What Work Does to Us All

Stressed, among many other awful things.

I’ve been thinking recently about the psychological effects that work has on us as people. I’ve surely emphasized the physical aspects time and time again in this blog, but I think focusing on some of the deeper issues that are less seen and thus less talked about could be fruitful as well.

For example, at my job I have a few co-workers who I think are funny, interesting and one of them has excellent taste in music (the other not so much). But unfortunately the job makes them constantly stressed out (despite being long time employees) and agitated so they treat me poorly when they feel like I’m not adequately keeping up.

One of my co-workers remarked that I’m slower than (paraphrasing from memory), “…a snail going up a hill of molasses in the middle of winter”. Obviously that kind of sentiment isn’t helpful as it just makes me feel more alone in my struggles at work while reinforcing the feeling that no one has my back, despite my (sometimes) best efforts.

And of course I understand that if my best isn’t enough and it’s affecting them in a rather obvious and direct way I can’t say I’m exactly surprised when they get mad at me. But it’s altogether an unhelpful idea to keep applying negative pressure on someone and expect that their level of expertise will somehow increase when all is said and done.

It’s not that negative reinforcement doesn’t do anything, for example my boss today threatened me with less hours if I didn’t get the coffee island exactly right the next time. Apparently I had forgotten to put out more cups even though he told me before and so he gave me a warning. Ironically, I didn’t do this out of disobedience but rather I did it because he speaks with a thick Lebanese accent that makes him hard to understand at times.

In addition, I have some anxiety about looking stupid (which gets me in trouble at work at times) so I sometimes decide to do things how I think someone else has said them. Because if I keep asking them then I’m obviously going to look dumb and thus people are going to think less of me, etc. But my boss wasn’t interested in any of that and I didn’t bother and despite disliking the negative reinforcement you bet I’m going to remember to refill the cups next time.

Part of that goes back to the poor incentive structure and power dynamics between my boss and I. This especially applies as a new employee where you’re treated differently (read: poorly) than the people who have been there longer. I talked about this in another one of my recent pieces, but seniority is often just another form of social capital.

People who have even been there a few years are trusted much more than me to get the job done, sometimes even if I make one mistake. Today, someone accused me of stealing because I mismanaged a really large order that they were placing at our store. The store is basically a  glorified McDonald’s but with a convenience store look and as such we have to balance hot food orders alongside so many other things.

And of course I have to deal with all of these things (like being told I’m terrible at math) and somehow stay calm and rational with everything that’s going on. I understand that the profession I’ve chosen (“chosen”) is a high stress job and I’m not saying any of this psychology or treatment surprises me but it still stresses me out and makes me feel poorly.

My broader point here is that work turns us into these stressed and fatigued things that can barely function outside of the workplace. I know that even after a five hour shift that I had today I didn’t want to write anything as soon as I came home. Thankfully I’ve had some time to recuperate and I have enough spare energy in me to write, plus it’s almost the end of the month and I know I haven’t posted as much as I wanted to.

Partly it’s because this month has been hard for me in general because work has contributed (partially) to me self-sabotaging at least one very important relationship. It’s a relationship I’m unlikely to go back and while I’m not blaming my workplace I’m saying that it certainly didn’t help that I was constantly at a high-stress situation on top of other preexisting negative contexts.

Instead of my normal semi-happy self I’ve been feeling less energetic, more depressed, more exhausted and overall unhappy with the way things are going. On the other hand, I have money and I’m going to be able to afford rent and I’m going to be able to do that without putting in more than 20 hours.

These are all great things that I don’t want to diminish but at the same time it becomes much harder to appreciate when the reason why that’s the case is because I work at a place I really dislike. It’s like when a phone call today at the store informed me that someone had somehow misplaces a few hundreds near the register and I immediately thought about being able to pay my rent through that money (it was long gone).

But then I instantly recoiled and thought about how I’d feel poisoned by this money. How all of the money I’d make from then on would feel like it was some sort of byproduct of the $200 I found and stole from the person. I wouldn’t be able to deal with the negative internalized feelings about it in the short term and certainly not in the long term.

A customer told me a few days ago while working that, “You look like you need to go home and get some rest.”

And all I could do was meekly thank him. What else could I say?

The behaviors and mannerisms I have about work clearly aren’t keeping anything a secret. One of my co-workers recently remarked that it’s “obvious I don’t give a shit” and went on to list things that actually had nothing to do with me not giving a shit. It was all misunderstandings, uncharitable reads on his point and things I simply didn’t get.

But when work gets inside your head, it’s often easier to just be uncharitable.

It’s too much work to do otherwise.


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5 thoughts on “What Work Does to Us All

  1. hey, thanks for writing.

    I was curious when I saw the headline “what work does to us all” thinking there wld be some research or insights here. I have analyzed toxic work cultures quite a bit, and done a lot of research into the psychology of work.

    You’ve got the wrong job, man.

    It seems like you’re confusing the whole nature of work itself with what it’s like to have a shitty job. Those are really different. Of course you’re not going to feel fulfilled or satisfied with life while working in a convenient store.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of work, it’s just that you can’t really support yourself as an independent adult on min wage in this country, many people will treat you like shit in that role, and in a capitalist culture like ours, work is tied closely to identity. Those things should change. They should be different. But they’re not going to change in our lifetime.

    So you have a choice… do you wanna keep complaining in a futile attempt to change the entire world, or do you want to do the real work of changing yourself? You can get a better job. It takes work.

    Good work can be really, really satisfying. Meaningful work can be an amazing thing. It doesn’t have to pay well. Some of the most meaningful work I’ve done was working with kids in nature, or on a farm, picking veg. It feels great to work in the rain and get your hands dirty. One week we planted 500 trees in the rain, and it was beautiful.

    Find out what makes you happy, and do that. That’s your work.

    • Hi, Aaron.

      I’ve been writing on this site for over 2 years now and sometimes I write more informal and personal blogs. Sometimes these blogs are just outlet for personal problems and experiences with work and sometimes they speak to broader societal problems with work.

      In this post I feel it’s obvious I’m speaking to my own personal experiences and not trying to dig through statistical data. As I’ve said I have done that in many other posts and am happy to share those posts with you if you like.

      Regardless, I am using my experiences in the jobs I have as *good examples* of the Work Culture we have in today’s society in action. I’m not saying that all jobs are the *same exact* thing as my job or that their as bad. I’m simply using my personal experiences to highlight problems that I think others in other professions may be able to relate to.

      If you don’t relate to it then all the better! I of course would prefer people *not* to relate to my horrible experience at work but my intuition is that many will.

      As for “complaining in a futile attempt to change the entire world”, I think you’re mistaken. I’m not trying to change the entire world. I write first and foremost for myself and second comes my audience and social change, etc. etc. If I change folks minds and get them to make their lives better, then great!

      But I’m an individualist anarchist and as such I’m most preoccupied with what makes me satisfied, and part of that is writing and especially about work.

      Now, seeing as you don’t really know me or my life I find it presumptuous on your part to think that I *don’t* do “the real work” of trying to change myself. I’ve been trying to apply to better jobs and make writing my main gig for a while now. But I don’t see how you would know any of that so I’m unsure why you presumed anything about it.

      Lastly, this is what makes me happy and I’m doing it right now. This is my “work” and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • On another note, I’d love to see your own writings on work or what you’ve learned through your studies.

        I’m sorry if you felt this article wasn’t insightful, but I think you had the wrong expectations going in. As I said this was a largely personal account but I’ve written many other articles more based on data.

    • I’m 44 years old and have worked my entire iife so far in various roles – I now work as a psychological therapist within the NHS and before that a Social Worker and various other roles – I have met thousands of people over the years and it seems clear to me from my own experience and that of others that the way jobs are currently structured makes them incredibly harmful to body mind and spirit, community, family, intelligence and the wider culture – you say ‘find out what makes you happy and do that’- many things make me happy but doing it for a job the way this activity is currently enforced in the culture would crush the happiness from it in no time at all – lets say I like to write songs, poetry or play music or yes try and help people feel a little better – now tell me I have to do these things most days of my life for decades on end with chronic deadening routines mass bureaucracy, targets, bullying and everything else associated with a job and those things would soon become hated or endured simply because I have bills to pay and consumer purchases to make.

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