When Your Work Setting Makes You Sick: What to Do When Work Conditions Are Burning You Up and Burning You Out

Some of you may know I live in Philadelphia, where the past election results took on enormous importance. While most people my husband and I canvassed for weeks were polite, not all were. One man spit at me. His daughter, in her 40s and with him in the elevator we shared, found this appalling behavior funny. Someone else had some choice curse words. While we are working in any way, including volunteer activities, this type of rudeness takes its toll.

Sadly, there are employers, those we report to, and general work settings where this kind of mean culture and lack of personal respect prevails. There are even employers who believe that productivity will thrive in the kind of setting here meanness prevails  and colleagues are pitting against each other. Nothing leads to professional burnout faster than this kind of accepted or perpetuated behavior in a work setting. Work settings should protect, inform, nurture and encourage their employees. When they don’t, the exhaustion and depletion of burnout is predictable. Please read on….  

My client, Tom, age 41, had been working arduously toward partnership in his highly respected and hugely competitive law firm for 7 years.  In Tom’s words:  “At first it was fun to see all I worked with as rivals, rather than colleagues. It felt motivating, and although I hate to admit it, I felt good as I watched others fail.  Of course, friendships and support did not develop in my firm, but I had my family and friends outside of work for this, so it did not seem to matter.”

Then, out of the blue his wife, Andrea, was stricken with ovarian cancer. The couple had two children, ages 5 and 3. Although Andrea's mom come to help, Tom wanted to support his wife by accompanying her to arduous chemo sessions and spending more time with their children, who were naturally very upset by the changes in their lives. This flexibility and compassion were not forthcoming in Tom’s firm, where not one colleague offered to help in any way, or even wrote a comforting note. Tom explained his new awareness: “I started to feel ill, along with Andrea, and I saw that I did not want to spend my waking hours with those who did not care if Andrea lived or died. It seemed incredible that not one colleague called to see how we were doing. much less offered to bring us dinner. With this realization, I became furious that I had been dumb enough to waste precious years with these kinds of selfish and arrogant people, and even more furious that my firm liked pitting us against each other, and in this way, pitching to everyone’s worse instincts.  I really got psyched as I wondered if I would have acted any differently if one in my firm faced what Andrea and I were facing.”  

Because of his savings and investments, Tom was able to afford to leave his firm. During these months of devotion to her and their children, Andrea went into remission. Upon her full recovery the couple opened up a combined bookstore/cafe, where they could spend time together and their children could join them after school.  In Tom’s words, “I could have looked into other settings where my knowledge about the law could have been respected and colleagues were treated with far more respect. But Andrea’s illness showed both of us that we wanted something very different.” 

Most people do not have Tom and Andrea's resources if faced with untenable conditions at work. However, if there is not one person in a leadership position who can be trusted to work toward change, colleagues can band together and help each promote change through collegial behavior. Plus, employees can consult with professionals trained to help them to improve conditions using creative options, cope with seemingly impossible conditions, and learn about other freeing opportunities.