Doctor Gordon is Chief Psychiatrist of E. I. du Pont de Nemours Company. This article was delivered as a speech before the Forty-first International Conference of the National Office Management Association in Montreal, May 25, 1960.
The title of this paper carries the clear implication that living with one’s job is hazardous. Perhaps a more pertinent corollary would be how to live without your job.
While I have a few thoughts on living with one’s job, I have no idea how one could live without a job, nor am I sure it would be a kindness to divulge the secret even if I knew.
Yet I am aware of a widespread conviction that work, particularly the work of the executive, is thought of as some kind of an unnatural and harmful activity. Apparently one may expend unlimited physical or mental energy in a hobby without fear, while the same energy expended in useful or productive effort is considered a harmful stress.
Work is treated as though it were an imposition upon mankind rather than as a major source of happiness and gratification.
It is not a new notion. After the fall in the Garden of Eden, Adam is told that "in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." Yet even before his fall, Adam was put "into the Garden of Eden to dress it and keep it." Apparently it is in the nature of things that man should work for his daily bread. We cannot even blame Eve for this state of affairs.
In recent years the businessman, particularly those in higher echelons, has been admonished that the pace of his life is killing him. He is threatened by such scare statements as "your next promotion may be your last." Others encourage him to be proud of his ulcer, to wear it as sort of a businessman’s "purple heart," as though it were a sign of virtue, of devotion to a cause beyond the call of duty. Gratuitous advice tells him to slow down, take it easy, take longer vacations, don’t work so hard.
Many businessmen are frightened by all this advice and find themselves in a neat trap.
Most successful men achieved their positions by virtue of hard work and aggressiveness. They have had almost boundless energy to expend and found great satisfaction in the struggle. What is he to do now? Give up? One doesn’t run a successful enterprise from a cruise ship or the golf course. The poor misguided wretch who happens to enjoy work is in an even worse fix for, by implication, to continue is suicide.
He is beset by social and economic pressures which seem to degrade successful accomplishment and make him appear almost a sinner. All sorts of measures and negative incentives are set up to remove temptation and make certain that the sin of success, if not actually punished, is certainly not to be rewarded.
In view of these circumstances, it might be useful to re-evaluate some of these conclusions in view of available data.
Our Lengthened Life Span
The last half century has seen an increasing extension in man’s life span from 48 years in 1900 until it is something over 70 plus today. This extension has taken place during the most productive era this nation has known.
Rules of hygiene and nutrition have been learned and implemented; man can manipulate his environment for greater comfort, security, and safety than could his forefathers, in even one generation past. By accepted concepts, the wear and tear on his body should have become less as he learned to protect himself.
The businessman, having no special claim to immortality, also succumbs eventually just as everyone else. Coincidental with the increased span of life, there has been a change in the nature of conditions causing his inevitable departure. The infectious diseases have been replaced by what are called stress diseases or degenerative diseases and cancer. Accidents have moved up in relation to other causes. Even children’s hospitals report accidents create more admissions than infectious diseases. Obviously, something has changed, but 50 years is too short a span for any evolutionary change to have taken place in man himself.
Yet these stress diseases are rear and have become today’s killers. When a noted figure has a heart attack, it is front page news, but aside from the associates, little is known of hundreds of other victims who are stricken on the same day.
Studies in our company comparing the occurrence of stress diseases in the executive group with the occurrence of the same disease entities in the general company population, show almost exactly the same rate of incidence.
Other medical authorities have made similar studies and find the executive has no different pattern of disease than the general public.
Survival Mechanisms of the Body
To understand the nature of stress disease, it might be well to discuss some of the body’s basic adaptation and survival mechanisms.
The body and mind are completely integrated in the sense that the body supplies the brain and nervous system with nourishment and the brain and nervous system in turn interpret the needs of the body for survival, implementing coordinated activities to provide for them. The entire biological process is based on a process known as homeostasis. Homeostasis is the maintenance of a fairly constant and healthy state within as the body moves about in an ever-changing external environment filled with threats and hazards to existence. The body becomes aware of its needs through the nervous system.
Survival is made possible by adaptation to an ever-changing external environment. The body is admirably designed for this purpose. Body temperature is and must be maintained within a two or three degree critical level in the face of external changes of 50° to 75°F. It can resist great stresses such as those inflicted by toxic materials, mechanical injury, infecting organisms, or heat and cold, so long as these are compatible with life.
When first exposed to any stress, the body becomes alarmed and over-reacts in a general way. This general reaction is somewhat inefficient in that all parts of the body react when they do not need to. For example, if a sedentary worker is suddenly exposed to the stress of digging a ditch over the weekend, the entire body aches, not only the muscles stressed. If resumed the next day, the work may be a little easier; and if continued thereafter at the same level, certain muscles will grow stronger. Unnecessary side reactions of a general nature will subside and the body will discipline itself into a state of efficient comfortable adaptation. The individual then meets his stress (physical work in this instance) with less effort, greater efficiency, and less strain on the body.
It is known that psychological or emotional stress can likewise have the same effects.
The normal individual working under conditions found in modern industry for eight or even ten hours a day, particularly the executive, can hardly be said to be exposed to stresses incompatible with biological existence. It has been pointed out that spending $20,000 is no more difficult a decision for the executive than is spending $20 for the janitor. By the time he becomes an experienced executive, the businessman should have learned to function efficiently even with the pressures of his job.
Yet the reality of stress disease cannot be ignored, for it is one of the great unsolved medical problems.
Coronary heart disease, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, gastric ulcer, colitis, migraine, allergies—all are on the suspect list of stress disease.
These diseases are very real and occupy top position in the mortality table. In searching for the causes of stress diseases, we must consider the nature of man’s emotions and their place in the economy of his existence.
Most men consider emotions a ridiculous weakness worthy only of scorn—the kind of nonsense that makes poor frail women cry apparently for no reason at all. We fail to note, however, that women in our culture frequently get, or get away with, whatever it was they were crying about. That strong men should not be bedeviled with emotions is a fixed part of our thinking. Male children are taught that crying is a sign of weakness; that fear leads inevitably to cowardice, and anger to the gallows. Most adults believe that self-pity is almost a cardinal sin and that worry leads inevitably to stomach ulcers. Consequently, emotions are widely conceived as enemies to be conquered at all costs. What then is the purpose of emotions which at best are seemingly useless and at worst harmful?
Nature Has Reasons
Nature does not do foolish things; all persons have emotions, and they must have some logical function. Perhaps emotions themselves are not at fault—rather, it is our ignorance of their proper use and function.
It is impossible to measure directly the force of emotions. The rapid pulse, the labored breathing, the clenched fist, the punch in the nose—all these are manifestations of emotion; but they are no more the force of emotion than is the light from a bulb the force of electricity. The light from a bulb is only a manifestation of electricity, which cannot itself be directly detected. So it is with emotions, which are endlessly confused with the external manifestations of emotion. There are occasions when it is necessary to tell someone to stop some form of misbehavior but our confusion between emotions and behavior leads us to tell the individual to control his temper—or his fears. But these are emotions, the internal flowing of energy. Energy, whether it is electrical or emotional, cannot be destroyed or even controlled. It may be diverted but will always seek another outlet, for nature demands its release either in stress disease or useful accomplishment.
Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage
Roughly speaking, there are four basic phenomena of the nervous system which make it possible for man to adapt to and survive in an ever-changing environment. These are pain, hunger, fear, and rage. Few of us attempt simply to will away pain and hunger—not because we like them but because we can’t control them through will alone and could not survive without them. However, although the same purpose is served by all four phenomena, man has quite arbitrarily decided that the Creator has made an error by putting fear and anger into him, and that this error must be corrected.
The purpose of these four phenomena is to promote survival by disciplinary control over the body. The pain caused by a cinder in the eye drives us relentlessly to protect our vision by locating and removing the irritation. Hunger, almost always accompanied by aggressiveness, drives us to seek food; fear, to flee; rage, to defend ourselves. There is nothing biologically built into man directing him to either foolish or self-destructive behavior. Nevertheless, any form of energy, including emotional, can be compressed to the point where it becomes dangerous. Natural, free-flowing emotions guide and direct man into healthy survival behavior, always gauged in quality and quantity to the needs of the moment.
The newspapers reported an incident where a plane dropped a live 200-pound bomb on a carrier deck. A sailor rushed over, carried the bomb to the side and threw it overboard, saving his own life and perhaps many more. The next day, when challenged, he couldn’t budge a similar but safe bomb. Healthy, natural fear gave him both the courage and the strength to adapt to a dangerous emergency. The human mind and body may be likened to a computing machine which is useless without a power supply. The human power supply is emotion.
A distinction must be made between emotion and behavior. A hard-breathing, red-faced individual, flailing about destructively, is not necessarily undergoing the emotion of anger. Conversely, a pleasant, calm-appearing individual may be in an intense rage, plotting murder. A convincing actor can exhibit any behavior while internally anticipating a pleasant weekend in the country.
Emotions Are Signals
Emotions are functionally equivalent to pain. Pain orders all our behavior so that we operate in our own best interest. This is not selfishness in its commonly accepted sense of greed and meanness. It is healthy self-interest to remove a cinder from our eye, and in no way conflicts with the rights or interests of others. Similarly, emotions, by the pressures and tensions they create, tell us to look into our lives, see what’s wrong, and fix it up, for it is almost always highly personal and defensive, and in no way conflicts with the rights or interests of others. In order to remain physically and mentally healthy we must accept this control which nature exercises through our emotions.
For every event in our lives there is an accompanying flow of emotion to organize the body to meet our problems correctly; yet, over and over, my patients tell me that they have no real problems—that the petty irritations in their lives are too trivial to be upset about. They seem not to realize that if we fail to meet each little problem effectively, there is soon quite a collection of unsolved problems. We do not call out the fire department to put out a match; but if we do not put out each and every match, sooner or later we shall have a real conflagration. On being repressed all the little increments of emotional energy which accompany each event accumulate to a considerable feeling of tension, for the danger becomes more serious in the aggregate. Nature created man with an automatic fire department but man in his infinite wisdom has reorganized himself into ineffectiveness. When tension rises high enough, it may begin to seek other outlets through perfectly innocent organs—the stomach, the heart, the blood vessels. This is Nature’s second line of warning: since we don’t accept the warning of our emotions, she tries hurting us physically with pain.
At this point the individual is diagnosed as being nervous. He, his family, his friends, his boss, and often his personal physician have one prescription for treatment. This panacea consists of removing him from all unpleasant situations and insisting that he leave work, calm down, and rest. One of our most firmly held delusions is that emotional upsets are harmful and that worry is akin to taking poison. I have followed many cases in which people have been removed from more and more responsibilities until they become totally incapacitated and nonproductive—in effect, concealed pensioners. A problem cannot be solved by refusing to be aware of it or by evading our responsibility for its resolution.
Look Inside Ourselves
Our experience indicates that there is very little inherent in the work situation, as such, to cause emotional difficulties. Improper mechanisms, however, are brought into the work place by the sufferer. Usually they are techniques of avoiding unpleasantness, developed in earliest childhood for dealing with stressful situations. An individual with a high degree of mental health will automatically seek and use effective mechanisms; conversely, most people, having poorer mental health, suppress those mechanisms. If an individual finds that things do not work out well for him, he must look within himself; it is rare to find a solution in the external environment.
This is a painful process, usually avoided so long as our explanations and excuses for blaming something or someone else are acceptable.
When life becomes difficult, it is reasonable to want to get away, but the self-disciplined individual knowing problems are not solved that way has the courage to see the struggle through to a resolution.
An individual who habitually evades his responsibilities will repeatedly follow his usual pattern, but usually maneuvers the circumstances so that someone else has to protect him.
It is not always kindness to encourage this evasion by acting upon the individual’s own prescription. It is usually kinder in the long run to handle the situation in such a way that he develops courageous patterns of behavior through solving his own problems with the accompanying greater security.
Physicians have known for centuries that self-diagnosis is extremely dangerous, and it is particularly true in emotional difficulties for the very mind needed to diagnose the trouble is itself not functioning efficiently.
The supervisor or executive cannot accept the subordinate’s excuses for his failure. The superior has a serious obligation to examine all circumstances surrounding the subordinate’s shortcomings. Where circumstances indicate that the error lies in the individual’s failure to adapt to the realities of his situation, the supervisor must in all fairness to the man, the organization, and himself, exercise his authority to the end that the failing subordinate meets his responsibilities with effective personal action.
The supervisor who evades his responsibility for informing subordinates directly, accurately, and in a straightforward manner of the facts regarding their performance, in turn creates unresolved tensions and stresses in himself, for his success is dependent upon their performance.
A Supervisory Duty
One of the most common complaints I hear from employees is that they are not clearly informed regarding their job performance. This is vital for all of us to know, for our jobs are our bread and butter. Even job security guaranteed by company policy when not earned by productive performance will not give us the feelings of security we desire. We may be able to fool society and our bosses and even ourselves about how well we are doing our job, but we can delude ourselves only for so long, because Mother Nature will not tolerate it. It profits little to have an unearned pay check if the price of self-deception is heart disease or stomach ulcer.
The common excuse for such failure to meet this basic supervisory responsibility is that the supervisor believes he does not like to hurt others, or that it is wrong to upset people. What he fails to recognize is that there is no way for anyone to evade his responsibilities for very long. To perform this unpleasant task we ourselves must first be upset. Since we believe emotional upsets harmful, we attempt to control our upset emotions, thus aborting the drive to action. The end result is an increase in tension of all concerned.
Modern man seems to have forgotten that life is basically a conflict. The maintenance of life itself in the individual is a constant conflict between the body’s need to maintain an internal steady state in the face of an ever-changing external environment. So is the struggle for existence among groups and societies. Democrats conflict with Republicans, labor with management—the list could be expanded indefinitely. Whether these conflicts should or should not exist is another question, but it must be recognized that they do exist and are potential dangers. Ignoring the emotional warnings of danger does not remove the danger itself.
The full free life which sometimes includes a good scrap, has been submerged in a utopian desire for eternal harmony and tranquility. Lacking any realistic way of achieving it, man has developed the tranquilizer pill. Alcohol has long been a partial answer to man’s desire for occasional false tranquility, but he knew the price was the next day’s hangover. We have not yet learned what the body may have to pay for the tranquility of the tranquilizer.
An individual who refuses to permit himself to become emotionally upset about a business situation because, in advance, he presumes it to be hopeless is missing out on solutions which might be forthcoming if he permitted his healthy emotions to motivate his quest.
No Way To Impose Happiness
The other side of the coin shows men attempting to do the impossible. There is a widespread belief that management and supervision can and should make all their subordinates happy—not simply provide a healthy atmosphere in which they can find their own salvation. It is an impossible task for anyone to make another person happy other than to so conduct himself that he does not unduly interfere with the individual’s finding his own salvation. Yet I have talked with supervisors who were thoroughly frustrated when an employee refused to be happy under their supervision, as though it were entirely the supervisor’s fault.
There is in this situation a danger for the subordinate as well as for the supervisor. Creating an atmosphere that tacitly implies that the efforts will make an employee happy leads him to expect this miracle. When the efforts fail, employees are bitter and resentful. This is not to say that people do not react well to decent, fair, honest treatment, but can we do more?
For purposes of emphasis and clarity I have oversimplified, overdrawn, and exaggerated. Therefore, do not misconstrue my remarks to mean that people do not occasionally work too hard or need a vacation, or that every problem will have a handy solution if we just get angry enough. People do occasionally need or want a vacation, or want to put aside a knotty problem temporarily, or even get fed up with their jobs and want a change. I am only warning against using any panacea to evade meeting with effective personal action the real problems of our daily lives; warning against evading the internal discipline exercised through our emotions by our own biological drive to survive.
To sum up, then, man brings most of his misfortunes, his failures, and stress diseases upon himself by striving to make himself over into something allegedly finer and more nearly perfect than the Creator made him. His own strong, persistent, but delusional beliefs make him act as though he has accomplished it, and he either fails to fulfill his normal obligations or demands impossible things of himself. Either extreme is equally hazardous.
He believes that he can free himself of anger and fear; that he has powers to create a heavenly world of peace and harmony without conflict here on earth. He believes he can make all his associates, including his wife and family, happy.
His normal elemental drives and motivations—anger, fear—are being repressed to dangerous destructive tensions in the false belief that they are inimical to the welfare of himself and the group. The results are, in effect, suicide in the form of stress diseases.
Modern man thereby has sacrificed his identity, freedom, independence, self-reliance, and even his courage, in the damp laundry of mediocrity. The inevitable failure to make himself over into something less than nature intended leads him into frustration to which there is no end.
Frustration of the latter sort is quite different from the frustration which he deliberately seeks in playing golf. There is reasonable hope (although perhaps a slim one) that some day he can learn to play golf well. But I cannot see any hope within the foreseeable future that he will be able to improve upon his fundamental physiological nature.
Rather than arbitrarily attempt to improve upon his, as yet ill understood, human nature, he might try to learn more about his true nature for perhaps the Creator did a better job on him than he believes.
Which government is the best? That which teaches us to govern ourselves.
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