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Monday, 1 November 2010

Job Stress: Part I When Your Work is Killing You

by Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW

Job Vacancies, Employment, Employment Jobs

As the keynote speaker at the Forty Plus annual dinner a volunteer-based, Washington, DC, career transition/support group, I had to address one of the . In general, members are white collar types, e.g., federal employees, managers, IT professionals, academics, even some entrepreneurs, who are "in between jobs." With only 20 minutes of speaking time, my subject was definitely apt, both for the attendees and for me -- "Letting Go."

“Letting go” involves more than just physically “dropping the rope.”
Consider these Three Psycho-Social Meanings-Manifestations of “Letting Go”:

  1. Emotional Acceptance and Exploration. Typically, it signifies cognitive-emotional acceptance that a desired position or person, outcome or dream is not going to materialize or not going to play out as you had hoped. And after a period of emotional catharsis if not soul searching, sometimes encouraged by venting to a third party, other times facilitated by confronting an antagonist, one is prepared to consider a new line of thinking or a different course of action.
  2. Personal Defeat and Defensiveness. Of course, when we interpret having to “let go” as a personal diminishment or defeat, that is, not just a loss of position or property but also as a confounding or humiliating loss of identity, power and prestige along with a loss of personal security or sense of control then, not surprisingly, people will hold on. Some will cling even if holding on is now holding them back or having them stuck in a hole.

    Remember, harboring a feeling of injury or victimhood may not just leave a bitter taste in the mouth. An inability to let go often sets the stage for chronic anger and resentment transmuting into holier than thou self-righteousness.

  3. . Precursor to Losing Control. . Finally, for people not comfortable with facing and sorting out strong emotions or for folks having a low “out of control” threshold there’s a palpable fear about letting go (and engaging with their vulnerability): once the floodgates are open, you will be inundated by and may ultimately drown in those unstoppable, convulsing waves of emotion.

Four “R”s and Six “F”s: Letters for Letting Go

The time was right to share “The Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s”: If no matter what you do or how hard you try Results, Rewards, Recognition and/or Relief are not forthcoming an you can’t say “no” or won’t “let go,” trouble awaits…The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair. That is, if you have invested so much time, money and ego in one right person or position, and you can’t step back – not giving up in defeat, but letting go to introduce some novelty and gain a new perspective – then you are setting in motion the “erosive spiral,” my phrase for the burnout process. Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away!

During my preparation, I had decided on a Yin-Yang approach, opening with the poignant “Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s” then presenting “The Six ‘F’s for Productively Managing Loss and Change,” before shifting into a more light-hearted gear. (Okay, I confess: I’m a charter member of the new Washington, DC-based AA group – “Acronyms Anonymous.”)

The “Six ‘F’s” are psychosocial emotions, issues and tasks that challenge an individual to grapple with: a) the loss of the familiar, b) an uncertain future, c) a loss of face, d) regaining focus, especially focused aggression, e) getting good feedback and f) having faith that if you do your “headwork, heartwork and homework” you will develop the cognitive-emotional muscles to withstand this transitional tempest, as well as to realize the opportunity in seemingly dangerous change and conflict. (Email stressdoc@aol.com for an elaboration of “The Six ‘F’s.”)

The audience resonated with these emotional tasks and touchstones. But it was reciting some poetic lines penned years ago regarding the connections between grief and growth and the natural and spiritual worlds that enveloped the hotel room in a poignant and pregnant shroud of meditative silence: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

The Old Man and the M-word

My dad had been a salesman employed twenty years by the same company in New York's "fashion industry." Well, actually, he worked in the "Garment Center" selling the interlining for women's dresses for a large manufacturer/distributor. It was a rough world, but as an aggressive Type A New Yorka, he was doing pretty well. His loyal clientele gave him a freedom to operate fairly independently within the large company.

Seemingly, he had made peace with this rough trade. However, over a period of several years, he had been denying an even tougher piece of reality: organized crime was increasingly taking over my father's place of work. Then one day reality punched him in the gut: he was told if he wanted to continue working for David B. Carmel & Co., he would have to report to Tommy D.

Suddenly, my father was in a major crisis.

Of course, my father’s “trial and terror” could not be summed up in a punchline. I can vaguely recall my father lying on the couch, the tension written large on his face and body. I sometimes feared he might kill himself or even someone else. Fueling his sense of helplessness, my father was resisting his typical coping mechanism when under acute interpersonal duress: once feeling provoked, almost reflexively he would move into an aggressive, bordering on the physical, “in your face” confrontation with a perceived adversary. Fortunately, discretion and survival instincts were the better part of financial angst, inflamed anger and wounded pride. He decided that a relationship with Tommy D was even more frightening than walking away from a long-time job and paycheck.

Not only was he enraged but, having two kids to support, he was also scared. The anxiety pushed him to take a position at another large manufacturing company. Very quickly he felt stifled by the bureaucratic regimen and control. And two months later he walked away from the security. Job independence and self-control were now the motivational drivers.

Despite the anxiety, now he really researched job options, and finally decided to be the lone rep for "Eli," an older man who owned his own relatively small interlining warehouse. Eli was a Garment Center caricature; an "Old World" aggressive-suspicious-shrewd business owner; the arguments between him and my father were legendary: each one feared being ripped off by the other. Eli came up to my father's chest, which was probably a good thing or I believe my father might have followed through on his threats to “kill that SOB."

So the price of freedom was the many battles with Eli. (Not surprisingly, my father had a lot of unfinished anger/issues with his often aloof immigrant father who, like Eli, was a short, stubborn, aggressive barrel-chested individual. And both elder men were quick to challenge my father’s loyalty.) And though Eli often drove my father "crazy," in my family, craziness we can deal with, the Mafia is another story.

Ultimately, Eli and my father did not kill or run one another off. In fact, my father scaled new financial heights those last dozen or so years in that rep position.

Finally, the moral of the story: Many of us have been through reorganization or worse -- company downsizing. And I especially dislike the demeaning label, “rightsizing.” But my father’s crisis point called for new terminology – “frightsizing!” Nonetheless, by truly grappling with the intense emotions, especially the sense of unfairness and his paralyzing rage, my father was able to walk away, not once but twice.

He escaped the Mafia trap and then had the courage to listen to his gut. He let go of the safe job and took time to research carefully other possibilities. And he eventually paved a new path! Who knew my father was a devotee of French-Algerian Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher, Albert Camus:

Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one [or loved position] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.

Surely, words to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!


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