All Commentary
Sunday, January 1, 1961

How to Live With Your Job

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.

Inevitable Imperfections

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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