In this next section, I want to take some time to share with you five tell-tale signs that indicate when our relationship with work is unhealthy and not serving our needs.
As you read through this section, think about what resonates with you, what feels familiar. Take notes if you can. We will use this information later in the process.
Sign 1: Work brings up negative emotions for me
A sure sign of a damaged relationship with work is that your thoughts and feelings about it are negative. Rarely are they positive and uplifting. Take a look at the questions below and see what rings true for you.
When you think about work, how do you feel?
When you think about work do you ever feel:
When you think about your employer, coworkers, clients, how do you feel?
When you are at work, how do you feel?
- Wanting to be any place rather than at work?
When our relationship with work is damaged, we experience work through the prism of negative emotions. We can feel a panoply of emotions that can include feeling:
- Ticked off
When our relationship with work is damaged, these negative feelings become foundational for us. Hence, they become our reality. Work, our coworkers, our employers, even our clients are viewed as the enemy, the harbinger of bad experiences rather than good.
Our relationship with work rarely fractures in a moment. Now, there certainly are incidents that can do this, but more commonly, the relationship with work degrades over time. Just like a romantic relationship can degrade and fall apart over time, so can our relationship with work. It makes sense that as the relationship degrades, negative emotions start to build.
In this scenario, work becomes a negative and unpleasant experience that doesn’t uplift us. We might do our best to resist the negative, the unpleasantness, but that becomes its own struggle. When a relationship doesn’t serve you, when it’s not fulfilling you, not uplifting you, despite all that you are giving it, of course, you are going to feel angry and resentful.
When your beliefs about work are negative, when your experience of work is unpleasant,when you find yourself resenting your employer and/or your coworkers, it’s not you and it’s not them. It’s your relationship with work that needs repair.
Sign 2: I have no options
Let me tell you about my client Marv. Marv was working in an accounting firm and was truly, to the core of himself, unhappy at his job. Unlike a lot of other clients, Marv was clear on what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to become a vintner. Before getting into the accounting profession, Marv had taken numerous courses in the art of winemaking. In his free time, he spent many hours studying and researching the topic. Here was a gentleman who knew he was unhappy in his current role and knew what he wanted to do.
Marv would negate options that would bring him close to his dream as soon as they were suggested. He had reasons why each suggestion would fail. No matter the possibility offered to him, he would find a way to blow it out of the water.
I see this behavior in many people who have endured a hurtful relationship with work spanning many years. The pain and the negative emotions build over time, layering hurt upon hurt. It’s like we are a ship at sea being battered by waves and wind. After being battered for so long, all we can see is the pain and the abuse. We end up with a very narrow vision. Rather than seeing a grand horizon in front of us, our narrow vision only allows us to see what is right in front of us.
As a result, all we tend to see are the reasons why we can’t do something. Those are the ones that tend to be top of mind. It takes imagination and confidence and a wide lens to see unknown possibilities.
If it’s been a while since you’ve been able to see that you have options, that you have opportunities to improve your situation or change your situation, then you can be sure you are experiencing a damaged relationship with work.
Sign 3: I am stuck
Pain is an interesting conundrum. Pain is always a symptom, a message to us, letting us know that something is wrong. But so often, when it comes to career, we miss or refuse to see the message pain is carrying. Instead, we focus on the pain, become stuck in it, becoming its prisoner.
Richard was a fifth-year attorney at a midsize law firm. Over the last three years of practicing law, he’d grown increasingly miserable. He was unhappy with the profession of law as well as the law firm he worked for. He had come to dislike the partners he worked for. On top of all of this, Richard saw his career trajectory with this firm become static. He knew he was not going to rise any further than his current position.
Having this awareness, you might think he would be motivated to make a change. But Richard did not. He came to me as a client after he was laid off by this firm. His misery at work had kept him stuck. He had been unable to take any action to change or improve his situation because all he could see and feel was his misery. It became his focus. The grip and swirl of his unhappiness clouded everything else in his life. He was only able to make a change when circumstances forced him to.
So many of us are in the same situation as Richard. I certainly was. I stayed in a job that was not a good fit for me for a very long time. I too was so miserable that I wasn’t able to take any action to change my situation, nor did I see any possibilities or options to change my situation.
If work has become a misery, and this misery is your constant companion, it’s probably hard for you to make a change. Has it become your lens? Has it become all that you can see? If this is the case, it is a sign that your relationship with work is unhealthy.
- You couldn’t pay me enough to be engaged at work
Lack of engagement at work is another sign that your relationship with work is in trouble. Look, we all have days where we would much rather be doing something else like sitting in the sun or hanging out with friends or just doing anything else but work. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
Engagement can be defined as something that “occupies the attention or efforts of a person.” My favorite definition for engagement is “to attract and hold fast.” Is your work attractive to you? Does your work “hold fast” your attention?
If your work is not fascinating to you, if you’re not passionate about it, if you’re not inspired by it, if you’re not challenged by it, then it follows that you have to work really hard to be engaged by it. How long can you keep that effort up before the truth of the situation sets in?
This is why “employee engagement” is such a hot topic among human resource professionals and company CEOs right now. Companies understand how the dearth of employee engagement impacts their bottom line. Lack of engagement equates to reduced performance and a lack of productivity. They know this. But no matter how much money they throw at the problem – and believe me they throw millions at the problem – no matter the various perks they add to their employee benefit program, they haven’t been able to solve it. And they will never be able to solve it. They can’t solve it because engagement can only come from within the employee. It doesn’t matter what exists externally, i.e. perks, benefits, rewards. You have to be passionate about what you are doing. Only you can discover that which will engage you.
There is one more aspect of a lack of engagement that I want to mention. When we are not engaged with or excited by our work, we tend to just float along. We are existing. But we are definitely not giving our best or our full effort to our work. It’s hard to give your full effort, your full self, to something that doesn’t inspire you. Unfortunately, that state of not showing up fully, of giving only a fragment of your gifts and talents, never feels good. Because, simply, we are meant for more than that. And we owe it to ourselves to have more and give more than half measures.
- The Circle of Misery is meeting by the water cooler at 10 a.m. tomorrow
Dante wrote about nine circles of Hell. I would like to add one more. I call it The Circle of Misery. You know what I’m talking about. That group of coworkers who are just as miserable and angry and frustrated as you are. May the Gods of Work help you if you’re caught up in this circle.
Was there ever a truer statement than “misery loves company”? Geez, you make one or two little complaints about the work you’re doing or your manager or your company, and wow, like-minded coworkers come buzzing around you like moths to a flame. They can’t wait to share all of their complaints with you and each other. The more you complain, the more they complain, the more reasons you see to complain. I’m sure you get where I’m going here.
I call it a circle of hell because misery simply begets more misery. If your relationship with work is in such a state where you need to seek refuge in and solace from those in the circle of misery, it’s a sign that your relationship with work could use healing.