Bullish: Coping With Career Suckage You Have No Control Over (Or DO You…?)

Even if you have studiously avoided all religion and twelve-step programs throughout your life, as I have, you’re probably familiar with this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

The “God” part is sort of superfluous here, isn’t it?

I wrote about the dangers of mindless positive thinking in Bullish: Gratitude is Nice, But Don’t Let It Keep You From Action. Specifically, I wrote that positive thinking – forcefully finding a silver lining in a terrible situation – is an inappropriate response to things you can actually change. Of my failing company, I wrote:

I was working so hard at thinking positively — constantly feeding energy to my internal spin doctor — that I was too sapped of any actual volition, and too self-brainwashed to simply give up on a bad idea.

When my company finally crashed and burned, I was free to see the world as it was, and make choices accordingly. I moved to New York. I campaigned for a fabulous new job. I tried 10,000 crazy things.

So, we should all find the courage to change the things we can, and the serenity to accept the rest.

Except that, living in a wealthy, developed nation the 21st century, you have the ability to change all kinds of things that people in less fortunate circumstances cannot, and that your lady-forebears would have FREAKING LOVED to change if they could. You are one of the most privileged people in the entire world. Most things can be changed.


With that in mind, let’s see a question from a reader:

I work as a social worker in a hospital. I have a large, complicated unit of patients, and I share this unit with another social worker. She gets half the patients, I get half. She’s absent a lot. Not only does she take a lot of vacation, she also takes a lot of sick days. When she’s gone, I have both caseloads. This volume of work is very stressful. Recently she told me she was going to take some unknown number of weeks of unpaid leave due to an illness: more than 6 weeks, unknown exactly how long. I went to my boss and asked if I was expected to complete all of the work for all of the patients on our shared unit during this time. I emphasized that having the increased volume under my belt most likely meant that individual patient time/care would suffer. She basically told me there’s no money in the budget to hire someone to help me and there’s nothing she can do. I’m salaried. I’m going to be working a ton of extra hours with no compensation with no definitive end date. Part of me thinks I should just suck it up and hope this extra effort is reflected on my performance review (which are already great anyway). Part of me is feeling bitter. Is there a better way to think about this?

My first thought was, if this were me: Can I publish some kind of “How to solve 200 people’s problems without going crazy!” manual and get my name out there as some kind of expert? But probably not, right? Even if our letter-writer does a bangup job doing two people’s jobs at once, is there any payoff?

In the business world, a very reliable plan for getting ahead is to make a bunch of money for a company, and demand that you receive some of it. If the company doesn’t oblige, well, now you know how to make a bunch of money, so you can easily get hired elsewhere or go into business for yourself.

But in jobs that are not motivated by capitalism, you really lack leverage.

I sent this question to my friend Carolyn D’Aquila, an experienced social worker (and, incidentally, a spelling bee champion), who writes:

This type of situation is way too common in social work, and I can actually think of a few friends who have been through this on inpatient psych units. And when you’ve got ugly feelings like anger and bitterness, it’s especially toxic when you are trying to maintain your unflappable, professional exterior and insulate patients from stuff that’s not their problem.

Resolving (or at the least, changing) your bitterness requires one of two things to happen: address the problem itself, or change how you react to the problem if there’s nothing you can do about it. Addressing the problem itself might not be possible, particularly if money really is too tight. If you’re unionized, you can try to raise your concerns about workload and its seeming requirement that you must stay overtime. Your union and your supervisor may still both say you’re outta luck.

I work in an outpatient clinic where I have 179 of my own clients. There’s nothing that can be done about it; even my union organizer told me that if I really care so much about the size of my caseload, I should go up to Albany and lobby for a legislative cap on caseloads. Oh, right: I’ll take a vacation day and go do that after I finish all these progress notes, treatment plans, and court letters. Very dispiriting, when I thought my union rep would be a little bit Cesar Chavez, with some Eugene Debs thrown in.

That left me with one option: change how I react to the issue. You complain that your coworker took too much sick and vacation time. You’ve got no control over whatever mystery ailments or cruise reservations she makes, but you also have your own compensated time. This is an easy one: You’re entitled to time off. Use it. Even if your lavish social work salary doesn’t allow you vacations, use the time to just be away from the unit. Nobody’s going to come take those charts off your hands and insist you take a spa day. You’ve got to ask for it. The unit isn’t going anywhere when you’re gone, and your supervisor still has to arrange coverage somehow. Also think more specifically about the aspects of patient care you think will suffer. If it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff about having too many phone calls or forms to do, get aggressively organized and develop systems. Social work is a lot of rote tasks: get yourself into a rhythm.

The most important thing I can advise you is to make sure you take care of yourself, and don’t let all your energies sink into this job. Insist on doing things you like outside of work hours, and if it doesn’t involve being on duty for your crisis-addled friends, so much the better. You’re probably a very empathic person, and you think of what you can do to take the best care of the people you’re assigned to. The risk for empathic people is that without enough TLC going in, you’ll burn through your reserves of warm fuzzies for others. Be a little selfish.

Ah, that’s good advice! Mine is a little more hard-boiled, which probably has something to do with the fact that I am not a social worker and have no capacity for being one (if I offer a solution to your problem I expect you to do it or something related and send me an email in three weeks or six years or something). It also occurred to me that maybe your coworker’s mysterious “illness” is a bad case of “this job sucks.”


Furthermore, upon reflection: This person is going on unpaid leave, and yet there isn’t money to hire someone? THAT’S NOT HOW MATH WORKS. Aren’t there temporary/substitute social workers? Could you get a brochure from a social worker temp agency and make a strong suggestion?

Or, could you get a book deal out of this? 150 people’s insane problems, mixed with commentary about our broken health care system, mixed with Girls-style anecdotes about your crazy twentysomething life? And then maybe it gets turned into a TV show and you’re played by whoever the hot fifteen-year-old star is this minute?

But seriously: Do you want to do this forever? You’ve probably gone to grad school to get where you are, and I’m sure some kind of calling pulled you in that direction. If you do want to do this forever, yes, get your mind right; take time off; become a paperwork fiend. And be very specific about what “this” is. You’re sure you want to do social work? You’re sure you want to do it in a hospital? You’re sure you want this job? Or you’re just sure you want to help people?

Consider putting out feelers for another job. How do you best position yourself for a move? By being “the best” (how is that measured?), or by knowing the right people?

Or consider transitioning into a related profession in the future. Once, I was breaking up with my boyfriend of 2+ years, and he managed to convince me that I was possibly crazy for doing so. (Note: I was not.) He convinced me to “go talk to someone” about it, in hopes that some therapist out there would say, “Oh yeah, the miserable relationship with the guy who told you to come here? RIGHT ON, definitely do more of that!” (Seriously, a man thought that would work!)

In any case, I did some poking around for “relationship counselors,” and ended up with a woman whose major qualification was a degree in Social Work and Marriage and Family Services (also, she was sometimes on TV to talk about relationships). She charged $175 per hour. For talking to people about some relatively minor problems. Just throwing that out there.

(See Bullish: When To Make Massive and Ballsy Life Changes For Your Career.)

You know, I googled that Serenity Prayer thing while working on this article, and I discovered that there’s more!

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

So, don’t “accept hardship as a pathway to peace” or “take the world as it is” unless you’re willing to postpone happiness UNTIL YOU’RE DEAD.

Whatever you decide, I’m sure the answer is not “suffer silently, hoping someone will notice and acknowledge you.” That literally never works.

Um, amen.

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