Week after week, psychologist Ilene Philipson listened to her patient, convinced that the woman was hiding something. This young person had come to Philipson because she was deeply depressed, suffering from anxiety attacks and uncontrollable crying bouts. Philipson kept waiting for her patient to reveal some horrible trauma that had plunged her into crisis, but all she talked about — between sobs — was her work.
The story she told was unremarkable, a rather typical tale of bad management: As an administrative manager at a small investment company, she had been lavished with praise and perks — until, that is, she asked for a raise. Then her bosses turned against her. She wept as she told Philipson how she had been stripped of her privileges, how she no longer received invitations to client dinners, how she was no longer trusted to do million-dollar trades for clients. “She was reacting as if she were facing some catastrophe,” Philipson says.
This doesn’t make sense, she thought to herself. Her patient had no previous psychiatric history. She had successfully coped with many other stresses in her life, including being a child of an alcoholic parent. Why would an otherwise well-adjusted person fall apart because she was no longer favored at work?
Then Philipson began to notice a curious pattern. Four other new patients came to her who were also profoundly depressed about work. Like the first woman, these hard-working, loyal employees had weathered many other crises in their lives. Yet being demoted or passed over for a promotion, or just having an unsympathetic supervisor had devastated them. Utterly at a loss to understand her clients’ despair, she decided to start a therapy group for them. “They clearly weren’t getting better,” says Philipson, 49, a psychologist at Pathmakers Inc., a group practice with roughly 35 clinicians in 12 northern California offices. “I figured that if I brought them together, maybe they could help one another.”
In February 1993, Philipson posted a sign in her office and sent flyers to other Pathmakers facilities and nearby offices, announcing a therapy group for those “unable to work because of problems with supervisors or coworkers.” She was quickly besieged with new patients — and found herself in the middle of a phenomenon that she believes is a disturbing by-product of the new economy: people betrayed by their work.
It’s one of the defining axioms of the new world of business: Work is personal. These days, more people have higher expectations for work than ever before. People want to bring their whole selves to the job — all of their skills, all of their interests, all of their values. But even in an era of heightened expectations, warns Philipson, it’s possible to expect too much. For the women in her therapy groups — so far, there have been about 150, all told — work has turned into their sole passion. Whether they are single or married with children (about 40% of them have spouses or live-in partners), work has become their primary source of self-esteem, recognition, respect — their only path to interconnectedness.
“What they have done,” Philipson explains, “is to transfer all of their unmet emotional needs to the workplace.” But “work is not a meritocracy. Your boss is not your friend. Your colleagues are not your family. Workplaces are intensely political environments. If you bring your heart and soul there, you’re likely setting yourself up for feeling betrayed.”
Dismissing Philipson’s patients as weak and insecure may be easy; hearing them cry indignantly about the vice president who took away their parking spot and their title might make you want to scream, “Get over it, already!” But Philipson argues that her patients are merely at the extreme end of the same continuum that most of us are on, a continuum that marks our culture’s increasing infatuation with work: “These people are in the same boat with all of the rest of us who work longer hours, take fewer vacations, and wake up and go to sleep thinking about work.”
As family, community, and religious ties have broken down, Philipson observes, life outside work has become increasingly empty. Meanwhile, workplaces have become more appealing, with teams replacing rigid hierarchies, casual dress supplanting corporate power suits, and employers offering rank-and-file workers previously unimaginable opportunities to make an impact. As a result, continues Philipson, more of us are looking to our jobs to satisfy basic emotional needs that, in another era, would have been met by family, religion, and community life.
Don’t misunderstand the argument. Philipson is not suggesting that it is unhealthy for a job to make you feel valued and part of a community. The problem occurs when “work is the only place where those needs are met. Your identity shouldn’t depend on one relationship. You need many anchors for affirmation.”
Philipson frequently compares her patients to the typical housewife of the 1950s whose existence centered on her husband — and who then was devastated when her husband left her for another woman. “If 100% of your identity is rooted in work, and work turns on you, what are you left with?” she asks. “My patients often say, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore.’ ” One woman told her simply, “Work was my life. So when I left my job, I felt that my life was over.”
Philipson’s patients are all ordinary women with ordinary jobs: They’re police officers, bankers, journalists, office managers, and secretaries. Her caseload largely reflects the HMO and managed-care plans that her office accepts as third-party payers and the fact that women are more likely to seek therapy than men are. But her patients aren’t IPO millionaires or Fortune 500 CEOs, she says, which shows just how pervasive this phenomenon is. “You might expect CEOs to make their work their lives; they have status, power, and money. But a lot of my patients are in pink-collar jobs. You might think that for them, a job would be just a job. And yet the loss they’ve experienced feels just as great to them.”
Philipson’s patients are not the only people who feel that way. According to a recent study by professors Donald Gibson and Sigal Barsade of the Yale School of Management, becoming emotionally dependent on work is a remarkably common, if hidden, phenomenon. In a telephone survey of 1,000 working men and women, 24% — nearly one out of four — were “chronically” angry at work, report Gibson and Barsade. The most common reason for their anger, they found, was that they sensed that their employers “violated basic promises” and didn’t fulfill “the expected psychological contract with their workers.” But the problem remains mostly “underground,” the authors say, because people tend not to express their anger openly. Instead, they simply lose interest in their work and become lethargic and uncooperative.
Benjamin Hunnicutt, an historian and professor at the University of Iowa at Iowa City who specializes in the history of work, worries that work is fast replacing religion in providing meaning in people’s lives. “Work has become how we define ourselves,” he says. “It is now answering the traditional religious questions: Who am I? How do I find meaning and purpose? Work is no longer just about economics; it’s about identity.”
Of course, that’s exactly what makes the new world of work so inspiring. It’s also what makes it so treacherous. How do you give your all to work, without making it become the center of your existence? How much is too much to expect from your job? In an age when work is undeniably personal, how do you know when you are taking your work too personally?
To provide some insight into that dilemma, Philipson invited some of her current and former patients to share their stories with Fast Company. Sitting in a circle in Philipson’s sparsely decorated office on a cool evening in May, the women quickly lose their self-consciousness, and the gathering begins to sound like any other group session, except this time it runs for more than three hours.
Though they have told their stories many times before, each woman recounts her betrayals in obsessive detail — quoting dates and conversations verbatim — stopping only when Philipson gently moves the discussion to the next woman. Usually, Philipson tightly controls the structure of her sessions, trying to limit each group member to just two minutes to tell her story to a newcomer. “There is often a propensity among many of them to go on and on,” she explains later. Having had their pain belittled by friends, family, colleagues, and even some doctors, these women crave assurance that this wasn’t their fault, that what they’re feeling is real.
Consider these stories from Philipson’s patients, then, as a series of cautionary tales. Having stepped over the line between what they do and who they are, these women are learning to pull themselves back — and where to draw the line in the future.
We Are (Not) Family
A small tear is forming in Yolanda Perry-Pastor’s eye as the 34-year-old tells how the company she loved drove her to physical and mental collapse. A high-school graduate and mother of three who worked her way up to customer-service manager at one of California’s largest corporate plant and shrubbery suppliers, Perry-Pastor loved her work for six years, until the layoffs began and her work life began to unravel.
It all started when the staff in Perry-Pastor’s office was cut from 13 to 4, forcing her to take on personnel, payroll, and accounting responsibilities. Soon she felt overwhelmed. Emails weren’t being answered; mistakes were being made. “I kept asking for help,” she says. “But my boss just said, ‘Hang in there. We’re all working hard.'”
Finally, Perry-Pastor — her heart palpitating — drove herself to the doctor, afraid that she was having a heart attack. Her doctor immediately prescribed an antidepressant and ordered her to take a medical leave. But Perry-Pastor was lured back to work three weeks later, when colleagues called, saying, “We need you. When are you going to get your butt off Prozac and come back?”
Shortly after her return, she realized that she’d made a mistake. “Nothing had changed,” she says. She hasn’t been back to work since January, but even after several months, the experience is still difficult for her to talk about.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life. My husband had been abusive to me, and then he ended up dying in a car crash,” leaving her with two young children, now nine and four. “But that,” she says, her eyes welling up with tears, “that was nothing compared to this.”
The five other women in Philipson’s office nod in agreement. Like Perry-Pastor, the mistreatment most of them have received is relatively mild, but they have had panic attacks, insomnia, chronic nightmares — and even entertained thoughts of suicide. Months after leaving their jobs, many still can’t go past their old offices without having flashbacks or hyperventilating. Philipson says that some of her patients are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe psychological syndrome normally associated with war, rape, and other traumas in which there has been a threat of death.
After her bosses turned against her, Janel Schulenberg, 41, an administrative manager who had worked at an investment firm, became a virtual recluse for a year, locking herself in her room and fantasizing about killing herself in front of her employers. (“So, for the rest of their lives, they’d have to live with the pain they caused me,” she says.) “People don’t understand,” Schulenberg says. “They say, ‘Just get another job. What’s the big deal?’ But I loved my job. I didn’t want any other job.”
Today, most of the women in Philipson’s office seem angry. They rail against their employers, who promised them a “family, but treated them like dirt,” and they rail against themselves for not seeing through the sloganeering. Katherine Sanchez, 43, a former office manager at an elevator manufacturer, talks about how her employer would play Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” at corporate functions. She remembers how “jazzed” she was after attending one of the parent company’s management meetings: “They had lots of plans for the company to grow.”
A divorced mother of two teenage daughters, Sanchez considered herself part of her boss’s extended family and looked forward to organizing the yearly office Christmas party — until some of her office mates began bad-mouthing her, and she was stripped of her title. (She was never given a new title.) “We were a team, a family,” she says, sarcastically. “Yeah, right.” Now she runs her own secretarial- services and transcription business. “I’m orphaned, and that’s okay with me,” she says. “I hope I never work in corporate America again.”
Many of these women had enjoyed success in their jobs and had become true believers in the system, going so far as to evangelize for their company — despite signs that management was less than sincere about its rhetoric. While working at a large bank in California from 1985 to 1996, a 50-year-old African-American banker, for instance, had been promoted five times, finally working as vice president and manager of a branch that had nearly $200 million in deposits. While the bank was systematically laying off staffers, forcing the survivors to take on increasingly larger workloads, it played Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude” before meetings. “I bought into it — hook, line, and sinker,” the banker, who requested anonymity, says.
In the face of the layoffs, she tried to boost her 25-member staff’s morale by hanging “We Are a Team” banners throughout the office and giving out T-shirts that read, “We are an American family.” “I really did think of the people at work as part of my family,” she recalls.
And so, when there was an opening to run a larger branch in a wealthier, predominantly white area, she was stunned when her boss of five years refused to consider her for the promotion. “You wouldn’t fit in,” he told her. After her boss chose his (white) golfing pal, whose job ratings, she knew, weren’t as good as hers, and when her boss began nitpicking her performance, she decided to file an official complaint with the bank. She was devastated when none of the bank’s top brass, including a “friend” in the human-resources department, supported her. “I thought that if I went through channels, we could resolve this amicably,” says the banker, who subsequently sued, alleging discrimination. “I was hurt. They knew me. It felt personal. How could they do this to me?”
Her expectations may sound naive, but, as a result of court-ordered desegregation in the 1960s, she had been among the first of four African-American students to attend an all-white high school in the South, where she coped with vicious racial epithets and cold stares. And she had other jobs where she believed management was racist.
So why did her experience at the bank destroy her emotionally? After all she’d been through in her past, why had this particular situation given her anxiety and choking attacks?
Like so many of Philipson’s patients, she had been seduced by the new-economy workplace — the after-work beer parties, the upbeat slogans, the team-building exercises, all of which made work feel like lots of fun and helped lull her into a false sense of security. “When you’re calling the CEO by his first name, and he’s hanging out, dressed just like you, it’s a lot easier for you to lose sight of the power dynamics,” says Philipson, adding that the average age of her patients is 42.
Other therapists have also been seeing patients who have lost themselves in work. “The workplace has become their community center — where they work out, get a massage, go to parties,” says Maynard Brusman, 52, a consulting psychologist in San Francisco. “They come to me anxious, and they don’t know why. They’ve become caught up in the culture. The question is, Is that healthy? From what I’ve seen, it isn’t.”
Take Karin Hanson, for instance: She had watched her own sister, Janel Schulenberg, fall apart because she got too close to work. Yet Hanson, 47, became so enamored with the culture at Microsoft that a few years later, she too found herself feeling depressed, angry, and betrayed. Hanson, a program manager in developer relations, spent her first five years at Microsoft blissfully happy, working with a team leader who knew how to motivate her and make her feel that she was appreciated. She talks fondly of the team lunches, going bowling, and weekly feedback sessions. She admired Bill Gates, whom she met at various Microsoft functions, and was proud of her work with Bay Area startups.
Her job got her through an ugly divorce that included going to court eight times. “Microsoft made me feel like a genuine contributor,” says Hanson, a mother of three. “When you have that, you can handle almost anything.”
But when her team leader left Microsoft, she found herself with a boss who spent most of his time surfing the Web for pornography, and then with another boss who didn’t take her seriously and who eventually demoted her, claiming it was “an adjustment,” not a demotion. “I felt like I was worth less than zero,” Hanson recalls.
Depressed and unable to concentrate, she began seeing a therapist, started taking antidepressants, and she took a three-month medical leave from Microsoft in 1998. Soon after she returned, she quit. Now she is a consultant to ZD Studios, an event-management company, and she vows never to work on staff at another company again. “Microsoft hurt me,” she says. “I gave that company a lot. I won’t do that again.”
Philipson has heard such stories many times over, and she believes that they point to yet another characteristic of those who are at risk of feeling betrayed by work: These people do not have full personal lives that provide the sense of purpose, identity, and community that we all need. As alluring as the new world of work can be, she says, you will not overly invest yourself in it if you feel appreciated and connected in your personal life.
None of Philipson’s patients talk very much about interacting with neighbors, regularly planning get-togethers with friends, or participating in group activities, such as serving as volunteers. Few are active in religious organizations. Many literally do not know what to do with themselves outside work — even when they have families. (In fact, 44% of her patients have children under the age of 18.) “It’s not that they are workaholics who are addicted to work,” says Philipson. “It’s that they are addicted to the praise they get at work.”
When Perry-Pastor, for example, began working at the nursery in 1989, she threw herself into her work to escape a bad marriage. Working 12-hour days, she would even bring her infant daughter into her office so that she could work into the night while her daughter slept. Like most of Philipson’s patients, she was good at her job and began to crave the accolades she received there. “It felt good to feel needed,” she says. “People would say, Give it to Yolanda, she can do it.’ And I’d say, ‘Yes I can!’ “
So when her husband died in 1995, her long hours continued — despite now being the single mother of two little children. As she was promoted and the company went through downsizing, she began working every Saturday and, during the busy seasons, Sundays as well — her children in tow.
It is painful for Perry-Pastor, now remarried and with a new baby, to talk about how little of herself she gave to her children back then. “They were never allowed to be sick,” she says. “If they were ill and couldn’t go to school, I’d run out for medicine and bring them to a backup baby-sitter.” she remembers. When her eldest child had trouble learning to read, she hired a tutor rather than spend time reading with her. At least five times in two years, she says, she chose to cancel vacations — sometimes the day before her family was supposed to leave — because of an “emergency” at work. “We had airplane tickets, hotel reservations, everything,” she says. Usually, she would pay another mother to take both her own and the other mother’s children to a local amusement park. “I would pay for baby-sitters, lessons, tutors, whatever they needed,” she says. “I thought they were taken care of, and the people at work needed me.”
A few years ago, Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist and author of “The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work” (New York Metropolitan Books, 1997), suggested that dual-income couples were working long days not because their jobs required it, but because they wanted to escape their hectic home lives. Stories like Perry-Pastor’s have led Philipson to a more radical conclusion: Many are working hard not to escape the emotional entanglements of home but to find the emotional pull that they’re lacking at home.
In fact, although most of the work-family research talks about home as the focus of people’s emotional lives and work as an unfortunate intrusion, Philipson suggests that for increasing numbers of us, work is where our hearts lie. Seeing coworkers every day, trading office gossip, celebrating birthdays, getting promoted, she says, all make work seem like a “vibrant, exciting” place, filled with “intrigue and gossip, friendships and jealousies, comfort and hurt.”
As they become increasingly riveted to work, they learn to get along without their families and friends. Some consider their home to be a well-oiled machine that operates smoothly without them. And they just can’t imagine receiving the same kind of emotional sustenance that they get at work anywhere else. As Hanson puts it: “At home, you don’t always get a pat on the back. In your office, you can hear, ‘Hey, good work.’ “
These Women, Ourselves
Having spent the last six years talking to women who had been betrayed by work has turned Philipson into something of a crusader on the topic. Speaking at conferences across the country as well as attending weekly academic seminars at the Center for Working Families, a research group affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley, she wants the work-family pundits and the psychological establishment to take her patients and their health problems seriously.
“They aren’t just patients with particular pathologies,” she says. “They’re saying something important about all of our lives.”
But while her talk was politely received at a major work-family conference last year, many experts clearly haven’t quite known what to make of her research. “One person told me it sounded like a cult,” Philipson says. A psychology journal invited her to submit a major article on her research after hearing her speak at a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. But the journal’s editors rejected the paper, pronouncing her thesis absurd. “They wrote back something to the effect of, ‘What the hell is this woman talking about?’ ” she says with a laugh.
Philipson doesn’t blame them. She admits that she herself reached her conclusions slowly — and even reluctantly. Like most psychologists, she says that she was trained to investigate what she calls the “inner workings of family life” to see how people replay childhood dramas in their adult lives. “Insofar as work had any psychological meaning,” she wrote in her unpublished paper on the subject, “it was as an empty or blank arena in which people could play out unresolved family conflicts.” And although she earned a doctorate in sociology in 1981 from the University of California at Santa Cruz, her research focused on using psychoanalytic theory to look at the sociology of the family.
As Philipson became more and more immersed in her patients’ worlds, however, she came to see the signs of their affliction just about everywhere — including in her own life. There were her friends — “with excellent coping skills, highly functioning people” — who became so consumed with petty squabbles and ego clashes in their offices that they too became deeply depressed. “They could have been in my group,” she says.
And then she looked at her own life, and saw that she too could “go down that road” if she were not more careful. After her 18-year marriage ended in 1991, she joined Pathmakers, eager — perhaps too eager — to become part of a large community of psychologists.
“There was a definite pull for me to lean on this organization,” she says. “I have lots of friends, but these days they are scattered all over the world. I see how easy it can be to turn to work for that sense of security and community.”
She has since made a commitment to work less, by cutting back her weekend and evening hours. Every year, she makes sure to take a three-week vacation. But most important of all, she says, she has made “an internal shift,” to keep a healthy distance from work. “You can work weekends, but you have to question your motives. Are you working for approval or because this is what you need to do to get the work done?”
She is also helping her patients to ask those same questions of themselves as they try to put their lives back together. For many, though, it is an uphill battle. Roughly one out of five of her patients tries to sue her employer. Virtually all file workers’-compensation claims, citing stress, even though Philipson warns all of them that such claims are notoriously difficult to prove and that the process — during which they can be asked the most intimate questions — can be absolutely grueling.
Philipson tells her patients to think of the dynamics that they are experiencing as those of a divorce. First, she says, you wonder why your marriage went wrong. Then, she says, you become angry. “But after that, you can either stay stuck in that moment,” she says, “or you can feel hurt and move on.”
Even those who win settlements from their employers find small comfort in the victory. The banker, for instance, recently reached an out-of-court settlement with her employer, but she is still haunted by the hurt and worries about how much to trust a future employer.
“I realize now that all that family stuff was just a means to an end for the company,” she says, noting her bank has since merged with another large bank, yielding the top executives millions of dollars in severance pay. “I don’t know how I will handle it in the future as a manager, because I also know that the people who don’t buy into the hype aren’t considered team players. They’re also the first to go during layoffs.”
Many who go back to work end up changing professions or going into business for themselves. But having once been betrayed by their employer, they tend to keep their emotional distance from work and feel sad about what they’ve lost. “I used to love my job. But these days, my job is just a job,” says Schulenberg, now an accounts-payable representative at a Bay Area hospital. “A piece of me is gone and will never come back. And that’s too bad.”
Pamela Kruger (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company contributing editor. Contact Ilene Philipson by email (email@example.com).
Sidebar: Three Signs That Work Is (Too) Personal
We all want our work to matter. But how do you know if it has begun to matter too much? Psychologist Ilene Philipson offers three key warning signs.
1. You rarely miss work.
Philipson’s patients were proud that they always came to work. But what that meant was that they forced themselves to work when they were sick and should have been in bed. They never vacationed with friends or family, and when they had to choose between attending their child’s recital or going to a work-related meeting, they almost always chose the latter.
They always thought that putting work above all else made them valuable employees, but, in the end, it damaged their relationships, hurt their health, and “emotionally devastated them,” says Philipson. “If you constantly give more than 100% of yourself to your job,” she warns, “you’ll find yourself with nothing left for friendships, family, or yourself.”
2. What you enjoy most about your job is the praise you receive.
Most of Philipson’s patients insist that they worked long days and longer nights because they “loved” their jobs. But if you dig deeper, Philipson says, you’ll find that their primary motivation had less to do with the actual project and more to do with the praise and recognition they received. “They needed the approval, and they needed to be needed,” says Philipson.
Wanting to feel valued and appreciated at work is fine. But, Philipson says, if you rely on work for a sense of self-worth, you’re putting yourself at the mercy of the whims of the higher-ups. “Praise is nice, but you won’t always get it. You need to be able to feel internal gratification from a job well done. You need to value what you do and know your assets” — even when your employer doesn’t.
3. Your closest friends are your colleagues.
It’s inevitable: When you spend so many hours at work, you’re going to make friends there. The danger, according to Philipson, comes when your entire support network is at the office. “At work, you are in a hierarchical situation, where you’re vying for attention, raises, promotions,” Philipson says. “Friendships can easily sour.”
For many of Philipson’s patients, the company’s annual picnic or holiday party was the biggest social event of their year, and their most trusted confidantes were their colleagues from the office. As a result, when transfers or layoffs occurred, or when some of their “friends” played hardball politics, her patients became unglued. “You can have collegial relationships at work,” warns Philipson, “but friendships at work should be treated like office romances: You need to proceed very cautiously.”
Sidebar: That’s Why They Call It “Work”
Browse through any bookstore, and you’ll find dozens of titles exhorting you to pour more of your heart into your work. Benjamin Hunnicutt, an historian at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and an expert on the history of work, preaches just the opposite view. Hunnicutt, author of “Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day” (Temple University Press, 1996) and a forthcoming book, “Saving Work: A Failing Faith,” believes that our jobs have assumed too much importance in our culture: “Work has become our new religion, where we worship and give our time.” In an interview, he offers a brief history of work and a prescription for a healthier relationship with it.
How was work seen in the past?
“Until the 20th century, work was secondary to other parts of life. We can see this by looking at the words that mean work in different cultures. The Spanish word for work, ‘trabajo,’ comes from a Latin word for an instrument of torture. The Irish word, ‘job,’ took on a dual meaning: a temporary assignment, and excrement. Even the Puritans considered work a means to an end, the end being God. But the collapse of traditional cultural structures like family and religion has created a vacuum of belief, which work has grown to fill.”
Aren’t more of us devoting ourselves to work because work is more fulfilling?
“That is not true. Yes, fewer jobs involve manual labor. But the idea that machines have freed us for this mythical idea of good work just hasn’t happened. Job-satisfaction studies over the past 20 years indicate that people are looking for identity, purpose, and meaning in their work, but very few are finding those things. That’s why people are job-hopping, desperately trying to find the work equivalent of the Holy Grail. They aren’t finding it because what they’re looking for — salvation from a meaningless life and a senseless world — simply can’t be found at work.”
How can we achieve a better balance?
“Kellogg experimented with a six-hour day in the 1930s, right up until 1985. What he found was that six hours did somehow tip the balance for many people. It gave them more time to spend with their family and to give to their communities and to themselves. But it’s also important to look at where your soul is. If you work for goals that are only found in the marketplace — to improve your reputation or to make more money, for instance — you will not give of yourself freely. You will not do things, like play music, for which you aren’t being paid. And so you will have work without end.”
Contact Benjamin Hunnicutt by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).