Others come to see me with stories along the lines of "I'd just bought a morning coffee and realised I couldn't face going back to work. I phoned my boss from the car to say I wouldn't return. Ever."
While the latter is more extreme, it's not uncommon and often leaves the employer as stunned as the former employee.
People who've walked out of their workplace never to return, usually say they weren't conscious of being particularly unhappy. It was as if something surfaced from deep within resulting in a sense of physical revulsion. They talk of a feeling of bewilderment; of having been as surprised as everyone else by this unprovoked and out of character action.
Often they'll sit at home for a week or more trying to make sense of what's happened to them, but this doesn't always lead to particularly useful insights.
To result in this dramatic reaction, something has been deeply out of kilter, and after discussion it generally becomes clear that personal values haven't been acknowledged by the employee or have been trampled on by a manager. However, because values aren't usually discussed in any meaningful way in western culture, it's likely that they haven't been acknowledged or clarified in the person's private life.
What can you do (right now) if you have a sudden overwhelming feeling of revulsion about work and are feeling caught in a web that you can't seem to escape from?
- If possible find somewhere quiet to sit. (To answer the unspoken question: Yes, some people can only find peace in the washroom. It usually provides privacy and you hopefully won't be interrupted!)
- Breathe slowly and regularly. Take in 3 deep breaths and let them out in a controlled s l o w manner. It's harder to panic when you're focused on filling your lungs with air!
- Do a body scan: Mentally audit your limbs, organs, torso and head to get a sense of where the tension has settled - you'll notice a tightness, lump, sense of suffocation or queasiness somewhere when you pause quietly and take time to systematically check in. A body scan can sometimes be a quick process or can take a half hour or more. Don't shortchange yourself by rushing!
- Now, most importantly, when you sense where the discomfort is, stay settled. It's perfectly normal and tempting to avoid mental discomfort and metaphorically run - by turning on the radio or TV, picking up a book, checking social media or deciding you need a cup of coffee ..... Stick with it, you'll thank yourself later on.
- Some people report mentally "seeing" a writhing lump of spaghetti-like substance, others use dreary colours to describe an immovable mass. The description is as individual as you are and there are no right or wrong descriptions.
- Acknowledge and make room for the discomfort. As I mentioned, some people report the feeling of a golf ball in the throat, difficulty breathing or nausea. Don't try to push the sensation down, belittle the feelings, pretend they don't exist or be scornful and call yourself weak (see Do you bully yourself?) It can be hard to believe, but these feelings are perfectly normal amongst regular everyday people, mums, dads, aunties and uncles, whether they're high flying executives in powerful positions, TV presenters or comedians, artists or doctors. They're part of the human condition and most of us experience them from time to time.
- As Russ Harris says; now observe the sensation as a curious scientist would. Not with heavy ham-fisted aggression, but gently and with interest. Some people look at the shape, colour and form of the discomfort and find it changes as they take time and allow it to be. (This sounds a bit weird and hippy, but isn't when you do it.)
- And the part which I personally find most powerful is this bit: instead of squashing down the unpleasant sensation, and metaphorically stomping on it to try to make it go away because it hurts and isn't nice, give it a bit of room. Make space for it. Let it stretch. Again, this sounds weird until you do it. What happens then is that it's not quite so horribly uncomfortable. It doesn't go away, it hasn't vanished, but you're not fighting it.
- Instead of spending time and energy persistently battering uncomfortable feelings down, you give them their own space and whilst you mightn't be great mates you can co-exist with tolerance and acceptance.
- Next think about your values. If you've completed a formal values clarification exercise, review it, starting with the ones that are not negotiable. Is there something out of kilter there? Something which surfaces when you give it time and space? Work gently through your list one at a time.
- If you haven't completed a values clarification exercise, the following might be helpful:
a) from The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris
b) a worksheet from Kelly Wilson adapted by Russ Harris
- It could be that it's not an unethical workplace which is the issue, but that your home life (which you value deeply) is being swamped by work demands leaving you depleted and feeling that something important is passing you by.
And while it may be that nothing will change immediately, by spending time quietly thinking about what's important in your life, you'll gain clarity and understanding and this knowledge will empower you to take appropriate committed action.
Appropriate action could be to make deliberate changes in relation to conflicting demands on your time: To make space for, and prioritise family, exercise, wholesome food and to give yourself time to enjoy these things.
Appropriate action could be more confronting too. Once you've become aware of what is disturbing you, how will you respond? If for instance, a colleague is being harassed, which conflicts with your deeply held value of social justice, you'll need to choose how to respond. Will you speak up and be supportive or not? If you don't speak up, you'll experience further conflict - if you do there are costs (and advantages) to that decision as well. When you choose to live in line with your values, it makes some decisions obvious - but that doesn't necessarily make the resulting action easy.
Without knowledge of what has unsettled you, you'll be making decisions in reaction to something and not proactively from a base of knowledge.