Strategies for the Chronically Overworked
Q: Dr. Greg, I recently read your book, Busting Your Corporate Idol: How to Reconnect with Values & Regain Control of Your Life. I was impressed with how well you described the dysfunction behind the “company-first” identity, which so many corporations adhere to. Please share more about this, what you mean by corporate idolatry, and what people who work in these environments should be aware of.
A: In many companies, you are expected to be on call 24/7. This includes checking email and taking phone calls on vacation. In effect, people are asked to make the company a higher priority than whatever else is going on in their lives.
People who conform to the always-on-call culture begin to internalize these company-first values, which results in a personal identity that becomes too tied up with the company. I call this end state, when people have made the company the most important thing in their lives, corporate idolatry.
Once someone has gone down the corporate idolatry road, more and more of their time and energy will go to the company. This is very dangerous for the individual because rationalizations will start to reinforce behaviors that work against one’s own health and can damage relationships with the people we care most about.
Q: What happened in your own work experience to prompt you to write Busting Your Corporate Idol?
A: There was a time when I was working 90 hours a week. I chased the illusion that work could validate me, which led me to work longer and longer hours. I loved what I did, and was a true believer in the company mission to revolutionize health care. After my product flopped in the market and enraged customers, I felt like I had let the company down, and I started to feel worthless.
That changed on Yom Kippur almost seven years ago. Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement, when we reflect on the previous year, try to figure out where we’ve “sinned” and how to do better next year. For some reason I started to think about the sin of idolatry.
As I started to dismiss idolatry as that ancient “statue worshipping thing” — something not relevant in the modern world — this phrase popped into my head: “You need to do what is best for the company.”
At work, we used that phrase all the time to justify an unpopular decision, like a layoff or pushing a product out the door that wasn’t ready, knowing customers would be mad. Doing what is best for the company is not the same as doing what is best. I realized that I had made my company an idol, and I decided to start putting people first.
One year later, I was working one-third fewer hours without changing jobs, and my career was flourishing.
Q: In Part 2 of the book, you have a section about what kind of personality types to watch out for and the best way to work with them. You list them as: Scorpion, Fox, and Wolf. Please describe what motivates these types, their strengths and weaknesses, and suggestions for how to deal with them.
A: As I interviewed people for the book, I kept hearing stories that had the same three characters: The flatterer, the zealot, and the person who gets screwed over after doing the right thing. If I knew how to identify these people when I was in the corporate world, I would have avoided a lot of difficulty.
Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram classifications don’t correlate with these character types. I created a new system, inspired by fables and parables.
The Scorpion, named from the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, is a zealot who steamrollers people in pursuit of his or her vision, even when it is self-defeating to do so. Your happiness and needs are not on a Scorpion’s radar. Sooner or later you will be stung.
The Fox, named for the fable of the Fox and the Crow, puts him- or herself first and manipulates others to get ahead. A Fox will take credit for your success, and blame you for their failure. The Fox doesn’t actually know anything, and if put in a position where they need to do and not just talk, their ineptitude quickly becomes apparent.
The Wolf, named from the parable of the Fox and the Wolf, is a pack animal that considers the welfare of others when making a decision. Wolves are powerful and effective. But they are too trusting, easy prey for a Fox looking to get ahead or a Scorpion looking for cannon fodder.
If you know the animal character of your boss and coworkers, you will know who to trust in what circumstances.
Q: Tell us what you mean by “people-first” values and why this value system is so critically important for overall mental health.
A: People-first values is the opposite of a company-first value system. In all circumstances, we do what is best for people, including ourselves. Values drive our priorities, which in turn lead to the decisions and actions we make in everyday life. By changing our values from company-first to people-first, we set off a cascade of small changes that add up to a much more fulfilling life. Putting people first means shifting time from work to people.
One of the best ways to be happy is to spend time with the people we care about. Chronic overwork brings a high risk for depression and stress-related illness.
Q: You talk about the reality of office politics and how people can actually engage in them in a positive way. Please give some pointers on why and how people can benefit from participating in them.
A: Politics are a reality in the workplace. If you choose not to participate, you are ceding your power to others. Playing politics can be as simple as getting to know more people and looking for ways to help them. Playing politics will give you a power base to defend yourself from the unscrupulous. An easy way to get started is to have lunch with people from other departments.
Q: Lastly, please add anything else that you would like readers to take away after reading the book, and where they may purchase it.
A: Putting people first is a virtuous cycle. As you start to work fewer hours, you will get more sleep and begin to feel better, which will encourage you to work even fewer hours. At work, more rest and less stress means better decisions, and fewer mistakes.
Busting Your Corporate Idol is available on Amazon and can be ordered by any bookstore.
Shawn, T. (2014). Strategies for the Chronically Overworked. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/04/22/strategies-for-the-chronically-overworked/