Her job was killing her. “Someone was always on top of me,” says Nicole Faith, who worked for one of the many Internet companies in the city.
“I have no problem being accountable for what I do,” says the 26-year-old. But even when she was working from home, she felt that there was always someone hovering over her on the chat screen, wanting to know her every move. Never mind the office politics.
“I had regular panic attacks, felt like I would faint at any moment walking down the street and was always on the verge of tears,” she says, adding that, “the job literally made me sick — my health had gotten to a point that was unlivable, unworkable and a mess.”
So she quit her job to save her life.
It may sound a bit dramatic, but Jeffery Pfeffer, a Stanford professor and author of “Dying for a Paycheck” (Harper Business), says that toxic workplace practices — micromanagement, fear of layoffs, long or unpredictable working hours and making people feel as if they are not good enough — is the fifth leading cause of death, in front of Alzheimer’s and kidney disease.
“People stay in jobs that are unhealthy for them, which cause stress.,” he says. “That often leads to smoking, drinking, overeating, not sleeping and dying.”
Pfeffer’s book is a call to action that companies need to change and that individuals, when they are in workplaces that are overridden with stress, need to quit.
He likens a toxic workplace to a room filling up with smoke. “You don’t say, ‘I can’t leave’ when your house is on fire. If your job is killing you, even if you are worried about how you are going to pay your bills, you need to go.”
Unlike Faith, workers don’t usually do that of their own volition. What happens more often than not, according to Pfeffer, is that a loved one intervenes and says, “You can’t go on like this.”
That’s what happened to former JPMorgan Chase executive Alexander Lowry. At one time, working on Wall Street was his dream. And although he climbed the ranks of the firm quickly,, by four and a half years in, he was done.
“Putting in as many as 100 hours per week was doing me in,” he says. Not only that, but his fiancée pointed out that his work ethic wasn’t consistent with the life and the family they wanted to build.
“There are five big buckets that you have in life: family, finances [your job], friends, fitness and faith,” he says, noting that the “job bucket” was getting a disproportionate amount of his time and energy. And while it was important, it wasn’t the only significant thing in his life.
Lowry doesn’t see his time at JPMorgan Chase as a bad choice. “Careers have seasons,” he says. He and his wife have since relocated to the north shore of Massachusetts and have a daughter whom they can now enjoy together. He has also launched a one-year master’s program in financial analysis at nearby Gordon College.
Career coach Amy Alpert of South Orange, NJ, says that not everyone makes transitions so seamlessly, but workers should put the work treadmill on pause once in a while — preferably, before there’s a problem — and ask themselves questions such as: What quality of life do I want? How do I work best? Where do I work best? When do I work best?
“Not a lot of people have stopped to think about that,” she says, adding that there are no stock answers. “Everyone needs to work with their own situation and their own personality.”
That’s exactly what Faith did, but perhaps a little less formally.
“At first I looked for a new job and did some freelancing in web design,” she says. Working with entrepreneurs, she discovered that they needed more help than just design — they actually needed their online businesses to be built for them. To fill that need, she developed 10CaratCreations.com, from which she now makes a comfortable living. Faith has also become a “digital nomad,” someone whose job is Internet-based, which allows her to travel and work from anywhere in the world.
Faith feels good about her choices.
“I don’t think anyone should put their health on the back burner to collect a paycheck. We all deserve to be respected and healthy,” she says.
Is job stress killing you? Here’s what the experts recommend:
Speak up sooner rather than later
“Don’t let things get to the point where you’re compelled to run into your boss’ office and scream, ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ ” says Alpert. When there’s a problem, Alpert recommends approaching your manager with alternatives that work for you and still get the job done. Position it as: “Here’s my idea. What do you think?”
Take care of yourself
Don’t work an unsustainable schedule, skip vacation or miss spending time with family and friends. “These things buffer the effects of stress,” says Pfeffer.
It’s not just about you
“Job-related stress kills families and marriages,” says Elisabeth Goldberg, a Flatiron-based licensed marriage and family therapist. “If you get shut down at work, don’t shut down at home. If you are a partner, listen.”
Before you accept a job offer, ask about quality of life
“Ask about things that matter to you,” says Alpert. “Find out whether you are expected to answer texts on weekends or at night.” Or, if you want flexibility during the workday, let your manager know that you don’t mind logging on at night provided you can take some time off during the day. “Often these things can be worked out on a case-by-case basis,” she says
Work for an employer who values health and well-being
“Work is more than money, and money cannot completely undo damage to relationships or physical or mental health,” says Pfeffer.