner, kids, extended family, all of the above), because of work
depression and anxiety, because of and impacting work (and also impacting partner, kids, extended family, all of the above)
health issues related to stress

Overall job satisfaction is at an all-time low. “Company loyalty” in either direction is in a shambles, as the Tech Sector tries to appease its workforce with enforced team-building activities like axe-throwing (really, who thought arming the QA team with throwable weaponry was a Good Idea??), beanbag chairs or slides in the workplace, nap rooms, on-premises childcare/yoga classes/laundry/drycleaning services, gourmet cafeteria service… all while stagnating salaries in may places, outsourcing hiring reqs to offshore sources, and cutting benefits or paid time off options.

“Job engagement, according to Gallup, is low. Distrust in management, according to the Edelman trust index, is high. Job satisfaction, according to the Conference Board, is low and has been in continual decline. The gig economy is growing, economic insecurity is growing, and wage growth overall has stagnated. Fewer people are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance than in the past, according to Kaiser Foundation surveys. And a strikingly high percentage of people, even those covered by insurance, say they forgo treatment and medications because of cost issues.

I look out at the workplace and I see stress, layoffs, longer hours, work-family conflict, enormous amounts of economic insecurity. I see a workplace that has become shockingly inhumane.” — Dylan Walsh, for Stamford Business, March 15, 2018

It’s not all doom and gloom, but the industry has tried to placate its employee base with beads and baubles, all while demanding increasing worktime commitments with decreasing management support. Performance reviews are a time of huge strife for many, especially if stock vests, bonuses, or salary increases are tied to performance evaluations; right now, a lot of my Google clients, for example, are getting clear of the twice-yearly PERF processes. They bring their anxiety into the counselling offices as they struggle with their fears around not delivering on expectations, or worry about what working on high-performance/high-stress teams for the bonus money is doing to their homelife. They bring in their depression and general “life malaise” as they struggle to reconcile the 60-80 hour workweeks with the growing distance between them and their partners or children. “I need to find a better work/life balance,” they almost all say at some point or another in our conversations. They look to me for answers, not just because I’m the therapist in the room, but because (as at least two different clients have said to me now) I somehow managed to beat the system.

(The problem, of course, is that I *didn’t* beat the system; I became a classic victim of the system, first in 2007 then again in 2016. I only “beat” the system by doing a Captain Kirk-like Kobayashi Maru maneuver: I changed the rules. I created my own door marked “Exit”, and left the game. Very few people are equally willing to make that same sacrifice, it turns out.)

One of my greatest potential gifts to these clients who are struggling to cope with the sense of entrapment in this brutal system, is that, having been in it as long as I have been, I can normalize the situation in a way that carries the gravitas of experience. Unfortunately, the gift only goes so far with High Tech clients in particular; in general psychotherapy, normalizing helps the client recognize they are not alone in their struggle, that others have surely gone through very similar circumstances and for similar reasons, with similar outcomes, and we draw strength from knowing we are not alone in the suffering. Yes, the Buddhists really ARE onto something with their tonglen practices. The sad part in High Tech is that EVERYONE ALREADY KNOWS JUST HOW MUCH EVERYONE ON THEIR TEAM IS STRUGGLING. They may not know how much of that stress everyone else is also taking home, but odds are good they implicitly know that a lot of workplace stress follows all of the team mates outside of the work environment, regardless of how many games of foosball we play in between code compiles or meetings, regardless of how many extra hours we work (or take home to finish there) to try to stay on top of the deadlines.

When asked about the psychological obstacles to moving on to greener pastures even within the industry, Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of “Dying for a Paycheck” (which I just ordered for myself), said,

There are many issues. One simple one that we should never overlook is sheer exhaustion. Finding a job is itself a job. If you are physically or psychologically drained by workplace stress, then you’re not going to have the capacity to go out and look for another job.

Companies also play to our egos. They say, “What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you good enough? We’re a special organization. We’re changing the world and only certain people are going to be up for the task.” Who wants to admit they’re not good enough?

And we are influenced by what we see our peers doing. I’ve had people say to me: “I look around and all my colleagues are working themselves to death. What makes me think I’m so special that I don’t have to?” We have come to normalize the unacceptable. It’s hideous.

This, then, is the backdrop to the relationships High Tech employees tend to have. Unreasonable demands on time, tied to unreasonable demands on loyalty for that time at the expense of anything Not-Company (regardless of increasing lip-service paid by HR to work/life balance, management and sales demands apply not-so-subtle counter-pressure to jettison that balance on the crunchy end of every project cycle) threaten a person’s ability to effectively prioritize non-work relationships. When I ask clients what their core values are organized around, they almost always list their top three-four in this order:

  1. kids (if they have any)
  2. partner(s) (if they have any)
  3. family
  4. work

But when we look at how they distribute the finite resource of their time (often the indicator of truer “real-life” prioritization, it looks more like this:

  1. work
  2. work
  3. work
  4. everything else

The exhaustion factor that Pfeffer describes above, that follows our clients home from the work environment every day. Unfortunately for many of them, the work ALSO follows them home. So, exhausted as they are, they engage minimally and exhaustedly with their partners and families, then fight to find “just a few more hours” to do more work, all before getting up the next morning to do it all over again.

Pfeffer: You know what might change this? I gave a talk on this to Stanford alumni and afterward a lawyer came up to me and said there are going to be lawsuits.

Interviewer: On what grounds?
Pfeffer: In a way parallel to the lawsuits that were filed against tobacco companies. Some companies are killing their workers. People have been harmed. If I had to bet on how this will change, some company is going to get sued, some lawyer will win an enormous award, and that will open the floodgates.

Interviewer:If you meet with executives, can you make a competitive strategy argument to not treat employees this way?
Pfeffer: Of course.

Interviewer:Is that effective?
Pfeffer: Depends on whether they have any sense. […] There’s data on this — there shouldn’t need to be, but there is — that suggests that when people come to work sick, they’re not as productive. Companies have problems with presenteeism — people physically on the job but not really paying attention to what they are doing — with lost workdays from psychological stress and illness, with high health care costs. Seven percent of people in one survey were hospitalized — hospitalized! — because of workplace stress; 50% had missed time at work because of stress. People are quitting their jobs because of stress. The business costs are enormous.

I support dozens of stress-leave clients a year. MOST of them are High Tech. All of them report some variety of the anxiety/depression cocktail, almost all of them report feeling lost or disconnected in their relationships, unable to muster energy for connection, further disrupted in their recovery as frustrated partners trying to address their own needs and wants ALSO add to the pressure. And the general consensus is, this is never going to change. Since 1993, it has rarely changed in favour of the employees; more perks and colourful baubles are added to the corporate environments, but at the same time, High Tech’s love affair with the “collaborative open office” is taking away employee beliefs on an increasing array of levels that we’re at all entitled to ANY boundaries in the workplace, including the perfectly-reasonable ones.

Unsurprisingly, lack of boundaries and lack of willingness to speak up about the conditions becomes a common theme in the personal relational issues with which my High Tech clients are also struggling. The personal mirrors the professional, or vice versa.

In the short term, there are no good answers. I hate admitting this. I can work on helping clients differentiate the personal processes from the professional ones, trying to create some new boundaries that separate and protect the private connections so that they can be repaired as much as possible within the context of the larger, pressing priority of the workplace. But in truth, the primary culprits in this scenario remain the corporate mentalities driving workplace policies, setting the standards AND the stage for the 21st century work ethic that demands unreasonable things from a workforce that cannot sustain delivery on those demands. They remain the HR policy pundits who see the numbers and fail to influence effective changes in corporate expectations. And to a lesser extent, they remain the employees themselves who yield their own agency in exchange for a paycheque, who don’t mass together and stand up to the unreasonable demands, who repeatedly burn themselves out in the process of instead capitulating to corporate priority over their own personal ones. Who sacrifice their lovers and spouses and children to “the demands of the job”.

Because these are issues that hit us rather-more-literally-than-we-care-to-admit where we live, there is no quick fix for this. This is a systemic clusterfuck of bordering-on-epidemic levels. We do what we can to examine the priorities and adjust for MORE congruence, but as long as we stay tied to the High Tech industry for the sake of those glorious, sometimes-outrageous IT salaries and benefits, we remain imprisoned by these unrealistic, unsustainable, destructive demands. And it will continue to cost us all, in terms of struggling to find healthy balance, in terms of corporate costs to benefits packages, or covering increasing numbers and duration of stress leaves, and in terms of overall morale in the industry.

Here endeth the rant sermon, at least for today. I strongly expect this will be a recurring topic for years to come. Next week I’ll try to take a more directed look at how we work with the relationship-specific aspects of this epidemic.


*–In and of itself, a very long and convoluted story that isn’t entirely unrelated to this week’s post, but I’ll leave it for another day.

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