Psychologically Checked Out

In my previous career, I spent a great deal of time counseling couples in trouble. The presenting symptoms varied considerably and included such things as infidelity, few common interests, sexual issues, financial problems, tension and disagreement on raising the kids, family/in-law issues, religious differences, job conflicts and the list goes on. The one thing common to all of the above that led to the breakdown in the relationship was poor or non-existent communication.

I also discovered that often, by the time the couple decided to enter counseling, one or the other had already “emotionally checked out.” Oh, they were still physically and legally in a relationship, but they were no longer committed to making the relationship work psychologically. The actual physical separation always came later, sometimes years after the emotional separation.

As a consultant for the past 28 years, I have witnessed the same phenomenon in the business world. Bright, competent and mature professionals often remain in their jobs long after losing their passion and enthusiasm for their work. Why? What happened to these talented and once motivated people? What was missing? What changed? And what were the reasons they chose to remain in a career that lacked the level of satisfaction and accomplishment they experienced in previous years?

These professionals were clearly “stuck”–as stuck as when your foot sinks into a foot of mud. Know the feeling? We’ve all been there at one time or another. The reasons are many and varied, just like the couples who entered into their relationships with the best of intentions but discovered over time that something was missing — the passion and excitement were gone!

When individuals find themselves in this kind of work dilemma, it is human nature to try to make it work in some way or conjure up a bunch of rationalizations that help them cope with the painful but obvious reality of the situation. Some of the more common rationalizations include:

  • “I’ve got one kid in college and another on the way. I can’t possibly think about leaving or changing my job.”
  • “We love the community, and the kids are doing great in school. Leaving my job is impossible.”
  • “I’ve been an educator for my entire career. What else could I do?”
  • “Perhaps things will change, something has to give soon, and things will improve.”
  • “It’s taken me 25 years to get where I am. If I left or changed jobs, I know I would not earn anywhere near the $250k I pull down in my job with this company.”
  • “I only have five more years before I can take early retirement. I have no choice but to stick it out.”
  • “I love my job, but the company has changed. It’s not the same as when I started years ago, and I can’t accept the new leadership and their philosophy.”
  • “I don’t want to disappoint my family; they invested so much in my education.”
  • “I want to do something of real value in my life besides helping my company earn more profits, but I have no idea where to start.”

Each of these is an example of what I call “clutter.” Clutter is a person’s real, but mostly imagined, reason for remaining “stuck.” And clutter is what prevents the person from having “clarity” — and clarity is a critical step toward making better decisions about one’s life and career.

When working with people who are in some way unhappy with their job, I have them identify their clutter from three perspectives. In most instances, these three principles must be in sync if they are to be happy, satisfied and successful in their career.

  • You must love or at least like the very functions you perform each day of your work life. Imagine the store manager who doesn’t like making quick decisions!
  • You must like and respect the very people you work with each day. Most of us will spend more time with our co-workers than our friends and loved ones. We all know how stressful it can be when we are around people with whom we have fundamental disagreements or we simply don’t respect!
  • You must believe in your company’s products or services, it’s mission and values and feel proud to say you work for “XYZ Company.” As a professional with strong values and principles, how can you continue to support an organization you don’t believe in?

If one or more of these important principles are missing, you are likely to experience certain discomfort in the form of physical and/or emotional stress. And as the pressure builds, you become increasingly less productive. Most importantly, you begin to compromise your personal happiness and well-being. Forget about any real balance in your life–it becomes very difficult at best!

Now, let me pose a question to you as you read this article. If you had the choice to be happy or unhappy in your life and career, what would you choose? Silly question, isn’t it? Of course, you would choose to be happy! Yet, so many people choose to be unhappy and unfulfilled. It is a choice, you know!

Clutter is the culprit! We make ourselves believe there is no way out because we have several important reasons for choosing to remain in our unhappy work lives. And because we choose not to directly address the clutter issues, we begin to slowly but steadily “check out.” Oh, yes, we show up every day (physically), and we even nod our heads in agreement or disagreement in meetings to give the illusion that we are actually present and interested in what is going on, but often our thoughts are elsewhere. You know that you are not giving 100% of your talents and energies to the task at hand.

My guess is that in every company there are competent, bright and talented employees who have “checked out,” but still continue to collect their “bennies.” The challenge for the leadership and human resource professionals is to find a way to harness the full potential of these “checked out” employees. The challenge to these “checked out” employees is they need to take full accountability for their inertia or irresponsible behavior. Either they must work toward a higher level of productivity or take charge of their life and find a more rewarding career or job!