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Having a good job in a respected corporation is a dream beyond reach for the vast majority. But when you really understand what goes on in the workplace, the wonder isn’t that many executives are stressed or unhappy, but rather why so many are functioning rather well.
The corporate world is a demanding and unforgiving one, which may sound strange to some. After all, what’s so difficult about big salaries, expense accounts, fancy hotels and Grade A offices? If you are in that environment, here are some reasons why you might be feeling a little pressure from time to time:
Failure is very public. The higher up you are, the more true this is. If you’re a CEO and you’re terminated, the whole world knows. Your spouse’s friends know, your child’s schoolmates know and (perhaps worst of all) your in-laws know. There is no hiding the disgrace. Even if you’re relatively junior, and you’re moved sideways rather than fired, the company or department rumor mill starts. Both you and your ex-colleagues may find it awkward to continue friendships, depriving you of some of your social network.
Schadenfreude. (A German word which means ‘pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.’) It’s not possible to do a good job and have everyone always like you. So there will always be people in a company who gain satisfaction in seeing an executive like you fail. There’s also satisfaction to be had in seeing executives who have had a more successful career than oneself suddenly hit a roadblock. We’re all measuring ourselves against others, and when someone who’s ahead suddenly falls behind, even the kindest, most warmhearted observer can’t help feeling a twinge of pleasure. Knowing that there are people out there who would take pleasure in your failure isn’t a great feeling.
Competition is intense and continuous. Internal rivalry is inevitable in companies. What is the fairest distribution of work? Where do your responsibilities begin and end? Who gets credit for success? Who gets blamed for failure? Where does the company invest, and who does it invest in? There is no well defined answer to any of these, which means that these questions are constantly being fought over. The biggest threat to your income, reputation and livelihood is not the competition: it’s your colleagues.
Events are often beyond your control. At any time, you can be allocated a quota that is impossible to make; given a task that is beyond your capabilities; assigned to a project that is doomed to failure. Budgets can be cut yet deliverables remain unchanged. Markets can tank yet targets not be adjusted.
Psychologists who study animal behavior have noted that dogs subjected to electric shocks with no way to escape soon give up trying, even when an escape route is offered. This is called “Learned Helplessness”, and dogs in this condition act remarkably like depressed humans. If you are trapped and punished for events beyond your control then you are being put in a position where depression is a reasonable response.
Friendships can be tenuous. You spend at least 40 hours a week working, and sometimes as much as double that. You probably spend more time with your colleagues than with your spouse or romantic partner. And you form friendships at work. But these friendships are subject to stressors that are specific to work based friendships. The overarching needs of the company, and the power of that company over each individual, impacts these friendships. Boss-subordinate friendships can be destroyed by the company’s need for performance, or cost containment. Friendships among peers can be disrupted by promotions or transfers to other departments or countries. Political factions can develop which make friendships difficult. And competition for limited resources can result in conflict.
Intimacy is difficult. The more senior you become, the less possible it is for you to have intimate relationships within the firm. “It’s lonely at the top” is a cliche, but it’s true. It doesn’t just apply to the CEO though. Anyone in a position of authority over others knows that their status imposes distance. Talking about your worries or problems with subordinates is inappropriate; talking about them with a boss is dangerous to your career; talking about them with peers may be giving ammunition to potential rivals.
The cost of failure is high. Would anyone sympathize if you left your company with a generous severance package after years of earning a high salary? Wouldn’t they think instead that you’re lucky, and now you can just go sit on a beach for a year and ‘enjoy life’? Perhaps some people can go sit on a beach. But imagine what it would really feel like: Monday morning dawns and there are no emails. No one calls. You have no meetings scheduled. There’s no one to have lunch with. Although the severance package was generous, expenses over the years have risen to meet income, so there’s not as much financial cushion as you’d like. And good jobs, particularly at senior levels, don’t come up every day, so there might be a long period of unemployment. The longer you’re out of work, the more you worry how it will look on your resume, and the more you wonder if you’ll ever get a good job again. At the same time that your self-confidence is at a low ebb, there’s a need to be confident and go out to sell yourself. Friends are difficult to be around because they will ask ‘What happened?’ with the unspoken question ‘What did you do wrong?’ At parties, you struggle to answer the innocent question “So what do you do for a living?” Your worries make you a bit short tempered, and you may snap at your loved ones, leading you to feel even more isolated.
Corporations don’t usually try to create these stressors, and many of them go out of their way to create positive environments. But they are social organizations with goals of their own, and that, at times, inevitably conflicts with the needs of individuals.
(If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read "Promotions, Raises and Anxiety: Managing Work Stress By Managing Yourself")