Cover Stories

Bringing work home

Lynne Shallcross April 1, 2012

It’s Monday of a three-day holiday weekend, and I’m sitting on my couch at home, staring at my laptop, trying to write a story about how work affects life. Ironic? Certainly. And as for you, Counseling Today reader, you’re likely skimming this story after a long day of work with clients or students, looking for ways to improve yourself as a counseling professional even as you simultaneously stir a pot on the stove for dinner. Regardless of how we might feel about it, the line between work and our lives outside of work is getting harder and harder to distinguish.

According to the Center for American Progress, 86 percent of men and 67 percent of women in the United States work more than 40 hours per week. A recent story from The Fiscal Times points to studies suggesting that the “extra work is negatively affecting our health, family lives and effectiveness at work.” One such study published in 2008 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine indicated that anxiety and depression are increased among people who work the most overtime. A 2007 study from the American Psychological Association showed that 74 percent of employees regard their work as a significant source of stress, while 20 percent admitted to missing work due to stress.

But even when we’re home, we remain more connected to work than ever before. In 2008, research from the Pew Research Center found that 22 percent of employees are expected to respond to work email even when they’re not at work, half of all employees check work email over the weekend and a third check work email while on vacation. With the economic downturn resulting in fewer employees shouldering more of the workload at many companies, it stands to reason that those percentages have only grown during the past four years.

New research published earlier this year in the journal PLoS ONE by the Public Library of Science again indicated that working extended hours could substantially increase a person’s risk of depression. Those putting in an average of at least 11 hours per day at work were two and a half times more likely to experience depression than those who put in seven- or eight-hour workdays. Researchers took into account factors including job strain, support in the workplace, alcohol use, smoking and chronic physical diseases, but the connection between depression and lengthy workdays held up.

Over the course of our lifetime, we spend most of our waking hours at work, points out David Blustein, a professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College. The only thing that competes with work in terms of time spent is sleeping, he adds. Although many studies focus on the negative side of work, Blustein says at its best, work provides people with a sense of self-determination and a means of social connection. It can also serve as a source of fulfillment or compensation for problems people might be experiencing in other areas of their lives, such as a failing relationship, he says. And, of course, stripped to its most basic function, work is the means by which people support themselves financially.

Charles P. Chen, a professor in the counseling psychology program at the University of Toronto, adds that work also assists in creating personal identity. When two people meet for the first time, Chen says, they often start the conversation by asking what the other does for a living. What we do in our careers often gives others a sense of who we are as people, he points out.

“Work is essential in our lives, both in terms of the time that it occupies as well as the psychological meaning to us,” says Blustein, a member of the American Counseling Association, a member of the Board of Directors of the National Career Development Association, which is a division of ACA, and an NCDA fellow. “In many ways, people locate significant parts of their identities in their work lives.” Work provides us with a source of intellectual stimulation, he says, as well as an arena for expressing our interests and values in a context in which we can be rewarded and affirmed.

Understanding clients’ complex connections to their work lives is essential for counselors, says Blustein, adding that vocation is not only part of the counseling profession’s foundation but also central to clients’ identities and mental health. “Work is one of the main theaters of life, and it is a place where we manifest both our dreams and disappointments,” he says.

A different kind of calling

Imagine this scenario. An angry caller is on the other end of the phone. He is yelling at you about the mortgage he’s having trouble paying and the government loan modification program he was told he qualifies for. He is audibly angry and likely scared of losing his home, so he curses at you and calls you a few unsavory names. But listening to this caller — and others like him — is your job. You can’t correct him, you can’t ask him to stop cursing and you can’t hang up on him. All you can do is try to help him — in polite a manner as possible.

Sound stressful? It is, says Melissa Sanderlin, an employee assistance provider who works with, among other clients, employees of a mortgage call center in Monroe, La., when they are referred to her practice through their insurance. “[The callers] are irritated, stressed and they take it out on the person answering the call,” Sanderlin says.

Not surprisingly, the day-in, day-out routine of fielding these high-stress phone calls can take a toll on the call center employees. “[The employees are] often dealing with anger issues, depression and anxiety,” says Sanderlin, a member of ACA. “If they were completely healthy, they might not have those issues, but the work environment definitely makes it worse. They might be functioning on a pretty normal level until they go work there.”

The mortgage callers aren’t the only ones who ramp up the anxiety levels of some of Sanderlin’s clients. Managers who aren’t always trained very well in people skills sometimes add fuel to the fire, she says. Some of her clients report that their managers aren’t always professional and appropriate, sometimes even berating call center employees in front of their co-workers. Recently, a client came to Sanderlin and said the criticism she was receiving from her manager at work was having a negative impact on her home life, her relationship with her husband and her interactions with her children. “It stays on her mind constantly,” Sanderlin says. “She thinks about it all the way home, she thinks about it at home and it wakes her up in the middle of the night. These are common complaints” among Sanderlin’s clients from the call center.

Changing managers was not an option for this particular client, so she and Sanderlin worked together on improving her coping skills and finding a way for her to stop taking the interactions personally. Sanderlin takes a similar course with clients who come to her because of the stress they feel interacting with the mortgage callers. She works with these clients on separating their self-worth from what they experience on the job, on developing anger management skills and on establishing or maintaining a healthy lifestyle consisting of exercise, proper eating habits and adequate sleep. Sanderlin also focuses on relaxation skills with these clients, some of whom have reported experiencing panic attacks when pulling into the parking lot at work.

Creating a boundary between work and home is important as well, Sanderlin says. To avoid bringing the stress of work home with them, she advises her clients to consider options such as playing music, making a phone call to a friend or family member, or even taking a different route home so they have to think about where they’re going instead of constantly replaying in their mind what happened at work. Even visualizing closing the office door or car door and leaving the day behind can help separate work from home, she says.

Blaise Morrison, a vocational rehabilitation counselor and mental health counselor for an agency in Bowling Green, Ohio, says a good first step when engaging on the topic of how work impacts life is to assess the relationship between the client and his or her job. Similar to a relationship between two people, Morrison says the worker and the place of employment both have certain needs, and if those needs aren’t being met, the relationship becomes dysfunctional.

When the job isn’t meeting the client’s needs — be they financial needs or the need to fully utilize his or her skills — the work situation can become stressful, Morrison says. “It decreases self-confidence, decreases their view of their own competency, brings on frustration and distress, and they might bring that home with them,” says Morrison, a member of ACA. “So, the counselor can look at the situation and see if the client’s needs are being met. If they’re not, this will be a barrier in the client’s mental health.”

If clients’ needs are not being met at work, Morrison says counselors can help these clients to better understand their expectations of a job, gain insight into their interests and then evaluate their skills to see if they might be better suited for a different position.

With clients who think they are in a dead-end job or otherwise feel their current work doesn’t meet their needs, Christopher Adams, an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Fitchburg State University, says he would have a discussion to determine whether they think it is important to explore other options. Among clients who want more out of their careers — whether money, responsibility, prestige or challenge — he would assist them in exploring available options as well as factors that influence their ability to change jobs. In some situations, he says, clients might wish to remain in their current jobs while simultaneously pursuing alternative avenues outside of work for making extra money, being stimulated intellectually or otherwise finding fulfillment.

Many of Sanderlin’s call center clients aren’t planning to make a career out of working there, so she collaborates with them to identify goals and develop a plan for career change. Envisioning a way out often helps these clients to feel less trapped, she says, which can contribute to reducing their stress levels. “Get them to remember what they were passionate about to begin with or to learn a new passion,” Sanderlin says. “Clients will realize they have things that they’re interested in that they could make a career out of. So, when they go back to work [at the call center], they feel like they have an end to work toward.”

Work, balance and relationships

Among the most difficult work-related circumstances for clients is when they are unemployed or underemployed, Blustein says, because they are not using the full extent of their skills and abilities at work. “In a nutshell, when people lose work or lose the opportunity to work in a job that is consistent with their talents and training, they are likely to experience a sense of loss of meaning, access to relational resources and access to the means to survive,” he says. “Considerable research has documented the impact of job loss on mental health, and the data underscore these points.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Morrison says when clients are using their skills and competencies in the workplace and their job correlates with their vocational interests, balance is often achieved and there is a positive effect on relationships outside of work. “If a job helps clients to personally grow, helps them to explore themselves more and provides positive challenges, it provides the client with a positive, reaffirming career identity, meaning the client is fully aware of their competencies, skills and vocational interests,” he says. “To have that self-awareness in vocation also allows them to have greater self-awareness in other parts of their life, greater clarity [regarding] what they expect of relationships and healthier boundaries.”

Adams, a member of ACA, says that another positive outcome of clients finding fulfillment in their jobs is that the feeling can spill over into life outside of work. From the other direction, if people are struggling with relationship problems or feelings of loss or loneliness outside of work, Blustein says developing relationships at work and deriving meaning from work can help them to compensate.

But just as they do at home, interpersonal conflicts can crop up at work. However, unlike situations in which clients choose a romantic partner or a friend, it’s rare to get the opportunity to pick one’s co-workers. People with different communication styles, work ethics and personalities get put together, which naturally leads to moments of friction. When tensions flare between co-workers or bosses and subordinates, Sanderlin talks with her clients about empathy and encourages them to consider that perhaps the other person is dealing with problems of his or her own.

Other times, Sanderlin says, clients have come to her because they formerly dated a co-worker and, after the relationship went sour, began having difficulties seeing and interacting with that person at work. In such cases, Sanderlin says, the solution often involves helping clients to process the relationship and its ending so they can grieve the loss and once again be around their former dating partner without negative feelings bubbling up.

Balancing life with work inherently involves sacrifices, Adams says, and getting clients to grasp that concept can play a role in reducing their stress. Adams tries to help his clients be realistic and accept that a fixed amount of time exists in their schedules each week, which naturally means that they can’t do absolutely everything for everyone. “Sometimes people try to fight that, thinking, ‘If I only worked harder, I could squeeze more time into the week.’ It creates stress because they feel they should be able to do more,” he says.

Adams encourages clients to think about their values and what is most important to them. “They might say, ‘I’m going to have to accept the fact that I won’t see my kids do this or that because my career is important,’” he says. “If they make the decision to want to spend more time around family, that might mean they won’t get paid a super high salary or they may be limited in terms of the jobs they can take. I help them understand the reality and then understand that there is a sacrifice involved in any decision. Once they understand and accept that, I’ve found that clients aren’t always happy about it, but there is less stress instead of them feeling like they should be able to do everything.”

“I often try to talk to them about having a fixed amount of physical and mental energy as well as time,” Adams continues. “I also try to explain to them that if they put 100 percent of their energy or time into work, they won’t have any left over for other parts of their lives [such as] family. In my experience, it’s not uncommon for clients to experience a sense of loss when they finally accept this. I think to some degree it is difficult for clients to accept this, given the American mindset that ‘I can do it all as long as I just work hard enough.’”

But clients can benefit from learning to accept that they can’t be everything to everyone, Adams says. “Sometimes people expect themselves to be the best spouse, the best parent and the best worker,” he says. “If, for example, being a good parent and spouse is important, then maybe it’s OK not to be 100 percent at work.”

A stressed-out workforce

The nature of work means that stress can crop up at any given time, but new research published in the journal Occupational Medicine indicates that work-related stress is drastically increased during a recession and that stress leads to an accompanying rise in employee absenteeism. After looking at tens of thousands of civil servants in Northern Ireland, researchers found that as many as 25 percent of workers struggled with stress on the job during an economic downturn.

A recent study from the University of Hawaii also shows that work stress is contagious, suggesting that we soak up the emotions of our co-workers and that stress can make its way around the office like a common cold. Stress can also spread to loved ones at home, Chen says, explaining that when people feel overloaded and stressed at work, they are more likely to bring that stress home with them. For example, he says, when a family member asks how our day was, just the tone in our voice can carry negativity. “So that stress can have a detrimental impact in other aspects of life,” says Chen, a member of ACA and NCDA.

Depression and anxiety are not uncommon in the workplace, Adams notes. In fact, 2010 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put 9 percent of adult Americans in the category of clinically depressed, and the most recent data cited by the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that slightly more than 18 percent of U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety and depression can lead to a host of effects at work, Adams says, including decreased productivity, restlessness and feelings of being overwhelmed, low energy levels, compromised immune systems and detrimental impacts on relationships with co-workers.

Morrison agrees, adding that depression and anxiety can impede concentration, organization and the acceptance of constructive criticism. And, he says, a stressful atmosphere at work only worsens the impact of depression and anxiety.

“I don’t know that I can say that counselors view work as causing depression or anxiety,” Adams says. “These problems seem more complex than stemming from one cause. However, we do know that stress can contribute to depression and anxiety, and some research indicates that work stress may contribute to these. On the other hand, some people truly enjoy their work and find it to serve as an outlet for stress. For example, if things aren’t going well at home, they may be able to focus on their work in order to cope. As such, work may serve to buffer some people from stress.”

What can clients do to manage the stress? “I think they need to consider several things,” Adams says. “First, how much do they enjoy their work and how much stress does it cause? Second, what can they do to manage their work stress — can they delegate responsibilities, take on less work? Last, I always try to get clients to step back and put things in perspective. At the end of the day, work is often a means to an end for many people — it provides a way of supporting oneself and family. Consequently, clients may not need to get so worked up or overstressed by work, particularly if other parts of their lives are more important to them. Of course, they need to balance that with the demands of the job.”

It appears that partners at home also play a role in how we handle work stress. Researchers at Florida State University looked at more than 400 working couples in blue- and white-collar jobs and found that strong partner support led to a variety of positive effects, including a 33 percent greater likelihood of positive relationships with co-workers, a 30 percent lower likelihood of experiencing guilt associated with home or family neglect, a 30 percent lower likelihood of being critical of others at home, a 25 percent higher rate of concentration at work and a 20 percent higher level of job satisfaction.

Among workers struggling with depression, a recent Tufts University study points toward the effectiveness of counseling. The researchers anonymously surveyed 79 Maine state government employees diagnosed with depression. During a two-month period, those workers took part in a program offering telephone sessions with a counselor. Sessions included work coaching, coordination of care with the patients’ doctors and cognitive-behavior therapy strategies. The outcome of the phone counseling program included improved depressive symptoms, increased productivity and fewer missed workdays.

Workaholics and bullies

Not all clients can blame being overworked on a hard-driving boss or the daily demands of the job. Some clients resist unplugging from their jobs because they’re “workaholics.” Workaholism can take root for any number of different psychological reasons, Chen says. For example, in some instances, clients are avoiding issues at home, he says. In other cases, clients have perfectionist tendencies and push themselves unnecessarily. Others think that working excessively is the only way they can prove their value to their bosses, Chen says. And still another cause, he says, is when people are externally driven by the rewards they experience from working.

Chen suggests that counselors explore those feelings and motivations with clients. For example, if clients insist that they have to work to a certain level to be a top performer, Chen might analyze the situation with them to see if that perception meets reality. In some cases, it’s possible that they would remain top performers even if they worked a little less.

“It’s not uncommon for people to use work as a way of sublimating other things,” Adams says. “An example might be a person who has an unsatisfying relationship with a partner. He might not want to admit that [because] it might be culturally unacceptable to get a divorce. So he might channel [those feelings] through work. Being a hard worker is more socially acceptable.” These individuals not only spend more time at work to avoid going home, but might also dive into work again upon returning home, which allows them to erect a socially acceptable wall between themselves and their partners, Adams observes.

When engaging with workaholic clients, Morrison advises counselors to proceed at the clients’ pace but to assist them in understanding what they’re trying to avoid or make up for by working more. “Help clients gain insight into their own behaviors. Help them understand what they are substituting work for,” he says. “And then the counselor’s role is to help them develop healthier coping mechanisms.” Morrison acknowledges, however, that sometimes workaholic behavior truly represents an effort to make ends meet financially.

Blustein echoes that sentiment: “It can also reflect the reality that many people are afraid of losing their jobs and are working harder than ever to become indispensable to their organizations.” For that reason, he says, the optimal solution for each client will be nuanced and unique.

Another workplace issue gaining prominence is bullying. “Workplace bullying is a major crisis, and it’s now getting the attention it deserves in research and counseling practice,” Blustein says. Workplace bullying usually comes in the form of verbal abuse in which a co-worker or superior yells at a colleague or focuses only on that person’s faults. “It’s an adult version of childhood and adolescent bullying,” Blustein says. “I think it’s always existed. We’re just now giving it a name.”

The dynamics involved in workplace bullying can make it even more difficult to resolve than schoolyard bullying, Blustein says. If the bully is your boss, he points out, financial considerations and legitimate concerns about finding another job are likely to restrict the worker’s ability to retreat from the situation. “Unlike other parts of life where we can often walk away from bullies, in the workplace, we are often forced to engage with bullies indefinitely, and often with little recourse,” he says.

Blustein says counselors can assist bullied clients by helping them set boundaries and limits and learn to be assertive with their workplace bullies. Counselors can also help clients by exploring company policies that address workplace bullying and the potential consequences, which might mean contacting human resources, Blustein says. The counselor might also explore alternative job possibilities with clients, he says.

Morrison sees the effects of workplace bullying among many of his clients, who must have a mental health disability to be eligible for his agency’s services. Many times, he says, his clients are taken advantage of professionally by their co-workers or supervisors because these clients have difficulty being assertive or expressing their needs. As a counselor, Morrison sees his role as assisting these clients with communication and assertiveness training, teaching them about healthy boundaries and perhaps engaging with them in role-plays so they can try out their new skills.

A question of values

Helping clients reach the proper work–life balance is a difficult challenge but well worth the effort, Blustein says. “Clients can talk with their families about how the work–life balance is working for them,” he says. “They should find ways of setting limits on the ways in which work creeps into their lives. For example, with all of the new technology like smartphones, iPads, etc., it is increasingly hard for people to fully orient themselves to their home lives. At the same time, life issues may creep into our work lives, which will require careful planning and the development of clear boundaries, except of course in emergency situations, when our need to care for our families needs to take precedence.”

Self-care is a key element in making life and work run in sync, counselors say. “Self-care is critical, although it’s often easier said than done,” Adams says. “I try to help clients understand the effects that work and life stress can have on them mentally and physically — [for example], increased health problems and marital stress — and try to encourage them to consider what they want. In some ways, it’s a discussion of their values. Some clients really value their careers and are willing to sacrifice their health and time with family, friends, etc. Others aren’t willing to accept this and understand that they need to set boundaries and take time to care for themselves.”

The more stressed people get at work, the less they tend to take care of themselves, according to Sanderlin. They stop participating in activities they enjoy, stop interacting with friends and family, stop eating properly and start sleeping too much or experiencing insomnia, among other indicators, she says. Counselors should talk with these clients about how to turn those things around and return to a healthier, happier lifestyle, she says.

In terms of counseling theories to help clients manage the intertwining of life and work, counselors say there are a variety of directions to go, depending on the individual’s unique circumstances. Adams draws from psychodynamic and family systems approaches, especially if he thinks it’s important to explore the underlying factors influencing a client’s career and life choices. “I may also draw from cognitive and behavioral approaches if clients need help with certain issues [such as] developing stress management skills,” he says.

Morrison uses cognitive behavior techniques as well as some existential techniques to help clients develop an idea of their life roles, life goals and perceived purpose in life. Sanderlin most commonly uses rational emotive behavior therapy techniques and relaxation techniques with her clients.

Regardless of the approach, Blustein cautions counselors to affirm their clients’ experiences at work. “There has been a tendency in years past to understand work problems as unresolved family issues or long-standing problems with authority or the like,” he says. “I think those perspectives invalidate clients’ lived experiences at work. So affirm and validate their experiences at work. Don’t interpret them as something else.”

Every counselor needs to understand how work and life intersect, Morrison says. “Employment is a huge part of a person’s identity,” he adds. “To neglect or avoid that would be missing a huge part of their life and missing a big piece of the puzzle when you’re talking about mental health rehabilitation and successful outcomes.”

Sanderlin agrees. “It goes back to feelings of self-worth,” she says. “People relate what they do or how well they do it to how good of a person they are.”

To contact the individuals interviewed in this article, email:

Christopher Adams at cadams15@fitchburgstate.edu

David Blustein at david.blustein@bc.edu

Charles P. Chen at cp.chen@utoronto.ca

Blaise Morrison at blsmorrison@gmail.com

Melissa Sanderlin at melissasanderlin@gmail.com

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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