When Work is Killing You

When work sucks, life sucks.

Even the best compartmentalizers can’t box their work woes up tight enough to keep them from tarnishing the untarnished parts of their lives.

One-off moments of frustration in an otherwise life-enhancing job can feel lousy, but we’re not here together on the auspicious occasion of Labor Day to talk about that one embarrassing status update meeting you had (sorry about that, though — we can’t win ‘em all, can we?).
No, we are gathered here today to talk about the kind of persistently problematic job that murders your soul. An unremittingly shitty job will stab your soul, piece by piece, until you become jaded about not just work but life in general. (Such a frothy piece for a long weekend!)

An assortment of soul-stabbing work examples:

  • Feeling underwater in a sea of never-ending work (and when I say “feeling underwater” I really mean “drowning to death”)
  • Enduring the shrouded wrath of a passive-aggressive boss, who says, “just kidding!” at the end of every stinging comment
  • Feeling unappreciated for the extra work you’ve been doing, what with covering for Shannon and Rollo who left in the spring and all. You don’t expect a trophy but an acknowledgment that you’ve been working evenings and weekends would be welcomed. (A trophy would be nice, too.)
  • Working hard at work that doesn’t really matter, because it seems like no one even reads the report you toil over every week (and you know this is true because you can see the email read receipts)
  • Working in a slow-as-molasses culture when you’ve been hired as a change agent — with that dawning awareness after nine months of pushing everything uphill that it will ALWAYS be an uphill battle — even to change your login-in password
  • Working in a build-the-plane-as-we-fly-it culture, when you thrive in a more thoughtful, methodical environment that doesn’t make you feel like you’re freefalling from said plane, every single day on the job
  • A string of ho-hum, head-splittingly boring days that are impossible to distinguish from one another (is it Thursday? Or no, Wednesday? And does it even matter anymore?)
  • We can nod in solemn agreement that these bullet points could go on forever

The toxicity of a crappy job is just plain pernicious, and yet all too often we stay. We confuse apathy with optimism (“It’ll get better soon, so I’ll just wait for things to change”)… we identify as victims instead of owners of our own reality (“They just keep asking me to do more, just like they’ve been doing for the last six years”)… we settle and tolerate and endure and then wonder why we’re feeling grumpy and detached and lackluster when we’re “done work for the night.” Disengagement at work almost always leads to disengagement in life.


A quick sidebar about work being overwhelming, in case this is your particular cause of near-death-by-work:

We all have “busy seasons,” but the thing about seasons is that they come to an end. Accountants buckle up for tax season and then go hog-wild with a near-beer when the last of the tax returns are in. Leaders slog it out getting the board deck ready, then after the meeting they check into rehab to recover (83% kidding). Salespeople hustle towards month end/ quarter end/ whatever end — BUT THE POINT IS THERE IS AN END. Are you in a ridiculously intense job with no end in sight? Is there no ebb to your flow? You can slog it out working long and hard — especially when you’re inspired by the mission — but it’s usually not sustainable (not if you want any kind of life satisfaction). Karoshi is a Japanese term that translates to “death by overwork”; just saying.

Is it worth it?

I asked that question last week to a client who was engulfed in the flames of burnout. At first he thought I was asking it rhetorically, and then he saw my look of consternation (which shows up remarkably well over Zoom). He systematically evaluated the good parts of his job (that part took 12 seconds) and then where his job was going against the grain of his values. And that’s where things got real (with us certified coaches it’s always about values): for a guy who seriously values results, he was spinning his wheels at work with a turnaround project that his company had no chance of properly funding. Realizing that he’d never fulfill his main need at work to achieve and win, he saw with clarity that he’d either have to recraft his role at his current job or find a new home at a different company. (He’s planning to ride the wave of “The Great Resignation” and find a different job where he can actually accomplish things and feel whole at work again.)

Another client had been marginalized in her role as a result of a leadership restructure. She valued being a mentor and having a sense of control, both of which had been pulled out from under her feet. When asked if her job was worth keeping, she did the math — literally. She decided, with a healthy air of agency, that she’d stay for 18 – 24 months, strictly for the dough, while waiting for a long-term incentive plan to vest. (She values financial security, in case that wasn’t clear.) With her plan in place, she committed to finding a role that allowed her to honor her values by the time she left… and she also signed up for a youth mentorship volunteer program in her community.

How much is work killing you?

Some weeks, it feels like a win just to have an “absence of negatives” — whatever that means for you — so maybe it’s less conflict/ micromanagement/ drama/ being undermined/ passive-aggression/ fingers pointed/ credit given elsewhere/ mind-numbing boredom/ etc.

This relief of pressure can be deceiving, though, because we confuse “things not being downright horrible right now” with a level of okay-ness that keeps us in place. This is a danger zone, my friend. I’ve been there and know this pseudo-comfort zone well. Having a less crappy day than usual isn’t a recipe for a well-lived life.

So in the spirit of Labor Day (sorry Canada — Labour Day), let’s reflect on whether work is having a glowing effect, a neutral effect, or a deleterious effect on your life. What sentence sounds most like you?

    1. My work is incredible; it makes my life worth living!
    2. My work isn’t perfect but it’s generally additive in my life
    3. My work doesn’t help or hurt my life
    4. My work isn’t entirely horrific but it definitely detracts from my life
    5. My work is like a parasite, sucking all the goodness out of me so it can grow even bigger and then kill me

If you answered #4 or #5, you need an intervention (possibly televised).
If you answered #3, you’re in the danger zone and you’d might as well sign up for an intervention too.
If you answered #1 or #2, be an inspiration to your friends and family that life’s not supposed to be like the bumper sticker that says, “Life sucks, and then we die.”

I’ve said it before (here) that work is going to feel like work — it’s called work for a reason and most of us accept that fact and even hum along to the “Working for the Weekend” song by Loverboy (please tell me you know about this 80s Canadian rock band?). But work shouldn’t be working you to the bone or killing you in tiny bits and pieces.

Let’s be clear — we don’t always need to bail on the Job From Hell. Every now and then we need to recalibrate how we see our work or fix things before darting off to where the grass is surely greener (e.g.: sometimes we need an attitude adjustment, or we need to arrange things so we get to do more client facing work and less spreadsheets — or more spreadsheets and waaaaay less client work, or we need to somehow switch to a new team where the boss isn’t a horrible human, etc.). Taking a stand in your current job to slow things down/ shake things up/ whatever needs fixing is always a good start. But mostly we know deep down when things feel eternally hopeless, don’t we? And then it’s up to us to do something about that. It can be intimidating and scary but we owe it to ourselves to give happiness a chance again.

Your life is too short to spend 90,000 of your precious hours in a job that makes you feel anything less than alive. There are better jobs out there. Sometimes, in extreme cases, no job is better than a job that compromises your mental health. If you can afford it, you might just need that break from all work before re-engaging with any work. Usually it just looks like deciding your well-being is worth it to shake shit up.

Job Snow Globe

Please remember…
If your work is adding to your life these days, high five!
If your work is detracting from your life these days, call 911. (Not for real though.)
If your work is more towards “meh” than “yeah,” don’t settle. You’re dying prematurely and that just won’t work.

TPS Reports

Jodi Wellman

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