Corporate Jobs That Suck

Going Around in Circles — Why Your Job is Like Spin Class

April 15th, 2008

Written by Pamela Skillings


Yesterday, I decided that spin class is a lot like a bad corporate job. For those of you not familiar with this particular type of exercise  torture, spin class involves a bunch of people pedaling madly on stationary exercise bikes to music for an hour or so, following a lunatic instructor’s orders to go faster, increase resistance, stand up, sit down, sprint until you want to throw up, etc. Sounds like fun, right? In a sick way, it kind of is. Plus, you can burn 600-800 calories in an hour.

But as I was pedaling frantically in place yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of my last corporate job. That’s mainly because one of my biggest complaints in my corporate days was that I often felt like a hamster on a wheel. There was just SO much frenetic activity — so many documents, meetings, conference calls, and email trails –  to achieve very  little. Often, by the time I would receive all of the approvals and "buy-in" I needed for a particular project, there would be some kind of reorganization or budget cut and I’d have to start over from the beginning. It once took me more than nine months just to get the approval to redesign a brochureware web site. That was just to get started. The actual design process was a study in endless torture that I don’t want to get into. Spin class is similar in that you expend a lot of energy and work up a real sweat, but you never actually move forward.

Then there’s the instructor. See, in spin class, I don’t really mind when the instructor yells random instructions at me or seems to get great glee out of causing me pain. I’m definitely not as forgiving toward corporate bosses that do the same thing at work.  At least I know that spin class will only last for an hour and I’ll leave in better shape. (Shout out to Chris Murdoch, brilliantly evil trainer and spin class instructor at Equinox in New York and a corporate escape artist himself).

But the biggest reason that spin class is a lot more fun than a bad corporate job is because it’s actually challenging in a good way. Spin class forces you to  push yourself, to get stronger and better every day that you do it. Similarly, when I was working in the corporate world, I was able to put up with a lot of annoying stuff if the job actually allowed me to learn and grow. Most of us don’t mind sweating as long as we’re sweating for a good reason.

Now if only bad corporate gigs burned 600-800 calories per hour. Then, even if we were aggravated and frustrated, at least we’d be in great shape and could eat all the Krispy Kremes we wanted.

The Bear Stearns Bailout

March 17th, 2008

Written by Pamela Skillings

As you probably know by now, JP Morgan has announced that it will acquire  former rival Bear Stearns for a bargain basement price of $2 share. The deal was helped along by the federal government amid fears that a collapse of Bear Stearns could have disastrous effects on the global financial markets.

Bear Stearns was said to be the the most exposed to risky bets on the subprime mortgage market and a CNN poll shows that most resondents were more annoyed than relieved by the bailout and viewed it as "rewarding bad behavior.’

A JP Morgan spokesman would not comment on plans for Bear Stearns’ 14,000 employees around the world.  I know what it’s like to work for a big, historic financial services firm during an unexpected collapse and bailout.  I was in the public relations department at Barings, the U.K. merchant bank that  financed the Napoleonic Wars and the Louisiana Purchase, when one "rogue trader" (eventually played by Ewan McGregor in the movie about the event) brought down the whole firm.

Eventually, ING swooped in to buy us out and absorb us. That proved to be a dramatic lesson learned at my first job out of college. I went on to experience many more dramatic developments at my places of employment — another corporate bankruptcy, a major merger, and many acquisitions and reorganizations.

I can certainly sympathize with those at Bear Stearns and JP Morgan (and other Wall Street firms battling disappointing quarterly results). It’s hard to stay focused on work when you’re worried about your job and how all of the drama is going to play out.  When you work for a big firm like Bear Stearns (or Barings), you don’t imagine you’ll ever have to worry about the whole company going down the tubes. You may expect layoffs and reorganizations, but you don’t anticipate waking up to find that the entire firm is on the brink of collapse and there are Daily News reporters waiting outside your office building.

I imagine that the big financial services industry recruiters will be fielding a lot of calls today. Back in the day at Barings, I was polishing my resume within moments of hearing the news. The encouraging news is that I had a new job lined up before the first round of layoffs hit after the reorganization.

There’s not much you can do to prevent  being laid off (the names on those downsizing lists are rarely chosen based on performance), but you can take charge of your career by keeping your options open and developing a solid Plan B. See my post at Lifehack about how to prepare for a possible layoff.

Women in Finance Still Paid Less

March 13th, 2008

Written by Pamela Skillings

According to a new survey from the Financial Women’s Association, women who work in finance are still paid less than men for comparable work and have made little progress on the equal pay front since 1998.

96% of the 259 association members surveyed said that women are paid less. This is exactly the same response received to the same question a decade ago in the Financial Women’s Association’s 1998 survey. When asked about improvements over the last three years, only 10% felt that pay parity had improved.

The survey also revealed that nearly two-thirds of respondents consider their gender a factor that holds them back in their careers in the financial industry. Many cited a lack of access to decision-makers, mentors, or the type of assignments that are critical for career advancement. Some of the specific obstacles perceived as obstacles to women’s career advancement were:

  • "Old boys’ neworks"
  • Women failing to support other women
  • Female stereotypes
  • Family obligations
  • Limited access to flex time/part-time
  • Lack of political savvy and "ability to play the game"
  • Ethnicity

Is anyone else starting to feel really depressed? I worked in the financial services industry for many years and I must admit that I witnessed a lot of these obstacles firsthand. In at least one position, I know I earned significantly less than a male colleague with less responsibility, fewer years of experience, and lower performance scores. I also remember well feeling shut out of the old boys’ network and many lovely specific incidents that I won’t get into here.

So I’m not surprised that these factors are still issues. I guess what bothers me is the fact that these issues are still so common. And the fact that there have been no improvements since 2002 (at least) despite all of the happy corporate talk at big companies about diversity and on-ramping and encouraging women leaders.

Is the financial services industry particularly unfair to women or is this a symptom of a bigger issue across industries? In my research for Escape from Corporate America, I was encouraged to learn about great programs to promote diversity and flexibility at many forward-thinking and employee-focused firms. Unfortunately, these companies seem to still be exceptions to the rule when it comes to fair treatment of all employees, regardless of gender and ethnicity.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from financial services industry employees about their response to this survey and whether they think the results are representative.

The Cost of Useless Corporate Meetings

March 12th, 2008

Written by Pamela Skillings

useless meetingsSick and tired of long meetings that accomplish little? Wish there was a way to show your manager just how much time is being wasted by his obsession with meetings? Check out a nifty little application from PayScale.com called the Meeting Miser.

The application first asks you to enter your location, then the number of meeting attendees and their job titles. Then it’s time to start the timer and watch as the dollars in wasted salary add up as the seconds tick by.

I punched in the details for a recent sales and marketing meeting that I attended and the cost was $3.10 per minute (not including the consultants in the room, which probably more than doubled that rate).

For employees, meetings continue to suck time after they leave the conference room and return to their desks. Once the meeting’s over, they have to make up for lost work hours and catch up on emails.

That’s not to say there aren’t times when a meeting is justified. Some issues just can’t be resolved effectively via rounds of emails and phone calls. Sometimes you really do need to get everybody in the room and hash things out. But let’s face it, even necessary meetings are usually too long and constantly wander off-topic.

Here’s an idea for the next time you anticipate being trapped in a long and unproductive meeting. Launch the Meeting Miser surreptitiously and make a note of the final dollar tally. Later, share the horrifying figure with your boss in a diplomatic and non-confrontational way (remember — none of this is his fault in any way, of course) and offer to help brainstorm ideas for streamlining meetings (like canceling most of them and keeping the rest focused on more specific agendas).

There’s nothing managers like more than an employee with a keen respect for the bottom line. You might just be able to reduce your meeting load and boost your reputation with the boss at the same time.

More Advice on Meeting Management


7 Ways to Avoid Pointless Meetings from Ben Yoskovitz at Instigator Blog  — Great tips on how to make your meetings more effective (and, most imortantly, shorter)

How to Kill Meetings at Lifehack.org — Leo Babauta offers advice on avoiding time-suck meetings.

Meeting Tokens at 43 Folders — Merlin Mann at 43 Folders introduces a brilliant new concept — meeting tokens good for just 15 minutes. On a related note, Merlin and the creative people at The Mule have collaborated on this great t-shirt for members of the anti-meeting movement.

10 Ways to Stay Sane in a Horrible, Horrible Job

February 27th, 2008

Written by Pamela Skillings

Is your job making you crazy? Spending 40+ hours per week in a stressful work environment can take a serious toll on both your mental and physical health. Job stress has been linked to conditions including anxiety, depression, ulcers, obesity, chronic back pain, high blood pressure, and heart disease. That "I hate my job" feeling could literally be making you sick.

But it’s not always easy to walk away from a bad job. I speak from experience. I learned about all of the sanity savers on this list the hard way – I stayed in a job I didn’t like for years before I worked up the courage to quit.

1. Make a Plan to Get Out

job stress businessman

The most important first step is to get serious about changing your situation. You will be amazed at how much less aggravating your job can become once you have a solid plan to get out. Even the worst days are easier to bear if you know the end is in sight.

So think about what you can do to stop the madness – get off of that hellish project, transfer to a different department, replace that incompetent employee, or figure out how to quit your job and move on to something more fulfilling. What would it take to make things better? And then, what do you need to do to get there?

If your job is running you ragged, the idea of making time for planning can be daunting. That’s why so many people stay stuck in bad situations. But you have to prioritize your long-term health and happiness and find the time, even if that means your days become a little more hectic in the short term. The reward of a better job situation is well worth the temporary strain. We can’t depend on our employers to guide our career paths anymore. It is up to us to take charge. And if we don’t proactively plan, we run the risk of getting caught up in momentum toward goals we don’t even really want.

2. Take a Mental Health Day

job stress mental health

One way to make time for hatching your escape plan is to take a mental health day. That’s right. Play hooky. Some of you Type A personalities may have trouble with this idea. However, if you’re on the verge of burnout and your employer refuses to let up the pace, you may have to take matters into your own hands.

A day away from the madness can be a great way to get some perspective. It’s easy to start taking work way too personally when you never have a chance to step back and view things objectively. At the same time, countless studies have found that people perform better when they have time away to refresh.

So you owe it to yourself and your company to take a day off if you’ve reached your limit. You can call in sick and you don’t even have to lie. You’re “not feeling well enough to come in.” After all, burnout can be just as debilitating as a bad cold.

3. Take a Walk

job stress woman walking

You don’t have to take a whole day off to benefit from a little mental health break. Even a ten-minute break to step away from your desk and take a few deep breaths can be beneficial when you’re feeling stressed out.

Even better, getting out of the office environment for a little bit longer can give you the space you need to figure out a better solution to the problem at hand or defuse a negative situation. When you’re feeling out of control or on the verge of saying or doing something you might regret, just walk away. Take a walk around the block or duck out to the gym and work out your negative energy.

Just stop what you’re doing, get away from the people who are getting on your last nerve, and focus your mind on something besides the cause of your stress. If you can, go outside for a breath of fresh air. Psychological studies have shown that gazing at views of nature can provide relief from mental fatigue and enhance competence.

4. Make Time for Activities that Energize You

job stress golf

All work and no play make Jack not only a dull boy, but also a very cranky one. If you’re not getting the fulfillment you need at work, you have to make time for your passions after hours. Without a regular dose of joy in your life, burnout is inevitable.

Think about what’s missing. Do you need a creative outlet? Do you long to be able to make a bigger difference in the world? Do you hunger for greater intellectual challenge? Look into hobbies, classes, or volunteer work that can help you fill the void. You may think you don’t have time for fun or fulfillment, but I can guarantee you that a little bit of inspiration will give you more energy and make your days much more pleasant.

5. Make Friends In and Out of the Office

job stress children

Recent research studies show job satisfaction increases by nearly 50 percent when you have a close friend at work. It’s a lot more fun to come to the office when you have colleagues that you like and respect. Having friends at the office is even more important when you’re stuck in a miserable job. You need at least one trusted confidante that you can vent to. You can also benefit from the informed advice and support of colleagues who know all of the players and issues that you’re dealing with.

At the same time, make sure that you continue to cultivate a circle of interesting friends outside the office. The very act of getting away from work and work people to enjoy totally unrelated activities and discussions can be very rejuvenating. Spending time with “normal” people can also provide you with new and healthier perspectives on your work. You may even meet someone who can hire you or recommend you for a better job. You certainly won’t find job leads if you spend all of your evenings crying into your beer with the gang from the office.

6. Sleep On It

job stress bear

If you’re dealing with a stressful job, chances are good that you haven’t been getting enough sleep. When schedules get hectic, people tend to start cutting back on their sleep hours in order to fit everything in. We’ve all pulled an occasional all-nighter when an important project called for it. However, consistent neglect of your body’s natural need for sleep can make you more irritable and lead to significantly lower job satisfaction.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you may very well be better off going home to bed than working late. You’ll think more clearly in the morning and be more productive. Likewise, if you have a big decision to make or are feeling tempted to respond emotionally to a work conflict, try sleeping on the situation in order to get enough distance (and rest) to make an informed choice.

7. Book Your Vacation Now

job stress vacation

Research has shown that workers who take regular vacations have lower stress levels and are less likely to experience burnout. Unfortunately, half of U.S. workers don’t take the vacation days they’re given. In fact, U.S. workers forfeited approximately 421 million vacation days in 2005.

If you’ve got vacation days coming, don’t put them off any longer. A vacation lets you recharge your batteries so that you can do a better job at work when you return. It can also give you time and distance to think about your job situation and how you’d like it to change.

Even if you can’t get away right now, you can schedule your trip and start planning your vacation activities. Scheduling your getaway now will give you something specific to look forward to and think about on those days when work feels like it will never get better.

8. Laugh It Off

job stress baby

Did you know that humor can reduce job stress, boost morale, strengthen workplace bonds, and even help ward off burnout? And here you thought all those stupid forwarded joke emails were complete wastes of time.

A little comedy can help you release tension and lighten up a bit. So keep your funniest friend’s phone number handy and call when you’re having a bad day. Upload sets by your favorite stand-up comics to your iPod and take a quick comedy break when you need one. After all, it’s physically impossible to feel totally miserable when you’re laughing.

9. Just Breathe

job stress breathing

You may have heard this advice before, but it bears repeating. When things get tough, deep breathing can take you from crazed to calm in just a few minutes.

When we get stressed, we tend to start breathing more shallowly. As a result, our cells don’t get as much oxygen and when your brain cells don’t get enough oxygen, it’s hard to think clearly or calmly.

The best quick relief for feeling overwhelmed is to just breathe. Find a secluded or semi-secluded spot, close your eyes, and focus on taking deep slow breaths from your belly. Keep your mind on your breathing and refuse to be distracted by other thoughts or outside noises, if only for a minute or two. This process will help you get that oxygen to your brain while also clearing out unproductive thoughts. It can be a great temporary fix when you’re feeling frazzled.

10. Get Some Help

job stress coaching

If you’ve tried everything that you can think of to make your bad job tolerable and you’re still suffering, it may be time to call in some outside help. Working with a career counselor or coach could help you more clearly identify the root causes of your job misery and explore solutions that you haven’t thought about. If your work situation is having a serious emotional impact, you may prefer to speak with a counselor or therapist.

There’s no need to suffer in silence and no shame in asking for help. They don’t give out medals for bravely enduring terrible jobs.

If your job is affecting your mental or your physical health, you owe it to yourself to do whatever you can to make the situation better. While your ultimate goal may be a better job, these ten tips can help you keep your sanity until you’re ready to give your notice.

Do you have additional ideas for minimizing stress in a horrible job? Share your stories and advice and add to the list.

Workplace Stress is a Business Problem That Companies Prefer to Ignore

February 17th, 2008

Written by Pamela Skillings

Workplace stress is the most frequently cited reason U.S. employees consider leaving their jobs, according to a new survey by consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide.  Employees defined their  top causes of workplace stress as long hours, work/life balance, technologies that expand availability, and managers’ inability to recognize stress.

More surprisingly, another Watson Wyatt survey found that nearly half of employers (48%) acknowledge that stress caused by overwork is affecting business performance and 32% said that work/life balance issues were taking a toll on the bottom line.

Although companies know that workplace stress is a problem, very few are taking steps to address it. Only 5% said they are taking action to address stress caused by long hours. A more encouraging 16% said they are taking action to relieve stress caused by work/life balance issues.

Those companies that don’t address these issues may find themselves paying the price in health care and retention costs. According to a statement by Shelly Wolf,  national practice director of health and productivity at Watson Wyatt: “Too much stress from heavy demands, poorly defined priorities and little on-the-job flexibility can add to health issues. By leaving stress unaddressed, employers invite an increase in unscheduled time off, absence rates and health care costs — all of which hurt a company’s bottom line.”

Office Holiday Party Survival Guide

December 11th, 2007

Written by Pamela Skillings

It’s that time of year again. The office holiday party is supposed to be a festive occasion, but we all know that some people can take a good time a little bit too far. That can be incredibly entertaining to watch, so remember to pace yourself and let somebody else be the poor chump that everyone will be smirking about tomorrow. After all, the drunks at this party are the same people who may be determining your year-end bonus and you can’t count on them blacking out and forgetting all of your transgressions by morning. The following are some common office holiday party blunders that can continue to cause shame and regret well into the new year:

  • Inappropriate Intoxication — Keep your drinking to a minimum, especially if you’re a lightweight. There’s a fine line between happily tipsy and embarrassingly inebriated. Beware of open bars as free drinks tend to go down much more easily. At my first-ever office holiday party as a recent college grad, I watched as one of the young associates got ridiculously drunk, passed out on the dance floor, and had to be taken away by ambulance and treated for alcohol poisoning. The CEO rode along to make sure he was okay (probably for liability purposes). It was no surprise when the poor guy was transferred to the Bombay office soon after.
  • Inappropriate Affection — It’s generally best to avoid drunken public make-out sessions with bosses and/or coworkers. What happens at the holiday party never stays at the holiday party especially if there is tongue involved.
  • Inappropriate Attire — Leave the Santa sweater at home. You may think you’re being ironic, but you still look like a doofus. It’s hard to see executive potential in somebody wearing a Santa sweater. At the same time, avoid trying to look too hot (I know that’s hard for you). Showing off your goodies at work (even a work party) is likely to lead to gossip and attention that you don’t want.
  • Inappropriate Dancing — Take a lesson from Elaine. Displays of spastic dancing will not soon be forgotten by your peers.

Bad Day at the Office?

December 7th, 2007

Written by Pamela Skillings

Had a bad day at the office? Feel like throwing something?
See how others have handled bad cases of cubicle fever in this strangely satisfying video.

Warning: Innocent office equipment WAS harmed during the production of this video.

The Saddest Little Cubicles in the Whole Wide World

November 5th, 2007

Written by Pamela Skillings

Think you work in a cramped, depressing cubicle? Check out the winners of Wired’s recent Saddest Cubicle Contest and you may start to feel a little bit better about your own work digs. My personal favorite is the pathetic workspace that’s been jerry-rigged out of old filing cabinet drawers (Photo 2 of 11). Some of the others actually don’t look much worse than my own cubicle homes from back in the day.

Actually, the average cubicle has been getting smaller. Some managers say that more open workspaces with no privacy encourage collaboration and keep employees on their toes. And it’s true that some cubicles – the large, well-lit ones, for example – can be decent work environments. But even the inventor of the cubicle, Bob Propst of office furniture innovator Herman Miller, said he never meant for them to be used the way they are today — as "barren, rat-hole places" in Propst’s words.

What’s so bad about working in cozy little cubes?

  • The noise: I don’t need to hear my coworkers sneeze, gossip about the latest episode of The Hills, or have loud speaker-phone arguments with their spouses. This does not make me feel more collaborative.
  • The smells: People with heavy workloads like to eat lunch at their desks. Often, they eat tuna. Others spend their lunch hour at the gym and save time by skipping that annoying post-workout shower. Still others favor bold personal scents that do not mix well with old tuna and B.O.
  • The distractions: It’s hard to focus on work with the noise, the smells, and the constant visits from coworkers, bosses, random passersby and habitual hoverers. For those working on tasks that require focus and concentration, a cubicle environment can be a nightmare.
  • The lack of privacy: It’s hard to preserve a dignified professional image when your coworkers can eavesdrop on your phone calls from your doctor, your accountant, and your bikini waxer. And I really don’t need to know about Linda from Sales’ preference for the full Brazilian or about Ted from Accounting’s foot fungus. Really, we should all be taking care of that sort of business on our personal time. But that’s assuming that we have any personal time in the average work day.

Do you have any other cubicle pet peeves? Do share. Do you have a dingy little cube that puts the Wired winners to shame? Do send photos.

Job Stress Makes You Fat

August 27th, 2007

Written by Pamela Skillings

A new study from the UK found that chronically stressed female workers were 73% more likely to become obese than their coworkers — even with similar eating and exercise habits.

The study authors, as quoted in Glamour magazine, explained that this could be because long-term stress increases your levels of cortisol, a hormone that can encourage storage of fat in the gut area. I guess that’s a big part of why bare midriffs are against the dress code in your office.

Apparently, staying in a job that you hate can cause you to pack on the pounds even if you manage to eat right. And we all know that stressful jobs make it much harder to squeeze in trips to the gym and time for planning and preparing healthy meals. Now, it seems that the stress itself can lead to weight gain. Still no word on whether stress about the weight gain will lead to additional weight gain.

If you’re feeling the effects of corporate corpulence, it may be time to start shopping around for a less stressful job. At the very least, make a little time for relaxation and exercise in your schedule this week. And if anybody makes a crack about your spare tire, just blame it on your boss.