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Is work really hell?

SC-DB-post-is-work-really-hell A recent highly unscientific and totally biased study of 18 sequential patients admitted to the New Ageish yet medium-high tech Union Square office of an upstart group psychiatric practice revealed that 9.5 of them had work-related issues that significantly exacerbated or even “caused” their symptomatology. (D. Brody, personal communication.) An attempt was made to quantify their distress and thus determine with what frequency it exceeded the “hell” threshold, but it was too difficult, so the investigator listened to music instead. The next day, biting hard on a convenient bullet, he resumed work on the study, but was forced to “employ” the almost-universally despised “common sense” or “anecdotal” technique.
Some of his findings are summarized below, in no particular order, because he ran out of steam before he could organize his findings:

Evidence that work may be hell

  1. Interruptions throughout the day, and even through the night, make it difficult to complete projects, or even remain sane. A few important offenders are mentioned below:

    1. The evil spawn of the beeper, becoming known simply as the “phone,” an innocent-sounding title which conceals a multitude of pathogeneses:
      1. The stereotype of the nagging boss has, by means of this “aid to connectedness,” morphed into a tangible specter sinking her or his reminding claws into the workers’ brain at any and every time, so the notion of a work “day” becomes an amorphous work eternity. (The term “purgatory” does come to mind.)
      2. The utilitarian “beep” or “ring” is now a cacophony of swooshes, bulletins, night owls, radars, barks, boings, doorbells, ducks, marimbas, old car horns, pinballs, robots, trills and xylophones. It is a documented fact, not simply an ingredient in this rant, that these noises have all been designed to fulfill the corporate community’s goal of raising adrenaline levels in the hearers (B. Brody, personal communication.)
    2. Continual (well, frequent) “meetings,” disguised as well-intentioned attempts to “make sure you’re doing OK,” which substitute boring and demoralizing harangues, usually about documentation or petty legalities, for actual meaningful work or results. Vicious cycle result: dip in productivity from too much time in sterile tête-a-têtes, causing the authorities to summon the employee to more meetings, resulting in… you get the idea. The paranoid’s question: “Is this Catch-22 intentional and planned by those in power?,” is a good one, because we all know that yesterday’s paranoid could be tomorrow’s prophet. However, I will leave it to the reader to investigate whether such a malevolent scenario explains this sorry result, or whether said is simply one more example of human hierarchies’ poor adaptation to biological reality.
  2. The holy grail of mental wellness, a healthy night’s sleep, is disregarded or given mere lip service:

    • Frequently, simply to get the employer to hire her or him, the job seeker must to commit to a schedule which ignores the reality of humans as biological entities, evolved to fit a specific niche and thus sensing the physical universe with organs specialized by and for their ancestral ways of learning a living (meaning hunting and gathering.)
    • We are not owls or badgers. We evolved to be active during the day and sleep at night. Evidence for this statement, to be presented to your boss when you negotiate for a larger pay differential for shift work, can be found in a studies of the light-sensing cones in the back of your eye:
      • The cones vary from species to species in their sensitivity to different colors. An animal that evolved to be mainly active at night has no need for full color sensitivity, for as we have experienced, we cannot tell what color someone’s car is until then light of day hits it.
      • Unlike the owl or the badger, most humans have a full complement of color-sensing cones, namely, three types-one for red, one for green and one for blue. As far as I can tell from the semi-exhaustive research I poured into it, (enough to become distracted for hours by topics such as hawk eyes [an American kestrel can see a 2–millimeter insect from the top of an 18–meter tree!]), owls have almost no color-sensing cones, probably resulting in black and white vision only, and badgers have only 2 of the 3 types, making them effectively “red-green color blind.”
    • OK, where were we? The foregoing somewhat academic discussion was meant to convince you that “we are not owls or badgers but evolved to be active during the day and sleep at night.” If you are not convinced, there are 3 possible explanations of your refractoriness (listed in order of decreasing probability):
      • You are so intimidated by, or are given absolutely no latitude for protest or change, by your boss/company/corporation that you accept your current schedule under silent or not-so-silent protest.
      • You have been brainwashed by society to believe the tradeoff of poor mental health from sleep deprivation for better adaptation to society’s work demands is “worth it.”
      • You are a mutant of sorts, far more adapted to nocturnal functioning than the average current human, and thus represent a step towards a brave new world in which we will all be burning the midnight oil ‘round the globe.
  3. The other holy grail of mental wellness, good relationship, seems rare to absent in the workplace.

    1. To my simple mind, the reason for this is simple. Being an “employee,” by definition, means being a member of a hierarchy, and in our global post-industrial, post-old-fashioned-human-contact mega-mono-society, the hierarchy you are a member of is probably huge, and you are probably ultimately accountable to someone you have never met. You may not even know her name! The poisoning of relationships by the hierarchy spreads out from the boss-underling link like an oil slick. Electronic communication enables peers to serve as spies or as virtual subsidiary bosses, on impulse or by plan, if they so wish or even if they don’t. Unless you are employed by an authentic “Mom & Pop” enterprise, the pervasive severe deficit in warm fuzziness, also known as “Kremlin-esque,” exposes you to the dreaded scourge of alienation. This disease of the soul, explicated by great thinkers and bemoaned by great artists from Marx to Kafka to Dylan, probably began stalking us in industrial times, and has been recently aided and abetted by the cyber revolution. I will risk saying that the majority of inhabitants of the “developed” world are infected by it, to greater or lesser degrees. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I’m only the messenger…
  4. Rather than exercising and strengthening the body, work injures and neglects it.

    1. In the good, very old days of chasing antelope on foot for daily bread, survival and physical fitness were synonymous. Now, unfortunately, they may be antonymous, as every hour at the gym is an hour away from the productive screen. I will not recite the dismal litany of repetition-created tunnel, outlet, cuff and other bodily venues’ assorted syndromes and itis-es, because…

SUDDENLY, the writer realized he had spewed out enough, if not more than. He grew fearful that he had crossed the line of no return and had mired his reader in the slough of despond, violating his never-taken Hippocratic oath. There was only one way to reboot and rectify his probable excess, namely to jump abruptly to the…


The question posed at the beginning of this effort was, to copy and paste;
Is work really hell?

The answer… (drum roll, please)… is YES!, but…


Hell is a relative term. What qualifies as hellish to my personal psychology (falling in the transitional-industrial-to-cyber class in the DB schema) would seem heavenly to the transitional-agrarian-to-industrial psychology of a 100 hour per week textile mill wage slave in Dickensian England.

A Buddhist perspective teaches us that all conscious beings will inevitably suffer, whatever their psychology. The “trick” is to minimize the time spent in that painful condition. Such tricks can be learned, regardless of age, education or gender. To take a simple example, the trick known as “counting your blessings” can help a cyber-wage-slave towards happiness by use of the mantra, “At least I’m not working in a Dickensian textile mill.”

The challenging lot of a mental health practitioner is to teach a “trick” that they themselves will never fully master, and are constantly learning, relearning and revising.

I will now cop out of teaching more tricks to remedy the specific suffering called work, as I need to go take some pictures of hummingbirds. I hope to entice readers to follow this blog with the promise of more tricks. May that work as well as sugar water in a red container!

Written by Dr. David Brody, MD, Psychiatrist, On Dec 28, 2018

Dr. David Brody was born and brought up in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York. He did his graduation in Natural Sciences and Science Writing from the University of California and received post-doctor training from the Stanford University. He can treat a wide spectrum of psychiatric conditions… View full profile