Are you in a groove or in a rut?
How perceptions are redefining workplace realities.

I’ve had several conversations recently with people in the process of re-examining their relationship with their careers as a result of the economic downturn. What some are finding is a juncture where they aren’t certain where they “fit” anymore.

The people and conversations, and their jobs, are true as depicted. The regions where they work is factual. But names were changed for purposes of privacy.

Person A we’ll call “Marie.” Marie is a Milwaukee school admin support person and she has two mandatory weeks of vacation that she must take during a specified time in the summer. She told me that while she was on vacation last week, she watched a television show about feeling anxious before going to work — the psychiatrist being interviewed on the show talked about the warning signs your body is sending by feelings of mild nausea and apprehension on weekday mornings. She said, “I’ve become so used to feeling like that this year that I didn’t even realize how stressed I was.”

We’ll call Person B “Mike.” Mike works in the construction trade and recently a Chicago union called him back to work after he was laid off for over a year and a half. Upon hearing his good news, I remarked to him that the phone call must have been a great relief.

“Not really,” he said.

“Going back was way more stressful than being laid off,” he added. “I had a new crew chief my first day back, and he kept coming in and checking my work every half an hour or so. After a couple days of this, I told him, ‘Hey, I’m not even opening my tool box today unless you say that you understand that I’m 40 years old and I don’t need a babysitter. I only want to see your face two times a day — in the morning to tell me what you want me working on, and in at the end of the workday to tell me what a good job I’ve done. Other than that, you interrupt my work to check on me or even to tell me ‘good job’ one more time and I’m out of here.'”

“And you still have a job on that crew?” I asked.

“I sort of hoped he’d pop in and give me a reason to walk out, but he didn’t, so I guess I’m back in the grind after all. But after being out of the workforce for so long, I learned a lot about what’s important and what I need to survive, and being hassled or watched over … I just can’t take that right now.”

We’ll call Person C “James.” James is a writer with a suburban Milwaukee newspaper. He’s taken a 40% pay cut in the last year and he has a mandatory one week off (unpaid) per every two months worked. He’s “looking” but only half-heartedly, since job prospects with other newspapers, he tells me, are bleak. “There’s no option for me now without changing careers, and meanwhile, I’m trying to support a family. I’m just hanging on by my fingernails, but it’s really, really stressful right now.”

The dust is settling. People who hung on to their jobs are now realizing how stressed they have been, even doing much of the same work they’ve done for years. People who lost their jobs and are now lucky enough to return to a full-time position again don’t always feel “lucky.” Some come back angry … different. And people who still facing a potential downsizing, and dealing with interim measures and losses are understandably still feeling vulnerable and helpless.

I don’t have any answers. I only have a growing awareness that there is a lingering sense of desperation in the workplace that has taken a real toll on current employees and the disenfranchised as well, and the recession isn’t over yet. So those of us who still are doing what we love doing, with companies that we enjoy working for — those of us who perceive we are still in a groove and not in a rut — are the really lucky ones.

I think we should appreciate what we have while we have it and not be too cavalier about the sufferings of those around us who are struggling to re-enter or remain employed themselves. The last thing I want to do is walk a mile in their shoes.

That’s my thought this week.

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