How soul-sucking jobs lead to anxiety and workplace stress and what to do about it
I once had a job where I wrote reports for high tech companies that described their research projects. I painstakingly interviewed people, read through their project documents, and wrote up reports describing their research, what they were looking for, the work they did, the conclusions they reached. The reports were then submitted to the government to support the company’s R&D tax claims.
One day, one of my clients had a tax audit for the R&D claims, and in the course of talking to the tax auditor, he said something that blew me away and kind of made me hate my job.
He was talking about a particular report, and I mentioned to him that it was related to another project, which was in the overall portfolio of 50 or so project reports that made up that year’s claim.
Now, I don’t remember his exact phrase, but it was something along the lines that he only reads a few of the reports. And that, after the first few years of a company submitting a claim, they rarely even read the technical reports. They only read a report if it gets flagged for an audit, or just spot check a few of them once and awhile.
So, at that moment, I realized that the vast majority of my job was researching and writing reports that would never be read.
I had a bullsh**t job.
It was meaningless. It served no purpose beyond a sort of ‘cover your as$’ bureaucratic requirement.
No one read my reports.
I left that job soon after. On the surface, it was a good job. It paid well. I enjoyed interviewing the often highly intelligent and fascinating scientists and learning about the work they were doing (which appealed to the science nerd in me). The flexible hours and location requirements of the job allowed me to work at home when my children were toddlers and in grade school. It worked for me, and I delivered exactly what my clients wanted - well written technical reports that they needed to have on file.
But, I left that job. I had to.
Because writing things no one will ever read is soul sucking. It is a waste of my talent as a writer. It is meaningless. The sheer uselessness of it was eating away at me.
I give you this example, because I wonder how many more jobs like this are out there?
Once I started thinking about it, I started to see them everywhere.
My nephew once had a job answering a ‘help’ line THAT NO ONE EVER CALLED. At the ripe young age of 18, he spent a whole summer sitting at a desk in front of a phone. No one called during any of his shifts. He played computer games and chatted with friends on his phone.
Like me, he was paid well. The government contract that company had been awarded required a fully staffed ‘information/help’ line to be available. So there he sat, watching that phone, never helping anyone all summer, and working in a soul-sucking bullsh**t job.
As a university student, I once had a summer job as an office temp. I remember one assignment I had was working at a bank. My job? Take a pile of mortgage applications from one pile. Open up the application, stamp it in 2 places, sign it in one spot, rearrange the order of the papers slightly and then but them all back in a different pile.
That was it. All summer long.
I remember when I asked them if I should review the application or look for any anomalies or anything (I had the naive assumption that by signing an official document like that, I should at least read it or something), they said “no”. The mortgage officer had reviewed everything already, they didn’t really need anyone to look it over again. That extra signature was just a bureaucratic, government requirement. Reading it or reviewing it was a waste of time. Stamp it, sign it, rearrange it and drop it off.
No thinking required.
A bullsh**t job.
I borrow the phrase “bullsh**t job” from David Graeber who writes about our modern corporate culture in his book “Bullsh**t Jobs: A Theory”, where he talks about the global rise of these types of jobs. Here’s a quote from his book:
“Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”
A scar across our collective soul. Morally and spiritually damaging.
There’s a lot of talk, research, discussion, and programs all around stress and anxiety in the workplace - how to set up the exact perfect team, how to communicate better, how to manage your stress, mindfulness, wellness. And those are all important, interesting topics and well worth exploring as useful tools to introduce into your workplace.
But they are just bandaids if you have allowed any soul-sucking jobs into your business systems.
My colleagues David Chalk, Tana Plewes and I have worked with hundreds of companies, interviewed thousands of people about their jobs, their lives, their passions. We’ve observed how they interact with the business systems they are embedded into.
What people are looking for, across the board, is meaning and value.
They want to contribute, to feel that their skills are being put to use, that they are of value to their team, their company, their community. That they are making a difference. Here's a few examples:
“They hired me to introduce new technologies into our building processes, but everytime I try to introduce anything new, my ideas are overruled, and we just do it the same old way. They give me this big mandate, but no budget and no power”
“I want to create the highest quality product we can, but then someone in head office who understands nothing about what we do, screws it up at the last minute. I hate when our products leave the shop and they don’t reach the quality I’m hoping for”
“I want our floor staff to feel good about working here, but all the last-minutes changes to the schedules stresses everyone out. I’m the manager, but I can’t keep my team focused and happy. I feel like I’m letting them all down, but it’s out of my control.”
What these people are expressing is a frustration born out of a disconnection between what they feel they were hired to do, what they want to do, and the systems that are in place that are not supporting them or allowing them to fulfill their role.
Take example one - the person who was hired to introduce new building technologies into the construction company, but isn’t getting anywhere with his goals. Imagine month after month preparing proposals, researching and sourcing new building materials, talking to senior management, but rarely, if ever, having your ideas accepted by them or introduced into the company. Imagine that you start to realize that maybe you were hired because they wanted to appear as if they were a cutting-edge company, but never really intended to innovate in the first place. Or you were just hired to appease someone’s ego.
Imagine the building frustration of being ignored or working on projects that will never get anywhere starts to eat away at your self esteem. Your anxiety grows. You start being sarcastic to other people, angry. You pull away from the team.
Is a workplace wellness program or a stress management class really going to help in the long term if they just ‘fix you up’ temporarily but then send you right back into your meaningless, soul-sucking bullsh*t job? The one that is enabled by rogue business systems and driven by ego and dysfunctional power dynamics?
That is the very definition of workplace stress.
How do these sorts of jobs and situations arise? After interviewing thousands, it is pretty clear that workplace stress is not a result of poor relationships or dysfunctional communication patterns - these are the symptoms. Workplace stress arises as an inevitable result of de-humanized business systems - the stress actually becomes embedded into the system itself.
De-humanized business systems are systems and processes that neglect the needs of the human being. Think bureaucracy. Ego. Power games. The times when ‘the system’ forces you to take 10 useless steps for every 1 step that actually means anything. The times when you are creating things that no one is using, writing reports no one is reading, reading emails that have nothing to do with you.
I once interviewed a senior project manager on a construction crew who told me about a project for a fueling station where the levels and layers of bureaucracy resulted in a simple bathroom construction going about 3X over budget, stressing out everyone on the team, and causing the company financial penalties for late delivery. The culprit? Overbuilding, over-analyzing, over-inspecting. Simple fire caulking his team has done thousands of times had to be inspected 3 times by 3 different government agencies. A simple lightswitch change delayed the project by 5 days, and cost thousands as they had to write detailed technical specifications explaining a basic decision they’ve made hundreds of times before.
He told me by the time they’d finished, they might as well have bought golden toilets for all the money that was wasted (hence the graphic above). Funny to tell it now and look at the golden fixtures and toilet seat, but so, so, frustrating to be caught in a soulless, dehumanized, stress inducing system.
I’ve talked to people:
… who built a 5 million dollar school - for 10 students
… who were hired to teach kids, then given an over-capacity classroom with multiple special needs kids, ever-changing curriculum and burdensome paperwork
… who were hired (on commission) to sell products that didn’t even exist yet
… who were hired as researchers, then not allowed to publish their results
To quote Graeber again: “The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.”
It sounds trite to have to remind people of this, but we are human beings, and despite the rising tide and overall usefulness of robotics, we are not robots.
Unlike machines, we actually care about our work. We want it to have meaning, purpose. We want to be useful, feel part of a team, feel like we’ve contributed.
Workplace stress is caused by de-humanized systems, by bullsh*t jobs and overbuilt washrooms.
We can do better.
Diane Currie Sam has worked for over 25 years across multiple industries to help her clients to initiate massive growth in their businesses, secure millions of dollars in funding and sales contracts, and initiate change through the power of strategic storytelling. She is the chief communications strategist for Hume Chalk, and contributing columnist for Inc. Magazine. She has a Bachelor's of Science degree from the University of BC and a Masters of Arts in psychology from Trinity Western University.
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