“Sure, I love my family, but nothing will ever take the place of my job!” This was our first meeting and “Patti” was sitting in my psychotherapy office explaining to me that her life was over. She felt her boss had betrayed her; she had left work on disability; she no longer had an identity.
I wasn’t surprised. Over the past seven years I have met with dozens of women and men who seek out psychotherapy after a workplace crisis. For them, work isn’t simply something they do for money; nor do they view it as an important part of their lives that provides them with a sense of purpose. Work is their life. And when it ends, they are devastated. They feel as though they are aliens or exiles from a society that increasingly values commitment to and identification with work over all else.
This relatively new work order — best exemplified by the high tech companies of Silicon Valley — is creating company cultures that offer engagement, a shared sense of purpose, exhilaration, and interpersonal connection that is increasingly absent in people’s families and communities outside the workplace. As divorce, geographic mobility, social fragmentation, and the decline of neighborhood, community, and civic participation grow, more and more of us are turning to the workplace to satisfy needs formerly filled by family, friends, and neighbors.
This trend is hard to resist. As some workplaces become campuses offering gyms, free food, parties, sports leagues, chess clubs, and massage therapy — essentially emptying the village green and replacing Main Street — it is not surprising that more of us like spending long hours at work.
In the absence of countervailing institutions that sustain us or provide a vision of how life should be led and for what purpose, corporations offer a sense of belonging and personal identity. Company logos and slogans that surround employees and pervade our culture often are all people can identity with and claim as their own. Supervisors become parental figures to dote on and please; coworkers become one’s community, and the corporation feeds our unmet longings with countless exhortations that “We Are A Team!” “We’re Number One!” “We Are Fam-i-ly!”
The catch in all of this, of course, is that the people who control “the family” can lay us off, change our jobs, fire our supervisors, or make conditions at the workplace extremely unpleasant — so much so that “divorce” feels preferable to the ongoing emotional abuse. Our desire to be connected to others and work toward common goals can blind us to the fact that corporations ultimately seek profits and power, not family and community — and if we invest all of our energies, time, and emotional needs in our jobs, there is often little to fall back on when the workplace fails us.
My other family
“Patti” knows this all too well. As a 39-year-old mother of two, Patti spent much of her early life on welfare. But despite her modest beginnings, she completed college, bought a home, and worked as a bookkeeper in a growing biotechnology firm. She loved her job. The company emphasized “team spirit,” and her boss, a vice-president, repeatedly talked about the company being “one big family.” The company’s unofficial anthem, in fact, was “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, a song often played at its company picnics and parties.
Patti’s boss, Bill, always struck her as an extremely ethical, fair-minded man whom she often turned to for advice about problems at work. She felt respected, and he always praised her highly in her work evaluations. She admired him and trusted his judgment so completely that, “He sort of reminded me of Marcus Welby,” she said. “When he was around, you knew things were gonna be okay.”
Patti had been on the job for three years when a new computer accounting system was introduced. She found the new system difficult to work with and considered it inferior to the previous system. But when she voiced her concerns to her boss, she was surprised to find he didn’t welcome the feedback. Instead, he seemed annoyed.
Gradually her boss’ attitude toward her changed. No longer the calm, benevolent man she loved working for, he became critical and sharp. As his impatience grew, her ability to work with the new computer system floundered. Routine entries took her longer, and she often stayed late to process accounts on the new system. She began to get headaches and other stress-related health problems, including abdominal distress that her doctor later diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome. When her boss asked her one day for a report she had not completed, she felt herself “sinking.
One day her boss came into Patti’s office clutching a handful of her billing statements, his face red with rage. “Are you the person for this job?” he shouted. He threw the papers at her and stormed out the door. “I knew that was it,” she said. “It was over.”
That evening Patti wound up at a hospital emergency room, complaining of numbness and tingling in her arm. Her doctor recommended a leave from work and referred her to me for psychological assessment. When I met with her, Patti was clinically depressed, dulled to activity around her and slow to respond. “I have no identity. My work was everything and I blew it. It’s over,” she said.
During the next few months, Patti grew distant from both her children and her boyfriend, who she lives with. She spent a lot of time just lying in bed. Although she knew that her family was worried about her and felt guilty about it, she insisted her “other family, my work family is gone. No reason to get out of bed in the morning.” Her boss had been her main conduit to that “other family,” and his unhappiness with her seemed to sever the tie that bound her to the larger community of the company family.
‘I owe them everything’
On the surface, my new patient, “Lionel’s” story appears quite different from Patti’s. A tall, lean man with a wife of 20 years, a stepson and a home in the suburbs, Lionel has worked for one of Silicon Valley’s oldest corporations for 27 years.
A true American success story, Lionel rode the wave of the high tech revolution, rising from mailroom worker to marketing manager. Because he has never worked for any other employer, his emotional dependence on his job appeared to transcend any feeling he had for another person. “They made me what I am,” he said. “Without their faith in me I’d probably still be working minimum wage. I love my wife, but I owe [my employer] everything.”
At his workplace, every employee, including the CEO, occupies a certain level on a scale of 1 – 100. Lionel became obsessed with levels and rankings. He was a “59”; his supervisor was a “63,” and Lionel hadn’t seen any advancement in three years. He continually pondered how “to leave the 50s” and advance his career. When a new job in another division opened up, Lionel applied. Although he admits he wasn’t truly qualified for the job, he pressured the division manager to give him the position. “It was my ticket,” he said. “I’d automatically be a 63.”
Once in his new job, Lionel was overwhelmed. He didn’t understand the operating system and was too afraid to ask questions, fearing that those who had hired him would see him as what he thought himself to be — a fraud. He struggled, developing chronic neck and shoulder pain, and became increasingly irritable with his family. For the first time in his life he exhibited “road rage” as he commuted two hours each way to the corporation that “made him who he was.”
Three months into the job, Lionel was sitting in a team meeting with his new supervisor, a man 15 years his junior with an MBA from a prestigious business school. The supervisor stared at Lionel for what seemed to be an eternity and then asked him for a report in a voice dripping with sarcasm. Lionel began to hyperventilate, had to leave the room, and rushed to the company nursing station in a full-blown panic attack.
Lionel is now off work on short-term disability. He feels he cannot return to his workplace because he is humiliated. He believes there is no other job for him, despite his outstanding resume. The rage at his new supervisor, by whom Lionel feels shamed, is palpable. Lionel says he can identify with men who feel betrayed and “go postal” at the workplace. “I know I’d never do anything like that, so you don’t have to worry that you have some loon on your hands, but I get it,” he says. “I never could understand that kind of thing before this happened to me.”
Work is not your life
Despite differences in gender and race, Patti and Lionel share the feeling that severance from the world of work is exile from life itself. They both looked to their jobs for feelings of emotional security, self-esteem, and belonging. In return for providing what these employees experienced as nurturing environments, Patti’s and Lionel’s employers benefited enormously from having workers who worshipped their companies, worked long hours, and would do virtually any task in order to elicit their supervisors’ approval.
Emotional recovery for Patti, Lionel, and others like them is not easy. While Americans are devoting increasing amounts of time and energy to their work, no social institutions, frameworks of meaning, or even words exist for a “divorce” from a highly valued job. The empathy that is common when a romantic relationship fails is considered inappropriate, if not absurd, when applied to a work relationship. The “divorced” employee often has little more than the advice columns in newspaper business sections to turn to, and these routinely tout the virtues of “flexibility,” “marketability,” and treating oneself as a business.
The overriding sentiment is simply “get on with it; send out those resumes; only the weak or psychologically impaired could remain emotionally attached to a job.”
Ultimately, the task for people in Lionel’s and Patti’s position is to find connection, esteem, identity, and a feeling of aliveness outside of work even while satisfying some of these needs on the job. Putting all of one’s eggs in one basket — investing in one sphere of life to the exclusion of all others — diminishes what a human being can be and portends emotional devastation if that one sphere fails. Admittedly, this task is an arduous one, given the sorry state of family and community life. But to cede our emotional lives to corporations whose ultimate goal is profit and power is an act with unparalleled political and psychological consequences.
I would argue that it is only through building sources and identity and community that are outside corporate control that we can resist the domination of our emotional lives by work. New forms of labor unions, volunteer organizations, online discussion groups, 12-step and group therapy programs, and athletic teams are all examples of how we can sustain connection with others outside of our jobs.
For my clients, forming or even participating in such endeavors seems challenging, if not unimaginable. But I don’t think they are that different from many of us who are attempting to satisfy unmet emotional needs through our jobs. Perhaps the women and men I see tried a little too hard, had a surfeit of needs, too few internal resources to begin with, untempered naivete, too great a belief in the American dream of success and salvation through work. But they are on a continuum with most of us who choose longer hours, take fewer vacations, and wake up and go to sleep at night thinking about our jobs.
Many of us need a reminder that jobs alone cannot provide identity, that boundaries and limits must be set so that employers do not become pseudo-parents to be pleased, and, most importantly, that work is not life — surprisingly, an increasingly radical notion as we push through the new millennium.
— Ilene Philipson is a Berkeley psychologist and writer. A version of the piece first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is part of her book Married to the Job, Simon and Schuster.