Once Burned, Twice Shy
Conventional wisdom says you don't leave a good job without having a better one lined up. And you sure don't do it in the middle of a recession - unless you come to believe you have no choice.
One woman who reached that conclusion begins a description of the toxic work environment she left with the word "unappreciated." It's a word she repeats several times, with increasing intensity, as she tells her story. "I was unappreciated by my supervisor and other higher-ups. There was a gradual pattern of feeling undervalued." Nothing was ever good enough to pass muster; nothing ever earned her a "thank you" or a compliment. The workload increased, the responsibilities grew; but the atmosphere became increasingly negative.
Attempts to talk to her supervisor about the situation were rebuffed. "I usually think office problems can be solved by a couple of lunches out or a couple of drinks after work. But that was not an option."
A life-long poster child for achievement, she was unprepared for the feelings of inadequacy, the erosion of her confidence. Ultimately, "I felt unworthy as an employee," she recalls. "I felt like there was no one in my corner."
Others in her office were having similar experiences, but there was little sharing of feelings or productive conversation; the experience tended to isolate employees rather than unify them. "Some people attributed this situation to their level in the company, or to their race or their background. We never found any common ground."
If you haven't met this particular woman, it would be easy to dismiss her complaints, to wonder if she might be overly sensitive. After all, everybody has conflicts with the boss; everybody deals with on-the-job stress. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment an unpleasant work situation crosses the line and becomes unhealthy. But for this woman, the time came when she felt she had to take some action.
"I have a strong spiritual element in my makeup, so I did a lot of 'old-time religion' praying. Then one time it hit me. I realized that staying in my job was not healthy physically, spiritually or emotionally. Why was I there, other than for a paycheck? I could get one of those at McDonald's. Staying in that job wasn't worth the damage it was doing to me."
Burnout is most often associated with police work or social work - jobs that are likely to put people in physical danger. It isn't a term that comes immediately to mind to describe people who wear suits to work. But I don't think it's a stretch to call this woman a recovering burnout victim.
Georgia State University's Dr. Jeff Ashby, associate professor of counseling and psychological services and director of counseling doctoral programs, says burnout is "accumulated stress that is not dealt with effectively." Control or perceived control is a big factor in dealing with job stress. "If I have control over something, it significantly reduces the stress," he says. White-collar burnout may be aggravated by external factors - the recession, for instance - that employees have no control over but result in less career maneuverability. Burnout, Ashby says, is real and could lead to depression.
Changing the situation is one solution; removing yourself from the situation is another.
This particular woman opted for Plan B. "When I made the decision to leave, I had all the courage I needed," she recalls. "But when I shared it with others I could see this look in their eyes like, 'Please don't call me in a few weeks when you're desperate.'" But she made the right choice. She is happily immersed in a new job. "I work late, I come in weekends sometimes. I love it," she says. "I'm learning a lot, and my boss is great about saying 'thank you.'"
But her earlier work experience, from which she is long removed, is still vivid. The self-doubt lingers. "Even when you leave a bad situation, it doesn't heal you," she says. Sometimes, even after a word of praise, she finds herself waiting for the barb.
"You're afraid to trust yourself or your supervisor. Being in that kind of situation has a ripple effect - the bad things reverberate long after you have left the job and the situation."
But she's an optimist; she hopes and expects the job aftershocks to dissipate.