Soudeh under Serum. (c) 2006 Hamed Saber. Via flickr. (CC BY 3.0)

Working Where You Don’t Fit Can Make You Sick

E. Forrest Christian Careers, Coaching, Underachievers Leave a Comment

Let’s return to something Mary wrote in a comment about my post, “Knowing Who You Are Can Get You Out of Underachievement“:

When I read “Underachievers, Are You Simply Out of Flow” and then Andrew Olivier’s “Our Working Journey and Stress”, I could hardly believe my eyes. I diagnosed myself immediately.

I have been on 2 sick leaves, the last one for 7 months because of depression. Even though I had stopped eating and sleeping I seriously didn’t care because I had all that extra time (that would have been spent sleeping and eating) to pursue my art-related hobbies. All day and all night. I was so happy! ( And skinny).

I mean, duh, I knew that my jobs were not very fitting, but I didn’t know that they could make me that sick. I thought I was sick mostly because my boss was mean and I was freakishly sensitive.

I’ve already talked about how sometimes (but not always!) that “evil” boss is as much a victim of an evil work system as are you. But let’s address why working where you don’t fit can make you sick.

As Andrew Olivier pointed out in his article, “Our Working Journey and Stress: A different Perspective“, working at a position that is far from where you fit can lead to real, debilitating depression. This comes from the high stress that working in a job that’s way too small can cause.

This isn’t just stress: it’s chronic stress, stress that you face everyday in your workplace. One of the reasons is just the amount of energy it takes for you to be in the job. Simply being in the role takes you more energy than it does others. This is counter-intuitive because we think that if we are overpowering a job, we should be having an easier time of it.

But it’s like my earlier example of working the crawlspace behind my attic kneewall. You have to spend the entire day not just hunched over but crabwalking, squatting down. It really is tiring just to be in the space because everything takes more effort to do. Working far below your capability (even potential capability) creates this stressful situation.

I’m not talking about someone who works a level below his ability because he’s got other things in his life to spend the energy of his psyche on. Parents of young children (but especially mothers), people who lead in their religious or ethnic community, those taking care of severely disabled or demented relatives (such as Alzheimer’s victims), folks going to college for a degree — you can think of a thousand scenarios where you don’t want work to take up your full mental capacity. You need your psychic energy for something else.

In IT, we used to call this “slumming”: taking a job well beneath what you could do, mostly because the last start-up burnt you out. But it could be for a variety of reasons. Everyone knows that you have more horsepower than the job requires, but you do a satisfactory job and no on has any complaints.

This breaks down where the “results” have to do with billable hours. In my old consulting company, the quality of your work was judged solely by the number of hours that you billed and sold. No matter how you overpowered your role, you still needed to work 50+ billable hours per week. Attorneys and doctors have a similar problem.

So in many jobs, you can work below your capability and use that excess for something else.

J made these points in an comment about my 2004 post on the underemployment of high-potentials:

Open your mind and know that work is not the only place you can reach your potential. Work can just pay the bills while you do your achieving elsewhere…. You overlook the obvious. . . . THERE ARE OTHER OUTLETS.

[second ellipsis his]

And there are a multitude of outlets other than work that can make work not matter. The problem is that you need to be working at the low-end of the lowest real work level. That means work where your discretion may be a week but is usually a day. Work like janitorial, painting houses,

If you are working at a higher level, say high level 1 — say a 9-month time horizon — but are capable to do work that is two levels above that — such as at a time horizon of 4 years — work will start crushing your soul.

You don’t need a “more creative outlet”. You need work that fits, and that happens to be where your creativity can be expressed.

Even in accounting.

Working at such a mishmash can lead to real psychological anxiety. Your psyche is hunched over all the time. Chronic under work, being hunched over for years, can lead to some nasty depression.

And worse. There’s a reason why newspapermen who were such bright young stars become broken drunkards who commit suicide at 45.

Ian Macdonald of MAC Consultancy in London tells that when he worked with New Zealand Aluminium Smelter, getting people work that fit all through the company, social services reported a concurrent drop in domestic violence reports. A 30% drop. People stressed at work weren’t coming home and kicking just the dog.

We spend billions of dollars each year in North America trying to fix people’s stress levels at work, sending ourselves to psychotherapy to learn coping skills, offsite retreats where we howl at the moon. Why not teach people how to get work that fits and help them find it? We gain productivity as they do work where they can really shine, we save on all the medical bills we spend on sick days, and can even see a pretty big reduction in other antisocial behaviour.

Why teach people to endure suffering when we can simply remove the suffering? It’s like telling miners that it’s their fault that they die in a cave-in rather than the responsibility of the management who should be properly supporting the walls.

Because you are the killer app, my friend.

Anyone else able to look back and see a time where work was making them sick?

Image Credit: Soudeh under Serum. © 2006 Hamed Saber. (CC BY 3.0)

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his “unique ability and insight” by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina’s Mount Baker.  [contact]

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