Why do we stay in jobs that are bad for us?

I have a post drafted in my blog titled “My birthday gift to myself this year: Retirement.” It’s dated February 26, 2012. At that time, I’d been working in the online marketing (web) department at a cinema camera manufacturer for about 5 months. I was sick of complaining about it to my friends and family. I didn’t want to be that guy who is always bitching about his job but never doing anything about it. Yet, I remained there for two more years. How is that possible?

I told myself I couldn’t leave until I had work lined up. I worried about how to make money after quitting. And mostly, I worried about finding another job with a manager just as bad as the ones under whom I’d recently suffered.

Then there was the company. I liked that it was a technology disrupter. I thought the cameras were cool. I appreciated the origin story. And every once in a while, there were opportunities that were out of the ordinary enough to keep me interested.

The day-to-day was horrible. I don’t even want to revisit the chaos in order to write about it. I just want to tell my friends still there: it isn’t that way on the outside.

Under my first manager, we were micro-managed, constantly interrupted, overloaded, and told that everything was a priority. She was unable to manage our time because she couldn’t manage her own.

She was too inexperienced to have the responsibility she had and — unsurprisingly — too inexperienced to know how to refuse more responsibility. She’d even been convinced by the guy who would become our second manager that the way to solve her problems was to take on more.

Our second manager was hands-off to the other extreme — he didn’t know how to prioritize because he didn’t know our work. Just as inexperienced as our first manager, he was foolish enough to believe he knew how to lead. But he lacked the attributes of a successful leader.

Everything was a battle from the largest marketing campaign to the smallest news article. Crisis mode was the norm. My time was shattered every day to the extent that I couldn’t remember what I’d worked on. That was the organization. That was the idea. That was how they “got things done.”

Yet, I stayed for 2 years and 6 months.

Sick Systems

There is an analysis of why we stay at jobs like this written 4 years ago by a Livejournal user named Issendai. It’s called “Sick Systems: How to Keep Someone With You Forever.

You could be the best workplace they’ve ever had, with challenging work, rewards for talent, initiative, and professional development, an excellent work/life balance, and good pay. But … those options demand a lot from you. Besides, your lover (or employee) will stay only as long as she wants to under those systems, and you want to keep her even when she doesn’t want to stay. How do you pin her to your side, irrevocably, permanently, and perfectly legally?

You create a sick system.

Reading it — especially if you work in a demanding tech job with long hours where a lack of organization substitutes for actual organization — is agonizingly familiar.

According to Issendai, there are four essential rules to maintain a sick system that binds employees to a company:

  1. Keep your employees too busy to think
  2. Keep them tired
  3. Keep them emotionally involved
  4. Reward them intermittently

I could come up with hundreds of examples to illustrate how they practice these rules but I’ll be brief in addressing each:

  1. Every interruption, every meeting, everything having a deadline of ASAP, changing direction of marketing or delivery on a dime
  2. Launching sites at midnight, constantly re-doing the same work for “approval,” working late after a day of meetings, phone beeping at all hours with new emails
  3. “We’re changing the industry,” “You’re part of the revolution”
  4. The non-existent bonuses, the empty “equity” program

How do you execute these rules to a sick system? Well, for starters, “keep the crises rolling”:

Incompetence is a great way to do this: If the office system routinely works badly or the controlling partner routinely makes major mistakes, you’re guaranteed ongoing crises. Poor money management works well, too. So does being in an industry where the clients are guaranteed to be volatile and flaky, or preferring friends who are themselves in perpetual crisis.

One determinant that Issendai overlooks is having a top executive whose whims determine everything. You want crises? How about upper management making announcements to customers before the employees knew?

Employees in the system find themselves saying, “things will be better when…”:

Things will be better when… I get a new job. I’m mean to you now because I’m so stressed, but I’m sure that will go away when I’m not working at this awful place.

I thought that all the time. And I didn’t do anything about it because of what she describes next:

Now, the first person isn’t actually looking for a job. (They’re too stressed to fill out applications.)… But the explanation sounds plausible, and every now and then the person has a good day or a production cycle goes smoothly. Intermittent reinforcement + hope = “Someday it will always be like this.” Perpetual crises mean the person is too tired to notice that it has never been like this for long.

Those tiny rewards that reinforce us aren’t really rewards. A key to maintaining the sick system is keeping real rewards distant.

Real rewards—happiness, prosperity, career advancement, a new house, children—are far in the distance. They look like they’re on the schedule, but there’s nothing in the To Do column.

Consider the bonus program we were told about in 2012. Each group had a meeting with the executive team where they told us they’d created a new bonus program. We’d get details later. Those details never came. No bonuses ever happened.

In 2014, with that executive team all having recently departed, the top brass told us the executives’ parting gift was an equity program and we’d have a meeting that week to hear the details. I was there for another 4 weeks and we never had that meeting.

I’m aware the employees now have some sort of conditional equity program that vests in 3 years. But as far as those conditions go, I’ll quote Issendai: “They look like they’re on the schedule, but there’s nothing in the To Do column.” There’s also nothing an employee can do to help those conditions manifest. So the equity certificate is a meaningless symbol of a possible promise.

In neither case do I doubt the sincerity of those creating the programs. I do think they wanted to do right by their employees. But offering such conditional rewards played right into the system that Issendai describes.

The entire “Sick Systems” piece is so dead-on to everything I experienced that I could quote it all and give an example of each sentence. Anyone in a similar environment will identify these elements:

  • Establish one small, semi-occasional success
  • Chop up employees’ time
  • Enmesh the company’s success with the employees

and this one which is just so true that it cuts:

  • Keep everything on edge — “Make sure there’s never quite enough money, or time, or goods, or status, or anything else people might want.”

Eventually I felt exactly as she described:

All of these things work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You’re run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can’t stop believing that… After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you’re not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn’t mean things are better, it means you’re not aware yet of what’s going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

Eventually you’re so crazy that you can’t interact with anyone who isn’t equally crazy. Normal people have either fled, or told you once too often that you’re being stupid and you need to leave. So now you’ve lost all your reality checks. You’re surrounded by people who also live in the crazy and can’t see a way out.

It’s not all in our heads. My job made me physically ill. I developed a sore throat that veered into laryngitis for three months. I ran high blood pressure the entire time I worked there. I went to a doctor with what I thought were allergies preventing me from breathing right and making me light-headed and was given Xanax for the obvious anxiety I was suffering.

It wasn’t just me. People didn’t get normally sick. They got lung infections, colds that wouldn’t go away, weird ailments that were likely all stress-induced.

Besides Issendai’s examples, there are other giveaways that you’re in a sick system. Here are a few I’ve collected:

1. Employees with no background in their job except their position at the current company.
I’ll draw an example from another company where I worked. There, the owner told me on a couple of occasions that I was the only employee who’d worked at a web firm previously. He always sounded oddly proud of this. But when I’d ask “normal” questions for the industry — “What project management tool do you use?” — there was no answer because no one had any experience in their job.

Those in charge of a sick system favor employees who don’t have previous professional experience because the inexperienced don’t ask questions. The inexperienced don’t know their boundaries. Professionals push back.

2. Not knowing how to handle non-crisis work.
“Any idiot can face a crisis,” Anton Chekhov said and we proved that. Running in crisis mode is easier than running in a structured, sane way because in crisis everyone covers everyone else. But crises burn people out and lead to worse mistakes.

Crisis mode prevents you from putting process in place. And because all process gets thrown out the window in a crisis, process seems superfluous. But process is necessary to provide accountability and reduce error.

Constant crises cause more errors when you shift to non-crisis mode because no process has never been followed and no good habits have been created. Additionally, non-crisis scenarios ratchet up to crisis mode when the unpracticed process hits a speedbump.

We watched this exact scenario play out when a crisis-battered launch would go well and a quiet, small launch would go awry in every possible way.

3. A “work hard / play hard” mentality.
What better way to prevent you from recovering some sanity in the evenings and weekends than by encouraging you to play hard, often with the team. They might even allow and tacitly encourage drinking alcohol on campus. It’s the “culture,” they’ll claim. “How cool!” you might initially think until you start to wonder why your workdays go til 8pm even when you weren’t that busy.

4. The constant reassurance that “things are so much better than they were last year.”
You think this is bad? You weakling. You weren’t here when things were really bad.

I’m as complicit in this one as anyone. I used that line like everyone else. The truth is: the present is worse than the past because nothing has been fixed.

Getting Out

I read “Sick Systems” when Issendai published it in 2010. I even blogged about it on my site good.simple.open 9 months before starting my job. I should have gone in with eyes wide open to that kind of system. I’m not even a guy who cares so much about those cool perqs the job offered. While the system infected me for sure — I thought “it might get better” all the time — I stayed because I knew I didn’t want another boss or another sick system when I left. I had to find the means and opportunity to work for myself.

After the stressful product launches in December 2013, things quieted down enormously. Almost too enormously. It was quiet like “this is bad for business” quiet. But I knew the major convention loomed in April and I knew the company was bound to surprise all its employees with its plans for the show. “Keep the crises rolling” and all that.

I also knew that I wanted to get something out of it all. I’d pitched them different jobs — first to remove me from the micro-managing and second to remove me from the bureaucracy. Instead they offered me a promotion in my current role. I knew that meant they didn’t get it. So I took it and filled my portfolio with reports and strategies — all of which were barely glanced over but show I know my work and allowed me to depart at a “Senior” level.

Perhaps that’s the healthiest way to approach the sick system. Don’t fight it. You’ll never win. The system will never change. Or at least, you’ll never be able to change it. Take the promotion, work on your portfolio pieces, and start a Kiss My Ass fund.

From January 1 to the end of February, I was working 16 hour days. All day at my job and all night honing my resume and portfolio, looking for jobs and freelance clients. In March 2014, I gave myself a birthday gift that was two years overdue.

Finding Meaning in Work

I hate the word “workaholic” because it’s used to mean “jobaholic.” The biggest “workaholics” I’ve known rarely get any meaningful work done. They’re just addicted to their jobs. Those extra hours don’t produce anything of quality. And even when they do produce something, if a boss can undo it on a whim, it isn’t meaningful.

I subscribe to Viktor Frankl’s theory that our motivating energy is a search for meaning in our lives. Work can be fulfilling and meaningful. I have worked all night on personal projects that have meaning to me and I will again. I’m sure there are jobs that provide that meaning for people’s lives. But I’m also sure that a job that doesn’t respect your experience or personal life and never improves isn’t the meaningful experience you hope for.

The sick system fools you into believing that chaos equals creation and that relentlessness equals meaning.

There are plenty of positive things I take away from that job but this is not an article about them. Nor is this an article about that workplace in particular. Sick systems are everywhere. I see friends and family in them. I read articles about the awesome “60 hour work week” somewhere and nod in grim understanding. Tech jobs are especially suited for sick systems but they exist everywhere.

There are ways that people at the top can fix sick systems but I don’t have any faith in them to do what is required. You can leave or you can hope it doesn’t make you insane, but it won’t get better. Once you realize you’re in a sick system, figure out what you can take with you and make your escape plan. Besides the portfolio pieces, I take with me the experience of working in that environment and I find strength in the knowledge that I won’t let it happen again.

I followed up this piece with some thoughts on fixing a sick system.

goodsimpleopen-hardcover-bookMy new book is about doing better work by focusing on openness and simplicity. I discuss sick systems in it as well. You can read it online, on Kindle, and in paperback.