All too often, therapists hear their clients refer to work as a “burdensome commitment" that they dread, an “obstacle" in the way of their enjoying themselves more fully, or a necessary evil that they must tolerate.
The employee who continues at work for an extended period of time with this attitude is heading for trouble on multiple levels. This article will address some of the pitfalls of remaining in a job with a high level of dissatisfaction and will look at some steps that can be taken to get work back into sync with overall life goals.
THE SELF-ESTEEM TRAP
The discontented employee will most likely stop performing at his/her usual levels. As a result, the employee will begin to receive feedback from supervisors and coworkers about deteriorating performance or an uncooperative work attitude. As supervisors begin to “counsel" the employee and coworkers begin to react to the employee's decreased commitment to work goals, a problematic cycle can begin.
This cycle often consists of the already conflicted employee focusing on the negative feedback being received, instead of his/her original dissatisfaction with the job. Self-esteem then takes a dive, and work behavior can become even more problematic. Under this growing pressure at work, it becomes even more difficult for the individual to focus on a plan of action to break the cycle.
THE FAMILY/RELATIONSHIP TRAP
As the work dilemma continues to unfold, the employee has less energy to commit to personal relationships. Family, friends and significant others may begin to complain to him/her about decreased emotional availability or increased irritability. The employee may withdraw or become even more argumentative with others (often complaining he/she is not receiving enough personal support through the work crisis). By the time most families approach a counselor, they are having difficulties tracing the conflict back to its source. The personal crisis now begins to feel like it has a life of its own.
THE HEALTH TRAP
If this cycle of misery is allowed to continue, it is likely that physical signs of stress will begin to appear. Headaches, muscle aches, digestive problems, sleep disturbance and excessive fatigue are some of the more common symptoms.
If the symptoms above are not addressed, it is possible that additional physical problems will surface that signal that the individual's immune response is being significantly compromised. Opportunistic infections and diseases such as arthritis and cancer, now have more of a chance of attacking the body. Cardiac functioning may also be affected, resulting in hypertension and increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
If sleep and appetite disturbances are marked, this often indicates that a depressive disorder is present. This is a common finding in individuals with chronically stressful lives and poor self-esteem.
THE BEHAVIORAL TRAP
If the cycle is not arrested, the individual may also add additional problems to the mix. As the employee searches for relief, he/she may self- medicate with alcohol, drugs, food, overspending or other addictive or compulsive behaviors.
Another all too common response is to self-sabotage by inviting demotion or termination (These maneuvers are usually not totally conscious moves). Problems such as chronic absence or lateness may surface, or the employee may begin to make errors that are not typical for him/her. Other self-sabotaging maneuvers might include breaking safety or confidentiality rules. While the employee may be driven to these behaviors by a desire to “get rid" of the work dilemma, such behaviors are self-sabotage as they will certainly complicate the problem - immensely.
WAYS TO GET BACK ON TRACK
The emotional snowball will be harder to stop than it would have been to address the work problem in the first place:
Addictive and compulsive behaviors must be addressed first.
As these are attempts to avoid and deny the original problem, they will be in the way of getting back to the underlying issue. Depending on which behaviors are present, structured hospital or outpatient treatment may be indicated, along with participation in twelve step or other self-help groups. To locate these resources, the employee can contact his/her Employee Assistance Program, health insurance provider and the local branch of the National Mental Health Association.
Psychotherapy may be indicated to begin unraveling the emotional puzzle.
The first step will be to utlize either individual or family psychotherapy to stabilize the individual's situation at work and at home.
A “corrective action plan" will be needed at work (if not already established), or plans to find other employment must be made. Contracts with family members will be put in place, so that the individual has some “breathing room" to address conflicts while the family receives some initial relief through basic agreements with their troubled family member.
Then the work begins in earnest. What is the source of the employee's work dilemma? A very careful history of the problem is taken, to determine this. There are many possibilities.
It could be uncovered that the employee has difficulties taking direction from authority figures, which leads to job dissatisfaction. Conversely, he/she could be struggling with a position which requires more independent work and less structure than the person can handle. Other types of “personality conflicts" may indicate that there are people in the workplace that remind the individual of unfinished business with people from his/her past.
Then there are those that “do themselves in" because they maintain unhealthy beliefs that interfere with communication and negotiation. Here are some examples: Those who do not assert themselves may either believe that they have “no right" to comment on the ways they feel about their assignments, or fear retaliation for their feedback to management. Others may believe that “nothing ever works out for them" and so fall into unhappy acquiescence in the workplace. Naturally, few individuals with any of these beliefs have worked much on developing the critical skills of healthy assertive communication and negotiation.
For these and other similar emotional dilemmas, the work of psychotherapy may reap benefits that resolve workplace concerns and those beyond. To feel that one is reaching their life goals, one must be emotionally “freed up" to reach for them. A shift in behavior related to authority figures, for instance, might result in an employee being more receptive to management's requests and make him more willing to be his son's parent (i. e. authority figure), instead of friend. This might also result in a better atmosphere at home, which is not marked by daily struggles with the adolescent member of the family.
Sometimes, workshops and readings on assertiveness, communication skills, self-esteem and the like are recommended to complement psychotherapy. Once the employee has a clear view of where the problems lie, he/she will be able to continue working on them well beyond the termination of therapy.
Career counseling also may be an option.
Sometimes, during the course of counseling, it becomes clear that the employee has never found their vocational niche. While this may be a problem related to the emotional conflicts discussed above (such as an individual choosing the same career as his father, but not one that fits his talents or interests), career counseling may be recommended to help the employee identify their aptitudes, interests and preferred work setting. Career counseling also is extremely valuable in insuring that the individual is creating a career plan that is possible to successfully pursue in the current economic climate and at the person's given stage in life. For example, there is less and less work for those who want to repair the office machines of yesterday and it may not be the best plan to begin training to be an astronaut at age 50.
The precise course of action needed to remedy any given employee's job dissatisfaction will of course have to be uniquely tailored for him/her. However, the information presented in this article will hopefully provide enough “food for thought" for employees to consider “working" more deliberately “toward reaching their life goals" - at work and at home. It's also rewarding to know, that the more satisfying life is, the more likely life span will increase (refer again to the Health Trap section of this article), giving more time to enjoy the outcome of this therapeutic work.
Roberta Cohen, LCSW is a grief counseling expert that provides critical incident stress managment services , management consultations, corporate trainings, coaching and customized counseling services for corporate executives and their families.
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