Overwhelmed? You’re not alone. Take control.

September 12, 2003 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

It is commonly said that a relationship is in trouble when a couple is no longer fighting because they have essentially given up. An issue that once might have provoked a heated exchange is handled with a shrug and a “whatever.”

This is the point at which the belief you can do something and it is worth your effort disappears — and with it your healthy coping responses. It’s a useful analogy for describing how many people in the workplace are feeling today.

Consider the past few years: the Sept. 11 attacks and ensuing war on terrorism, West Nile virus, SARS, massive forest fires, power failures and mad-cow disease — the list goes on. We have been gobsmacked from all directions with an unremitting barrage of unthinkable events.

Add to this an uncertain economy, severe cost cutting, a general loss of workplace “kindness,” and a widespread loss of people’s faith in the goodness of institutions in general and the trustworthiness of their employers in particular.

Essentially, our collective psyche has been traumatized: We are suffering from a low-grade depression mixed with general anxiety about “the state of things.” Or as a friend asked recently: “Do you think more bad things are happening to people these days? It seems like everyone I know is flat or something bad is going on with them.”

Depression is a state in which people feel helpless to control events, believe there is no relationship between what they do and what happens to them, feel bad things will continue to occur, and think about the future with pessimism. Do you know anyone today who sees the world as benevolent?

Depression has also been defined as anger turned inward. Rather than getting angry at unreasonable employers who continue to turn the heat up even higher, many people become angry at themselves for putting up with unfair demands. “If I was a strong person,” they tell themselves, “I wouldn’t put up with this.”

People react differently to their feelings of vulnerability. Some put their desires on the back burner. They say: “When the economy recovers, I’m out of here.” Others, completely exhausted, abandon themselves. They may completely crack, or give up, seeking refuge in alcohol or drugs. Or they cast around desperately for a safe secure haven.

Still others look for a bromide. It’s no accident that we are seeing a huge explosion in the personal coaching industry. While there are many valid reasons for seeing a coach or counsellor, it’s also true that many people today are seeking a guru, someone who can tell them what they need to do to manage.

Obviously, not everyone is defeated by the state of things. Some are galvanized, looking at these “bad” events as a cue to do something meaningful. They say: “I can’t control what happens globally, but I can control how I manage my psychic world.”

Are you suffering from a low-grade career malaise? The acid test:

You are no longer engaged by your work.

Things that you used to care about no longer elicit any emotion.

You are frequently tired.

You find yourself frequently saying “whatever” and giving up on issues that once you would have been concerned about and lobbied to change.

You are not interested in or proud of what you do.

You flirt with idea of quitting but think: “It will be too much work to find something else.” “Things will be no different.” “Better the devil you know.”

Your work plays a critical role in how you feel about your life. If any of the above statements describe how you are feeling, and you are not actively trying to change your situation or your feelings, you have sunk into career inertia.

The way out of this morass is to take an activist stance:

Identify what is interfering with your experiences of engagement: Is it your work? Is it a sense of futility about global events that have coloured day-to-day feelings? Are you too overwhelmed by the number of things you have to attend to find the energy to take control and change your situation (one of the problems I hear most frequently)?

Pay attention to your feelings. If you feel “flat” or depressed consider keeping a journal, and identify the high and low points of your day. What are the common themes? Monitor what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how you feel about it. Become vigilant to ensure you are investing in activities that are personally meaningful. Ask yourself: Am I simply going through the motions or do I really want to do this? How can I approach this task to make it more meaningful? If I were engaged or feeling confident, what would I be doing?

Be bold. Be prepared to take the tough moves. Introduce something new into your routine that would give you a sense of accomplishment, whether it is taking on a “stretch” assignment at work or starting an exercise program. Confront your inertia. If you don’t want to do something because you haven’t the energy, but intellectually know you would feel good about yourself if you did it, then force yourself to do it. Make a commitment. Tell a friend. Ask them to monitor you.

As the first century scholar Hillel wrote, in his famous three questions: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Employers take note

“There is no will to speak up,” a vice-president of human resources told me last week. “People are too exhausted between their long hours and all the bad news out there. So they are prepared to do things they once would have protested.

“For example, there are instances of harassment people aren’t speaking up about, or they stay late even though their partners are fed up. They say, ‘It’s toxic here, but there is nothing I can do about it.’ ”

Needless to say, this is not a picture of a functional work community, much less a high performing one.

Organizations need to be sensitive to the impact of these high levels of stress. When people are, at best, depleted — or, at worst, depressed and working on remote — the only result can be low productivity. Moreover, in the light of predicted skills shortage, managers should be aware that there is a lot of “repressed quitting” out there, which will explode when people the economy improves.

Ask staff how they are feeling. Provide a forum for frank conversation. You do not need to conduct a $50,000 attitude survey with 50,000 focus groups to gauge people’s level of engagement.

Pay attention to all the cues: Are there normal levels of banter and laughter or does everyone look like they are running to catch the subway during rush hour? What story do your employee assistance plan and sick-day statistics tell? Are people participating in training or are they begging off because they are “too busy?” And then again, are you even offering people the time and programs for development? (Be honest — just when people most need it, this has become a major casualty in most organizations today.)

If you feel like you are running on empty, there is a pretty good chance your people do as well. (Although, the converse is not necessarily true — you may be feeling fine because your staff are killing themselves).

Show appreciation. Give staff a personalized treat, whether it is an afternoon at the spa or concert tickets. Say “thank you” for a job well done. Don’t nickel and dime people for resources they desperately need. Ask staff how you can support them, and then follow through. If work demands are unreasonable, go to bat with your boss on their behalf. After all, isn’t that what a good leader is supposed to do?

As a manager, you have an opportunity to make people feel better about themselves and their work. It’s your choice.

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