Workplace Overachieving & Martyrdom: Time for a Job or Career Change?

Many people spend each day in workplaces with heightened levels of uncertainty. They wonder if they’ll still have their job in another month. This can create major work-life balance challenges. Could a job or career change be in order?

When discussing the pitfalls of competition, I sometimes mention the economic concept of a “nuclear arms race.” This term was often applied to the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the cold war, in which each country would consistently try to outdo the other country with its total number of missiles. Each time the U.S. would get ahead by 10 missiles, the Soviet Union would then feel the pressure to build 20 more. Then the U.S. would add still more to get ahead. On and on the process could go, costing each nation exponential sums of money.

It’s similar to the “keeping up with the Joneses” concept, where one neighbor builds a new deck on the back of their house, and the other adds a deck AND a new pool to “one up” them out of insecurity. Then the first neighbor installs an even larger pool with a hot tub, and so on.

The same thing can happen in the workplace, especially during tough economic recessions when jobs may be at risk. You come into work on Monday morning, and discover that on Friday afternoon three of your co-workers with positions similar to yours were laid off. On one hand, you feel happy that it wasn’t you. On the other hand, you feel guilty that it wasn’t you. Mike was a good friend, and Trisha always worked so hard – why did they get the axe?

As you talk with your remaining co-workers at the water cooler, you express gratitude that they’re still with you, because you also feel a bond with them. However, deep inside you can’t help but wonder:

Will one of us be next? And if so, how will it be decided?

Will the bosses look at how many hours I’m working?

Will they compare my productivity on X, Y, or Z with that of my co-workers?

Should I play racquetball with Cynthia more often, because she gets along with the supervisor?

Whether you want to or not, you secretly begin to compete with your co-workers.

Soon, your 8-hour days become 9-hour days. And then you find out that Mike is also coming in every other Saturday to get a little more done. You learn that a coworker sometimes sleeps in their cubicle, just so they can put in a few more hours per week.

So you start working on Sundays, even though you used to dedicate it to your favorite hobbies. You start playing racquetball with Cynthia – even though you don’t enjoy racquetball, and you have little in common with Cynthia.

Work is no longer fun for you, your life is out of balance, and you’re unable to relate to many of your co-workers authentically.

Is all your extra work worth it? The truth is, it can be difficult to anticipate managers’ decision-making processes in cases like mass layoffs. I learned this during my first non-temporary job after college. Less than six months after I started, an organization of just over 100 began to terminate nearly half of its employees. It was a very stressful process, including some of the dynamics above.

After a several weeks of witnessing a number of difficult-to-explain terminations, overhearing a few heated verbal altercations from managers’ offices, and trying to keep my growing paranoia in check, I was called into the HR office and told that “my services were no longer needed.” The two people present asked me to return to my desk, collect my belongings, say any goodbyes, and look for my final paycheck in the mail.

When I asked if there were any performance-related reasons for my sudden dismissal, one of the HR officers simply repeated that “the organization no longer needed my services.” Their expressions indicated that this was clearly not a fun time for them either.

I had worked hard, gotten along with my co-workers very well, and received praise from my immediate supervisors. I had survived a labor-intensive hiring process, including a “panel style” interview with several people questioning me at once. What could I have done differently? As I said goodbye to my team members, they seemed just as baffled as I was. It was very traumatic, to say the least.

Fortunately, I found another job in less than two weeks, doing very similar work with another organization. The environment was much more enjoyable, and I stayed with them for a few years.

I eventually discovered that a dispute had occurred between the director of my former organization and a major funding source. This resulted in the termination of a very large contract. The fallout was so severe that the director himself was soon fired for alleged misuse of funding. The organization quickly underwent major restructuring and many additional layoffs. Thus, there probably wasn’t much I could have done differently.

Fortunately, occurrences like this are more the exception than the norm. However, unpredictable workplace dynamics during tough times can often leave us feeling very insecure, operating from a place of fear and competition.

I’ve recently seen several newspaper and internet articles on “how to keep your job during tough times,” often with a focus on how to look better than your co-workers, and often at the cost of work-life balance. Yes, there are many things that are within our control, but we need to learn where to draw the line.

If you find yourself in an unpredictable job or career situation, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Roughly what percentage of the time are you currently happy in your present job? How does this compare to the percentage of time you were happy before a “climate of uncertainty” set in?
  • If you were previously much happier, what do you miss about the old version of your current job? Consider your work environment, relationships with co-workers, work schedule, and nature and duration of tasks.
  • What steps can you take to bring back some of the biggest things you miss about the “old version” of your present job?
  • What proportion of your co-workers seem to stretch work-life balance boundaries far beyond your own comfort levels? For example, do most of your co-workers now work 11-hour days when you feel stressed working more than 8? If the majority of your colleagues do this, then things could be beyond your control, and you may burn yourself out if you try to keep up for too long. If only a few are doing this, there may be hope.
  • Does the current climate present any opportunities in your workplace that you may have overlooked? For example, is there a type of task or project you’ve always wanted to work on, that’s now in dire need of someone to keep it afloat?
  • If you feel that you were never happy in your job to begin with, can’t get the “old version” of your job back, or are having difficulty seeing any opportunities, then try to imagine that you have lost your job. What new opportunities are suddenly available? Which of them excite you the most? What do you regret about leaving your current job behind?
  • How might a job change positively and negatively impact the various areas of your life, per the life wheel? Consider how your life may look not only three months from now, but three years from now. Compare staying in your current job versus making a job or career shift. Is short-term pain more likely to yield longer-term gain for either option?
  • Do you feel that you are currently driven more by what you wish to create in your life, or by insecurity and fear?

True, financial limitations can create great strains, and finding new opportunities during economic recessions may require more creativity and effort. However, stress and unhappiness can also take major tolls on physical, mental, and emotional health. Is your current paycheck worth the cost?

Photo by Flick user Rich Moffitt. Size, brightness, and contrast adjusted. License.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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