Great work, bad workplace?

What if you’re doing meaningful work in the midst of a nasty, dysfunctional workplace? In other words, the work is good, maybe even great, but the work environment is unpleasant or even toxic. And what if, for assorted reasons, it isn’t that easy to find a comparable opportunity?

My friend and colleague Ya’ir Ronen — a social scientist and human rights lawyer at Ben-Gurion University in Israel — got me thinking about this during one of many enriching, impromptu conversations I had during the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City last week. 

The theme of this year’s workshop was “Work that Dignifies the Lives of All People,” and our sidebar chat resonated with both of us. In fact, I’ve written about the challenges of “getting to tolerance,” the dilemma of “should I stay or should I go?” when dealing with bad work situations and workplace bullying, and the myth of the “dream job.” I promised Ya’ir that I would process this a bit, and we may well join forces to write up a little paper on the topic. For now, please allow me to do some thinking out loud:

The good work/bad workplace scenario captures a dovetailing of blessing and curse. Let’s start by acknowledging once again that anyone whose work brings both sufficient income and genuine emotional satisfaction enjoys a blessing that countless millions of people do not enjoy. Many toil simply to keep themselves and people dear to them clothed, fed, and sheltered.

However, the nature of one’s work and the quality of one’s work environment can be very, very different things. What looks at a distance to be a great job may actually be stressful and unpleasant in a bad workplace. I hear this lament from so many people in helping and creative professions such as health care, education, the media, and non-profits and public service generally. 

As I’ve suggested before, emotional detachment can be a partial antidote to a bad work environment, but what if it means sacrificing some of the very psychic satisfaction that makes the job worth doing?

Ya’ir talked about the role of resilience, and I believe that’s a topic very worthy of discussion in this context. When we have a followup exchange on this, I will look forward to his thoughts on it.

Much of life is about weighing costs and benefits; rarely is everything completely good or bad. And so it is with work. At times we may overemphasize the bad aspects of a work experience and downplay its positive qualities. But as I recently suggested here in a slightly different context, if our work is overtaxing our body and soul, it may be time for a reassessment and possible change.

Yup, I’m thinking out loud. No epiphanies, at least not yet.

5 responses

  1. My “work” was my passion, my calling. I knew it and others told me all the time. It was because I was so good, happy, sought out by students for my excellent teaching results, dedication, and teaching methodologies that I got bullied out. It was acceptable to be a poor, unethical educator (which reflected the administration) not a honestly successful one. The majority were bullies who despised themselves, my colleagues who are great teachers let me know that that is “the flow” still in the Boston Public School System.

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