Career : Working in America: Killing Ourselves at Work

A global expert on business and consciousness, John Renesch is a leading writer and thinker on matters of social transformation. He believes that commerce holds the key to bringing about a global shift of human consciousness thus creating a future of tremendous possibility for humankind

John has four decades of experience as a business owner and entrepreneur. John is now a business futurist, writer and keynote speaker on topics that integrate the subjects of business, human consciousness and possible scenarios for the future of humanity. He is the co-creator and host for The Presidio Dialogues a monthly series of evening gatherings in San Francisco which are focused on conscious business. He offers a variety of services as a private mentor, a consultant to consultants, and professional advisor (see Services). His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing (see Better Future).

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Why is it that so many people living in the richest country in the world are working at jobs that are killing them ? Why is it that a society that enjoys so much abundance finds it necessary to sacrifice its health in the process ?

This is not a diatribe about working hard. There is nothing unhealthy or wrong with hard work. It is the nature of the relationship between people and their work, and the resultant stress it produces, that is killing them. Here are some sobering statistics courtesy of a forthcoming book, Personal Power, by Ann Roulac.

A leading source of unease for many American adults is job stress. A vast body of evidence indicates that the stress levels of workers are rising dramatically no matter where on the chain of command they find themselves. A 2000 Integra Survey reported that :-

  • 65 percent of workers said that stress at work has caused them difficulties
  • Most heart attacks occur when people are just thinking about going to work ! Even if our minds are not aware of the stress we are under at work our bodies are, and they often vote most definitively
  • One of the key elements of our humanness, our ability to feel emotion, is routinely suppressed in most work environments. So, emotional repression seems to go hand-in-hand with working in the modern world
  • Most people feel they need to compromise some aspect of their values at work, turning the other way when certain practices are undertaken, pretending they didn’t hear something that offends their consciences, or even partaking in some form of underhandedness

This behavior co-opts people’s consciences and adds more stress. The evidence is pretty overwhelming: many Americans are slowly and methodically killing themselves by overstressing their bodies, compromising their emotions, fooling themselves mentally and denying their spirits. This four-way attack on one’s essential “beingness” is bound to eventually do us in. A coroner might attribute the cause of death to something physical because that’s what coroners look for. But we know that all these parts of ourselves interrelate and work together.

Unless someone has been living in a cave the past few decades, they know that good health relies on “team play” among the body, mind and emotional body. There is growing evidence that the spiritual dimension is also essential to our overall well-being. Hundreds of recent books about meaning, purpose and social contribution are feeding a yearning for these values. The Hungry Spirit by the renowned UK management guru Charles Handy is one of hundreds if not thousands of books on these subjects.

Humans have different needs than animals. The emotional and spiritual dimensions are uniquely human and denying either or both of these aspects is denying who and what we are. I love consultant/author Sally Helgesen’s word for the kind of work we have created for ourselves in this increasingly rapid and stress-filled world, “Frankenwork”.

So why do so many of us deny our essential beingness ? Why are we committing this form of “spiritual suicide” when we live in “the land of plenty”. Supposedly we live in a nation where we enjoy the greatest freedom, the most material wealth, and the highest standard of living. But how are we measuring these? How free do we feel, really ? At what cost are we wealthy and how do we define wealth? Whose standard is being used to evaluate the quality of our lives?

During a recent speech I asked the audience how many people felt more freedom than they did five years ago. Only four or five hands went up! While America might be called the “land of the free” there are more and more people reporting a growing sense of restriction in their lives, largely around huge debt loads and pressures to keep up with their costs of living in such a seemingly free society.

While we may show up in the statistics as having the highest gross national product, many Americans are feeling “wealth-weary”, exhausted from their efforts to pursue big earnings and accumulate assets. I recall a young MBA student telling a group of us that he thought once he landed a well-paying job after graduation, he could endure all the hardships for ten or so years until he could quit and do what he really wanted to do. He was looking at work as a thing to be endured, as a means to an end, not a source of satisfaction in itself.

In a private conversation with a mentoring client making a transition from being a corporate executive to starting his own consulting practice, I asked him what kind of clients would bring him the most joy. He found the idea of having work and joy in the same sentence nearly unfathomable. He had never experienced work as anything but something to be endured for the money, not anything to be really enjoyed. The best he ever hoped for was that his work would be “interesting.”

Remember the parable of the boiled frog ? Drop a frog into a pan of hot water and it will almost certainly leap from the pan sensing the danger immediately. However, place the fog in a pan of tepid water and raise the temperature slowly and the frog gradually grows sleepy, then dozes off and finally is boiled to death.

In many ways, this is what is happening to the “industrialized human”. Over the decades we have little-by-little grown used to working like the machinery we interact with. Much of our work is “Frankenwork” – a monster of our own creation but better suited for machines than for flesh and blood human beings.

Many of those who sense something amiss are bailing out, leaving the corporate world and becoming self-employed. Some bail out in less conscious ways, such as over-stressing themselves and dying or contracting various diseases. The vast majority, however, remain in the pan fearing for their jobs, trying to endure the heat a little longer hoping for some kind of miracle.

There’s a big difference in this parable, however: people aren’t frogs ! People possess consciousness and this allows for conscious choosing. It starts with telling ourselves the truth about the conditions we are enduring. Without realizing it, many people have become numbed to their conditions much like the addict who's sensibilities are distorted. They suffer from denial, just like someone using drugs to numb themselves from the truth. The proven cure for addiction begins with telling the truth, facing the reality that one has avoided or anesthetized for so long. This is the first step in “humanizing” our work, creating work that not only stops killing us but actually gives us nourishment and a source of pleasure and joy !

When a group of people take a stand together and start demanding work that is enlivening instead of “deadening,” that is nourishing instead of draining people’s life force, our workplaces will start to change. Organizations are nothing more than people and the rules they have made up. People made the rules and people can change them.

The Swedish word for business is “narings liv” which translates to nourishment and life. Many other countries see work this way. Other cultures see Americans as ridiculously overworked and myopically focused on material success – even at the cost of their health.

Some of us know what it means to find joyous work, endeavor that feeds our souls and brings us an enormous sense of contribution and purposefulness. It is possible, a fact that many people deny because they might have to do something about it if they told themselves the truth.

Once a person “fesses up” that they do have a choice, then they face the menu of possibilities. Some choose to step out of the system, treating it somewhat like a “toxic dump” of a different sort. Some choose to stay in the system but, now that they acknowledge the toxicity, they protect themselves through various means so they are supported and nurtured in bringing about change from the inside. Some choose to leave their immediate environment ( their employer ) but remain in the wings as consultants working to bring about change from that position.

There is choice. There are alternatives. This is where the truth-telling begins. Remember the parable of the frog. All one has to do is jump out of the pan of denial and begin taking a stand !

© Copyright John Renesch 2004

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