Editorial Note: It is extremely rare that I write about real stories as they happen. Confidentiality must be maintained in my work at all costs. However, the aftermath of an article in the New York Times in August 2015 demands a response. In this post, all stories have been generalized; only the original post is referenced. I will not confirm the presence of employees from any one company in the Seattle area as clients. I was not approached by Amazon nor any other company to write this post. These are my own words. – imei
On Sunday morning August 16, 2015, New York Times writers Jodi Kantor and David Streitfelt published an article about workplace ethics and conditions at Amazon.com. The article’s description from former employees who cried at their desks and were encouraged to tear each other’s ideas apart through use of internal communications sparked a firestorm of comments, including ones from current Amazon employees defending the company’s practices and attacking the veracity of the journalists. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded quickly with a letter to his employees, asking them to share whether they had experienced the stories found in the article.
How does any of this relate to a private practice in mental health a few miles down the road from Amazon’s headquarters? Why would I devote a lengthy post to what is being hailed by some as a classic example of media spin?
By Sunday evening, it began. My office phone voicemail and emails began receiving messages. I saw a rapid spike in the number of inquiries for new client openings. While it’s not out of the ordinary for Seattle Direct Counseling to receive steady new client inquiries via Psychology Today, it was unusual to receive them at the end of August, which is traditionally a more quiet time. Families often go on vacation in late August, and I was about to take a short vacation as well. I fielded as many calls as I could before I was off the grid for ten days. When I had returned, my inbox flowed with new messages and requests.
The phone continues to ring. And there is a good reason why it’s my phone that’s ringing. There is something all people need to be able to count on when they decide to call a therapist and ask for help in sorting through an event such as this one.
Why Call Me?
The two most important questions people on the other end of the cell phone seek answers to are:
- Do you understand my situation (and therefore, do you care)?
- Are you available for an appointment sooner than later (because I am facing crisis, and I am in pain)?
The reason my phone began to ring has more to do with what has happened during the many months and years before the New York Times writers decided to publish this article. Because of my interest and understanding in the lives of those who work in the technology sector, I built my practice to notice the triumphs, stresses, rewards, disappointments, and repeating life cycles of its employees.
When someone calls and wants to know if I understand his or her situation, s/he isn’t asking me if I’ve ever worked in the same company or held the same job. S/he wants to know if I will listen, and if I care what is happening to him or her. I truly believe that the majority of people who have trained to become therapists can demonstrate that they are good listeners and that they care. So that is good news! Pretty much no matter where you call, you’re likely to reach a skilled person.
But when I ask questions about how they found me, or why they chose me over the large number of therapists available in the Seattle area, there is another part of the story which I believe is critical for you to hear. They believe that my message is consistent: I listen to the soul of the corporate worker, and I care. What they have gleaned from the Internet about my work is that I have a special heart for those who wish to learn to thrive in the corporate sector, to work with new technologies, and keep up with the breakneck production speeds required to meet demand in the digital world.
After the NYT article was published and the calls began to come in, just letting people know that I had read the article was one thing; having the audacity to tell anyone what to do with what they have experienced in their own place of work is wholly another. I believe that people are seeking a caring but objective listener, and that their first desire is to be heard and understood.
Social Media sites have shown us that people seek acknowledgement and sympathy, and if you want those things, you can usually find them. But in the counselor’s office, we want something more: a F2F connection, a witness to our suffering, our process, and our pathway to growth and change. Sympathy alone will not get you unstuck.
So when the next question of my schedule comes up early in conversation, I completely understand. We can find sympathy from many, but we cannot always find a person who is ready for us. And while I cannot have anticipated the release of this NYT article, it’s as if I have been ready to hear all these fresh, new stories, where the answers as to what to do next aren’t formulaic, because they must arise from within the client him or herself, not the therapist.
One of the great things about working in private practice is being able to choose my own hours. When the phone started ringing, I chose to open extra hours on my schedule to accommodate the influx of people needing to be seen sooner than later, even when I offered to give referrals to other counselors in the area if they wanted an immediate appointment.
I am happy to announce that while the last few weeks have been exhausting, I also think they have been tremendously fruitful. I have made an extra day or two available for the overflow of people seeking counseling because of workplace stress, regardless of employer.
Do You Think I Should Leave?
This post would just be my story of handling the influx of new clients if I didn’t offer some helpful tips for everyone who finds themselves in a challenging work environment.
Completely moving away from talking specifically about Amazon or any one company, I have been asked this question many times: do you think I should leave my job?
And here is where it’s my responsibility to remind you that I would never tell you what to do. Only you can tell you what is in your best interest. But I can help you discover what is most meaningful to you to help you through a time of crisis in your workplace. I can help reflect your words back to you in a way that helps provide the insight you need to make decisions.
Arriving at the place where you might be asking that question about leaving speaks to a longer period of discontent and uncertainty about one’s fit within a company’s culture, structure, demands, and one’s short-term and long-term work goals, life aspirations, and immediate financial needs and obligations.
Unless you are either sure that you can get another job in a short timeframe, or the reason you want to quit your job relates to a life-threatening loss (such as one’s health), there is a cycle of questions and a process to consider before you turn in your letter of resignation and employee badge:
- Can you name the primary challenge at your place of work that causes you distress?
- What, if anything, has been done to resolve the challenge?
- If the challenge isn’t something that can be resolved, is there a way you can be “with” the problem that is different from how you are facing it now? If yes, does it make a difference? If yes, do you know how to learn that way of being?
- If HR, your boss, or the entire department were to eradicate the challenge, would it change your feelings about wanting to leave (this helps eliminate smokescreen issues)?
- How willing are you to be part of the solution? How much time would you be willing to wait for change to occur?
- Is there anything about your workplace that leaves you repulsed with what you are being asked to become?
Even if the answer to all the previous questions are positive, the fifth and sixth ones are the most eye-opening and perhaps the most critical. If you are not open to being a part of the solution, if you are not patient for change to occur, and if you are repulsed by what is becoming of you, these are the least tolerable conditions that most people are willing to endure.
If we are to believe Mr. Bezos in his statement that even he would not want to work for a company that followed the description of such a dystopian company as described in the NYT article, then he agrees with what defines unacceptable workplace conditions.
Perhaps your six (or more!) conditions will read slightly different from mine. That’s OK. I encourage you to write your own. Mostly, I encourage you to be clear on what your values are, as it will be your values that help steer you through the myriad of environments, personalities, job demands, and expectations you may encounter in the over 90,000 hours — a third of your adult life — you will spend in the world of work.
It is my stance, as the owner of SDC, that we never tell a client what decision to make regarding their work. We are not “advice givers.” In the midst of workplace crisis, we can help you assess what is happening, how you are affected, remind you of your goals and values, and direct you to a process you can use to come to your own decision, while revealing your strengths and challenges in engaging problem solving and conflict resolution.
Many people fight long and hard to get into the positions, jobs, and level of leadership that they find themselves in. We do not expect that a couple of sessions will magically enlighten anyone into a hasty solution regarding their work. We encourage open dialogue and thoughtful encounter. We educate people on the commonly used defense mechanisms that keep people entrenched in repeated cycles of suffering, hiding, and misalignment.
Our doors have been open to you, and I believe you will find your time with us a rejuvenating experience of being heard and being helped.
P.S. The phone continues to ring. And yes, we have a little more room on the schedule for you.