It starts out with so much promise, a new challenge and sense of adventure. At first everything is great and by the time you can no longer ignore the vast sea of red flags, it’s too late. Your degree of personal, emotional, and often financial, investment in the situation is too great to easily extract yourself from what has clearly become an unhealthy relationship. The question is, what happens when this relationship is with your work?
Companies have long since traded on people as a commodity, but more and more employers are moving toward a replenishment, rather than a retention focused model. This optimizes towards bringing in as many talented and eager new hires as possible, squeezing out every imaginable ounce, and then cycling them out to be replaced by a seemingly endless influx of new graduates. Most of whom will happily put aside any personal life with the hope of advancement early on.
This replenishment model impacts all genders, but taps into specific needs that are more commonly cultivated in men early on. Don’t whine when things get hard, work harder. Man up. Succeed. You are the top of the food chain and complaining makes you a woman….you aren’t a woman, are you?
Men are frequently socialized from an early age to compete and achieve. The ultimate goal is to be the high earning and higher profile that embodies a masculine ideal. Boys receive subtle and overt messages about cultural measures of success, many of which intertwine an internal sense of self with the external validation that follows accomplishment.
So how do they do it? How do companies convince people to work under relentless pressure for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and still manage to leave employees convinced that it isn’t enough? Glad you asked, follow me.
We’ve seen it play out dozens of times. You interview for a challenging position with a prestigious company that’s known for driving innovative results in a fast-paced, competitive environment. You were chosen. Chosen above all others. You won. The offer includes a generous bonus and relocation package. The first few weeks come with rumors about how the last person couldn’t take the pressure and walked away, or maybe they were managed out. Sure, that person couldn’t cut it, but your different…you’re you and you have what it takes to make it at this company. Why else would they have hired you?
Before you realize it, the project deadline has been pulled in by 6 weeks and there are no additional resources to offset. Then someone else on the team leaves and you are asked to absorb their work. But hey, it shows that management has confidence in your ability to deliver. People are casually mentioning working all weekend and scheduling conference calls at 10pm after working until 3am on an escalation.
Two months in you’re working every day and begin to feel guilty when you aren’t working. You leave the office, go to the gym, go home and immediately fire up the computer. You are falling behind but everyone else on the team seems to have it figured out, so it must be that you’re doing something wrong. Imposter syndrome begins to creep in. You set aside entire days trying to catch up. Other people on the team jokingly refer to this ‘chasing the dragon’ because of the intense, but fleeting, ‘high’ associated with the delusion of being on top of your workload.
Six months in and it’s time for your review. After carefully outlining all the accomplishments resulting from countless hours and dedication, your boss dings you for a lack of commitment. Maybe it’s a missed deadline or coworker’s perception that you didn’t contribute enough in meetings. Their nebulous feedback makes it impossible to determine and the outcome of all that sacrifice is a mediocre ‘achieved’ on your permanent record. The message is clear…if you had only tried a little harder, or dug in more, you would have succeeded. You feel the floor begin to sink beneath your feet like sand as the realization hits that you have failed. Resolution sets in to crush the next goal, whatever it takes. Besides, leaving the company now means that you have to pay back the bonus and relocation package.
Here’s how it works – subtle manipulation of self-justification and human tendency toward escalation of commitment. When people commit to something big, like a new job and moving across the company, there is a huge degree of ego tied into the success of that decision. Even faced with ridiculous expectations, people will adjust if the bar is continually raised slowly over time. Normalizing excessive hours and creating the illusion that others are able to keep up both tap in to our human need to belong. We’re part of a special group, provided everyone keeps up. And based on the amount of shame associated with being managed out, no one wants to be ‘that guy’.
There is also a great deal of intellectual gymnastics going on with you in the background to reaffirm that taking this job was the right decision. The extent to which your brain works to protect the ego is admirable. Cognitive theories aside, people are more rationalizing than rational.
So, now the question becomes how do you survive until it’s possible to leave?
First, think of it as what it is – a toxic, potentially abusive, relationship This unhealthy job situation is not really that much different than other toxic relationships, except this one was your college major and it comes with a 401k.
Second, I understand the dangers of labeling this as abuse, but consider the key elements involved when someone in a position of power slowly manipulates you into unhealthy behaviors. It takes an emotional and psychological toll, from which some never recover. While obviously not all bad work situations reach this level, it’s critical to be aware of your well-being in relation to the place that holds your livelihood.
If leaving outright is not a possibility, here are some steps you can take to stay healthy and intact while you look for a new adventure.
- Set boundaries – Write down what you are no longer willing to do. Be open with yourself, this isn’t something that will be shared with anyone else. This is for you. It can be things like, ‘no checking email after 7pm’ or ‘leaving every Tuesday at 5pm no matter how full the inbox’. Once you have set boundaries, stick to them. After a few weeks of maintaining boundaries, you’ll be surprised how different it feels.
- Stay healthy – Long hours behind a computer are no good for anyone’s mental or physical well-being. It’s also likely that this inactivity will exacerbate any sense of depression or hopelessness with the work situation. Go outside and get to the gym. Better yet, make gym or exercise time part of your boundaries. Future you says ‘thanks’ in advance.
- Actively look for something else but don’t make an emotional decision to settle for the first gig that will get you out. Panic and desperation will cloud your judgment on the next position, making it increasingly more likely that another toxic environment will follow.
- Don’t check out – Yes, it’s tempting to completely give up on any semblance of your former drive, but don’t. You’re better than that. Be the best whatever it is you do, but within the confines of your newly established boundaries and gym time.
- Talk to someone – Find someone who you can trust and begin networking. This not only boosts your confidence and sense of self (likely diminished after six months in a toxic workplace), but also provides a fresh perspective on your plan to transition out.
- Last, keep your job search to yourself at work. No one likes to feel that a coworker is on borrowed time. Even while you continue to crush your goals, peers might perceive any slip as ‘short timers’, leaving you increasingly outside of the loop. Not a good place for anyone to be in this type of environment.
Best of luck out there, and remember, get to the gym.
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