My 37-year career in corporate America came to an abrupt halt in June, thanks to Bain & Company's brilliant management consulting advice. Their MBA whiz-kids advised my employer that, due to continued underperformance of the company and their stock, they should toss a few hundred more employees into the volcano. Nothing personal; just business.
Since then, I've launched my own business to continue serving some of my customers, an option available to me only thanks to my husband's good job and benefits. I got through the summer on severance pay, some part-time work, and unemployment. A quick review of my tax returns and contributions to Social Security and Medicare would vindicate me: I've put a whole lot more into the "system" than I've taken out. So if Mitt wants to give me any sh*t about mooching off the government, he can kiss my ass.
After a few months away from the daily insanity of corporate life, I've noticed some interesting and unexpected changes in my outlook, my health, and my mental acuity. When you work at a company where layoffs are constantly looming, you develop a siege mentality. Everyday, it's either going to be you, or someone you know. The angst is palpable. A lot of your mental energy goes into psyching yourself up every day.
Concurrently, there's an expectation - spoken or unspoken - that you'd better pick up the pace. When your annual performance review notes that you're fortunate just to have a job, you know that employee engagement is no longer in play (colorful and upbeat corporate e-mails notwithstanding). Your continued employment is only a temporary reprieve. The Grim Reaper is just busy studying other cells on the Spreadsheet of Life. Your cell will come up soon. You'd better be ready.
Stress manifests itself in lots of ways. Poor sleep. Inability to focus. Snapping at well-meaning friends and family who ask how things are going. Headaches. Muscle stiffness. Depression. Anger. Fear. Once this becomes your "default state", you don't think about it. When all your colleagues are dealing with these same pressures, it starts to look "normal".
Getting laid off, even if you see it coming, takes a huge toll on a person. It's not so much the fact that you're separated from your company, your job, and your career (and for many of us, our identity as a person). It's the fact that it happens so suddenly. You drive to the office one day, and within hours, you're doing the Walk of Shame out to the parking garage with a couple of boxes, all that's left to show you even existed.
Once you've solved the immediate problems (informing your family, getting a new computer, phone, getting in touch with coworkers or customers, appying for unemployment, making sure you've got medical coverage, etc.), you need to get moving on finding - or creating - a new job. That process will evoke every emotional response from despair to euphoria, with the middle of the bell curve filled with the day-to-day grind of carrying out your quest.
When your destiny becomes clear, and you settle into a new reality, something interesting happens. In my case, I noticed some significant physical and emotional changes. I was sleeping longer and better (maybe because I didn't have to get up at 5:15 in the morning to beat the traffic). I wasn't suffering headaches or muscle tension. I felt a sense of excitement and optimism. Without altering my low-carb eating regimen, it was easier to lose weight. I felt more energetic.
Most remarkably, my short-term memory improved. Having watched my brilliant father - an engineer, musicologist, and all-around Renaissance man - sink into the physical and cognitive death spiral of Alzheimer's, I worry every time I'm unable to recall some detail: someone's name, the three items I needed at the grocery store, some fact that I knew that I knew. Now, three and a half months after my layoff, my mind is as sharp as it was years ago. I don't harbor any delusions that I'm staving off the possibility of future dementia, but the change is amazing.
So it has me wondering: what goes on in the workplace that degrades the very capabilities that we need to be effective? Beyond the fear about layoffs, what other phenomena conspire to wear us down, break our spirit, and deplete our abilities?
One is the trend away from offices and towards cubicle farms. I had to share an office, albeit with a great colleague. Neither of us could get much done, since we both spent much of our time on the phone or in discussions with others in the office. The folks in Cubicle Hell had it much worse. Trying to block out sights and sounds (and microwave aromas) and disruptions all day, with commutes through city traffic at each end of the work day, demands great focus.
E-mails popping up all day long - many of them from "corporate" and various departments, reminding you of the dire consequences of failure to fill out some form, complete some certification, sign up for some training, or otherwise do something other than your job - are another mental challenge.
Multitasking one's way through every day puts the mind through its paces. Multitasking will eventually be found to be the largest productivity drain. Doing things concurrently - and poorly - doesn't provide any sustaining satisfaction. By the end of the day, we wonder why we're so exhausted, and why so much of our "to do" list remains undone.
Many jobs are largely reactive. Sure, you may have a schedule of work to complete, but when anything changes - someone's out of the office, a customer needs something unanticipated - your schedule goes out the window (or if you're in a windowless office or cubicle, into the shredder).
Mastery and control, essential to our sense of self, are the first casualties in the workplace. When your best and highest aspiration is "not getting laid off", you've ceded control to people who clearly do not care what happens to you.
The irony is that the very capabilities that would make you a great employee - intelligence, problem-solving abilities, innovation, and focus - are the very things that corporate life takes from you. You may retain your integrity, but if you're in a corporation where ethical malfeasance runs rampant, your stress levels will increase, big time.
The good news is that most of these problems appear reversable. In my case, it's been a delight to reclaim my sanity... well, some of it. I still want to keep my snarky side intact so I can keep writing here ;-)
8:29 AM PT: Thanks for getting this onto the rec list! I've said it before and I'll say it again: I've got the most intelligent, insightful, compassionate, resourceful, and good-looking commenters on Daily Kos. We're all in this tough economy together. Your observations and suggestions will help us prevail over the witless corporate overlords who'd prefer that we just shut up and trudge back to our cubicles. From what I'm seeing in these comments, you folks are way too smart for that. Good luck to all, and thanks again!