Bullish: Coping With Career Suckage You Have No Control Over (Or DO You…?)

Jennifer Dziura writes Bullish, a career column, for The Grindstone and Bullish Life, a life coaching column, for our sister site TheGloss.

Even if you have studiously avoided all religion and twelve-step programs throughout your life, as I have, you’re probably familiar with this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

The “God” part is sort of superfluous here, isn’t it?

I wrote about the dangers of mindless positive thinking in Bullish: Gratitude is Nice, But Don’t Let It Keep You From Action. Specifically, I wrote that positive thinking – forcefully finding a silver lining in a terrible situation – is an inappropriate response to things you can actually change. Of my failing company, I wrote:

I was working so hard at thinking positively — constantly feeding energy to my internal spin doctor — that I was too sapped of any actual volition, and too self-brainwashed to simply give up on a bad idea.

When my company finally crashed and burned, I was free to see the world as it was, and make choices accordingly. I moved to New York. I campaigned for a fabulous new job. I tried 10,000 crazy things.

So, we should all find the courage to change the things we can, and the serenity to accept the rest.

Except that, living in a wealthy, developed nation in 2012, you have the ability to change all kinds of things that people in less fortunate circumstances cannot, and that your lady-forebears would have FREAKING LOVED to change if they could. That whole strain of Eastern religion about just taking everything as it comes, because nothing is really real? THAT’S FOR PEASANTS. That whole thing about just shutting up and suffering because Jesus will reward you in heaven? Usually unnecessary! You are one of the most privileged people in the entire world. Most things can be changed.

With that in mind, let’s see a question from a reader:

I work as a social worker in a hospital.  I have a large, complicated unit of patients, and I share this unit with another social worker.  She gets half the patients, I get half.  She’s absent a lot.  Not only does she take a lot of vacation, she also takes a lot of sick days.  When she’s gone, I have both caseloads. This volume of work is very stressful.  Recently she told me she was going to take some unknown number of weeks of unpaid leave due to an illness: more than 6 weeks, unknown exactly how long.  I went to my boss and asked if I was expected to complete all of the work for all of the patients on our shared unit during this time.  I emphasized that having the increased volume under my belt most likely meant that individual patient time/care would suffer.  She basically told me there’s no money in the budget to hire someone to help me and there’s nothing she can do.  I’m salaried.  I’m going to be working a ton of extra hours with no compensation with no definitive end date.  Part of me thinks I should just suck it up and hope this extra effort is reflected on my performance review (which are already great anyway).  Part of me is feeling bitter.  Is there a better way to think about this?

My first thought was, if this were me: Can I publish some kind of “How to solve 200 people’s problems without going crazy!” manual and get my name out there as some kind of expert? But probably not, right? Even if our letter-writer does a bangup job doing two people’s jobs at once, is there any payoff?

In the business world, a very reliable plan for getting ahead is to make a bunch of money for a company, and demand that you receive some of it. If the company doesn’t oblige, well, now you know how to make a bunch of money, so you can easily get hired elsewhere or go into business for yourself.

But in jobs that are not motivated by capitalism, you really lack leverage.

I sent this question to my friend Carolyn D’Aquila, an experienced social worker (and, incidentally, a spelling bee champion), who writes:

This type of situation is way too common in social work, and I can actually think of a few friends who have been through this on inpatient psych units. And when you’ve got ugly feelings like anger and bitterness, it’s especially toxic when you are trying to maintain your unflappable, professional exterior and insulate patients from stuff that’s not their problem.

Resolving (or at the least, changing) your bitterness requires one of two things to happen: address the problem itself, or change how you react to the problem if there’s nothing you can do about it. Addressing the problem itself might not be possible, particularly if money really is too tight. If you’re unionized, you can try to raise your concerns about workload and its seeming requirement that you must stay overtime. Your union and your supervisor may still both say you’re outta luck.

I work in an outpatient clinic where I have 179 of my own clients. There’s nothing that can be done about it; even my union organizer told me that if I really care so much about the size of my caseload, I should go up to Albany and lobby for a legislative cap on caseloads. Oh, right: I’ll take a vacation day and go do that after I finish all these progress notes, treatment plans, and court letters. Very dispiriting, when I thought my union rep would be a little bit Cesar Chavez, with some Eugene Debs thrown in.

That left me with one option: change how I react to the issue. You complain that your coworker took too much sick and vacation time. You’ve got no control over whatever mystery ailments or cruise reservations she makes, but you also have your own compensated time. This is an easy one: You’re entitled to time off. Use it. Even if your lavish social work salary doesn’t allow you vacations, use the time to just be away from the unit. Nobody’s going to come take those charts off your hands and insist you take a spa day. You’ve got to ask for it. The unit isn’t going anywhere when you’re gone, and your supervisor still has to arrange coverage somehow. Also think more specifically about the aspects of patient care you think will suffer. If it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff about having too many phone calls or forms to do, get aggressively organized and develop systems. Social work is a lot of rote tasks: get yourself into a rhythm.

The most important thing I can advise you is to make sure you take care of yourself, and don’t let all your energies sink into this job. Insist on doing things you like outside of work hours, and if it doesn’t involve being on duty for your crisis-addled friends, so much the better. You’re probably a very empathic person, and you think of what you can do to take the best care of the people you’re assigned to. The risk for empathic people is that without enough TLC going in, you’ll burn through your reserves of warm fuzzies for others. Be a little selfish.

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    • Lastango

      Actually, many health care providers — of a wide variety of religious faiths — participate in Bhuddist spiritual experiences. The goal isn’t to make them passively accepting. It’s to bring themselves into a clearer, deeper understanding of themselves and others. They’ll be better able to offer meaningful psychosocial care to people, while being more strongly grounded in themselves. They’re less likely to be blown around by the shifting winds of the workplace pressures and personal setbacks.


      Someone with Bhuddist sensibilities and going through an unfortunate relationship like the one you endured might have been better able to detatch enough from the conflict and turmoil to ask, “What is happening here?” … “What is most important?” … “How do I really feel?”. That would be a good start toward mustering the mental and emotional wherewithall to consider other possibilities — like the excellent advice you give to the social worker about exploring other angles. Is she in the right place? Doing the right kind of work? How can she find ways to discover other lenses for exploring solutions? That might get her on the phone, setting up conversations with other social workers and people involved in the profession (like the local faculty of social work) to find out how they are managing their working life and who else they know she can talk to. The learning from these talks will quickly start to build on itself. Just getting started on a positive trail toward finding doable resolutions will work wonders!


      One other thing: for someone entering a profession, it’s a good idea to take a look around at the different real-world environments where people do the job. It’s impossible to completely know what working in any given place is like beforehand, but some major personal pro’s & con’s about the general direction might emerge. For people entering grad school, where selecting a focus might be required, it can be especially helpful to find out what one doesn’t want to do. Whenever possible, preempting major career suckage is better than fixing it later.


      It sometimes surprises people that there is plenty of free advice available, delivered one-on-one by experienced people. But it’s out there. A Bhuddist-read person might feel free enough and humble enough to ask.
      (Before somebody flames “humble”, I’m referring to a sense of perspective that places the non-ego-driven self in a world of resources, strengths and potentials, and the humble person as aware enough to become a seeker.)

    • Eve

      I like this. For me, a big thing has just been reminding myself that I HAVE choices. I’ve been practicing saying (to myself) “I don’t want to do X” instead of “I can’t do X” when considering my options. I CAN do a whole lot of things, so if I choose not to take some of those options, it’s still a choice. It’s not really a limitation, just an expression of preference.

      I love that you told her to consider what she really wants, whether what she wants is actually broader than that one specific job. I think it’s easy to get bogged down in the idea of, “This is my path, I can either succeed or fail at this one thing,” which is an absurd false dichotomy in this day and age.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cherylanne-Farley/1256883485 Cherylanne Farley

      As someone who faced–freqently–this same issues my advice is very simple. LEAVE THIS JOB. We can no longer take care of the needful in society while we beg, scrimp and steal every penny to accomplish overhwleming tasks. When–after 25 years!!!–I pulled myself out of the muck I was astonished. No other jobs put up with this crap. Save yourself FIRST.