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January 22, 2019

T.G.I.M.: How The Right Work Setting Can Transform Your Life

Mondays have long been the object of near-universal scorn, right up there with mothers-in-law, trips to the dentist, and weigh-ins. I shared this perspective for many years following my divorce, when circumstances led me to accept positions that had far more to do with finances and proximity to my children than my own professional satisfaction.

At one point, I spent several years working at my children’s school: a well-regarded charter school both boys had attended since kindergarten.  As a single mother, the school had come to symbolize dependability and familiarity during a tumultuous four-year period in which I changed jobs and homes more than three times apiece. Throughout it all, the walls of this school enveloped my children in its warm and steady embrace. I was excited for the opportunity to “give back,” and in my painful new reality of shared custody the chance to see my children every day proved an irresistible draw.

When I started, my position did have the word “counselor” in the title, although it devolved fairly rapidly into a job that was primarily disciplinary in nature. I like to believe I was good at the work, striving to balance my therapeutic orientation with the tenets of both restorative practice and positive discipline.  Still, over the years the stress took its toll. Mine was a high-conflict office with a steady stream of unhappy students, concerned and/or angry parents, and frustrated faculty. They weren’t always unhappy with me, but negative emotions were a constant.

I began to dread Mondays to the extent that a significant portion of Sundays were ruined, as well. There was a long list of worries: Would I walk in to find my phone’s message light flashing? (Spoiler alert: it was never someone calling to thank me for the amazing job I was doing.) Would parents be waiting for me on the bench outside my office, with no appointment and a full agenda of complaints and concerns? Would I be called down to a classroom minutes before I was scheduled to teach class in order to deal with an unruly 1st grader? Did I remember to wear pants and flats in case I had to chase or restrain someone? Would one of my colleagues–many of whom taught my children–shoot me a passive-aggressive (or straight up aggressive) email criticizing the way I’d handled a disciplinary case?  

My stomach hurt all the time. I came home every day depleted and angry, my temper and energy levels short and with very little left over for my family. I tried to ease the tension with humor, sending snarky memes to like-minded colleagues with sentiments such as “I just wanted you to know how much my soul has died since I started working here” and “I’m great at multitasking in that I can passionately hate my job while doing it.” I took my Prozac religiously, began meditating, and tried hard to focus on those lovely interactions with students that, for a moment or two, would make it all feel worthwhile.  

Heading into what would turn out to be my final year at the school, I spent a fair amount of time blaming my unhappiness on “the system.” If only the (fill in the blank) administrators/parents/teachers were more (fill in the blank again) supportive/professional/informed then I wouldn’t be in this miserable situation.  

And then one day I realized something: I had legs. “Fault” was largely irrelevant; the job–whether by negligence or ignorance or intelligent design–simply wasn’t a good fit. All of this apprehension and misery were symptoms of nothing more than a poor match for my skills and passions, and it was time to go. A six-month search resulted in my being hired at a university counseling center. What I lost in salary and vacation time (“Buh-bye, summers!”) I gained a thousand times over in health and happiness.  I’m not overstating things when I say that this professional move transformed my entire life.

At the university, I’m surrounded by professionals who are passionate about the mental health of young people and who work hard to cultivate a workplace defined by mutual respect and work/life balance. I see no one other than by appointment, save for the occasional consult by one of my colleagues (which is always preceded by a polite inquiry as to whether or not I can spare the time). I receive frequent and positive feedback from both students and colleagues on the work that I do. I feel satisfaction every day knowing I’m assisting students–all of whom are at a vulnerable juncture in their lives–in getting connected to mental health resources that will bring about dynamic change.  

Now, I recognize that not everyone in a difficult work situation has the option or ability to make a change. I was incredibly fortunate to possess a combination of education, experience, and privilege that enabled me to contemplate a voluntary shift in my circumstances.

What I do know is this: work is how many of us spend the majority of our waking hours. As such, it can have a profound impact on our overall well-being. If your job/work/career is a net neutral on this front (or, for the lucky ones, a net positive), congratulations. If not, consider making a change either to your actual circumstances (i.e. a new job, different hours, new duties or projects, rearranging your office, mending a professional fence, finding an after-hours hobby that feeds your soul), or at the very least, to your attitude.  

Can you find something about your job for which you’re grateful?  Money is an obvious answer, but what about a particular colleague, the setting in which you work, a short commute, the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, the ability to use your skills, or your building’s proximity to Wawa? If a more substantial change isn’t possible right now, what is possible? Reject the “it’s just a job” philosophy and embrace the notion that there’s no “just” about anything you do for 40+ hours every week.  How you spend your day, and how that work makes you feel, matters.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am no longer grateful for Fridays.  T.G.I.F. still applies, although “I’m Glad It’s Friday” would be a more accurate reflection of my feelings on the matter. The “Thank God” factor–that sense of having barely made it through the week–is completely gone.  And Sundays? Sundays are no longer hijacked by the week ahead. Gone are the accompanying stomach cramps, headaches, and frantic email searches to check and see if anyone has gotten themselves worked up into a lather since Friday.  There is only the knowledge that I will be spending tomorrow at peace, and in harmony with my personal and professional identities.

What does next Monday look like for you?

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Allison Banbury  |  Contribution: 10,855