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           A Business Forum Book Review:

Toxic Work:

How to Overcome Stress, Overload, and Burnout
and Revitalize Your Career

by Barbara Bailey Reinhold, Ed.D.

See also:
Free to Succeed: Designing the Life You Want in the New Free Agent Economy
The Stress Shop -- Part One
The Stress Shop -- Part Two

          Work is inevitably the center of our lives, whether we are self-employed or are employed by a mammoth corporation or a government agency. More time is spent "at work"  than is devoted to any other part of our lives. Our work defines us in the eyes of the world and even in our own self-image. While complaining about work is usually simply reflexive conversation, it is the person whose life is devoid of work that is to be pitied.

          Large or small, however, the workplace is often not a happy place. It can be a jumble of daily frustrations, conflicts, hostilities, addictions, and even neuroses. For many people, the situational and psychological stresses associated with their workplace can eventually erupt as real physiological sickness. While these are scarcely new phenomena, Barbara Bailey Reinhold, Ed.D., Director of Career Development and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Smith College, assesses quite realistically the possible workplace hazards to one’s health in her illuminating book, Toxic Work: How to Overcome Stress, Overload, and Burnout and Revitalize Your Career  (Dutton/Penguin Books USA, Inc., 245 pages, $23.95).

          Reinhold concentrates primarily upon and draws her examples from jobs with large corporations, organizations and institutions. However, workplace stress, overload and burnout are also to be found in the smaller business and even among the self-employed. The most difficult task is sorting out how much of the alleged toxicity of our workplace is attributable to situational factors and how much is due to our own personalities. Part of this has been the classic impasse of "the round peg in the square hole"  -- simply being locked in the wrong job. Data entry 8 hours a day can be toxic work for the truly creative person; estate and trust law can even be toxic work for the litigious trial lawyer. Therefore, care must be taken that our workplace is not the scapegoat for more internal dilemmas. Just as all too many people flee from one "bad marriage"  into another "bad marriage,"  too many people eschewing self-understanding flee from one "bad job"  into another "bad job."

          Workplace alienation commonly centers on control,  and the sensed loss or lack of control over one’s own life. Of course, this is inherent in the employer-employee relationship, and has been defined by the IRS as the nub of the "employee versus independent contractor"  question: The common law standard provides "that an employer-employee relationship exists when the person for whom the services are performed has the right to control and direct the individual who performs the services." (1) The concept of mastery  may be more expressive.

          Whether our work is highly-skilled or quite menial, mastery  of our livelihood is the core of our self-esteem. This is displayed in the skill and proficiency and deftness with which we perform our work. And it is displayed in the mastery  we exercise over our working environment. A loss of mastery over our working environment not only attacks our self-esteem; it often degrades the performance of our work. Today, this lack of mastery  over our working environment can be exhibited in the instability of the job itself, the instability of the mission and even legitimacy of the organization, the instability of the social structure of the workplace, and the technological and competitive turbulence threatening to obsolete our hard-earned job skills overnight.

          This loss of mastery  has become commonplace in the 1990s; the resultant toxic working environment can lead to severe psychological as well as physiological disabilities. Reinhold observes, "When people have pained expressions on their faces while describing their work, I ask, ‘Where in your body does this pain reside?’ And people usually know: ‘Right in the gut’ or ‘It’s the stiffness across my shoulders.’ Once the connection between physical pain and job stress has been made, symptoms can be seen as signals for change."

          A pivotal chapter is titled, "How About a Prison Break?"  encouraging an emphatic departure from a dysfunctional work situation. Most prison breaks fail because the escapee does not have an adequate support system "outside."  From inside the large organization or institution, the smaller business or even self-employment can appear to offer a beguiling release from the stress, overload, and burnout of their present work environment. However, such a career transition should only be undertaken with deep self-understanding. There are as many "round pegs in square holes"  among smaller businesses and entrepreneurs as are to be found among Fortune  500® corporations. Smaller businesses and entrepreneurs have no special immunity to stress, overload, and burnout.

          Toxic Work  is not a cookbook with solutions embodied in 15-minute recipes, but a thoughtful guide to the ways we can regain adequate mastery over our work and our lives, to restore our self-esteem and re-discover the joy in our work.

(1) See, e.g.,   Employee or Independent Contractor -- Part One? The Business Forum Online ®

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