When the job takes a toll on your health

Last Updated on April 27, 2023

I read the recently published article on Greg Smith’s open letter of resignation from Goldman Sachs. How he felt that he could no longer work for a company with questionable morals and exists only to rip their clients off.

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process. I was selected as one of 10 people (out of a firm of more than 30,000) to appear on our recruiting video, which is played on every college campus we visit around the world. In 2006 I managed the summer intern program in sales and trading in New York for the 80 college students who made the cut, out of the thousands who applied.

I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.

  — Excerpt from Greg Smith’s resignation letter, published in Dailymail.com.uk


My personal experience

I totally understand the experience that Mr Smith is going through.  Because like him, I’ve also seen similar decline in values in corporations today. And now, those who hold on to strong ethical values would risk having their health ruined when they stick around the corporation. But I’ve also learned another way to work around it…I want to share the story of my personal experience to illustrate.

After my graduation years ago, I was privileged enough to work for a company in which I totally respect the CEO. The leadership of the CEO plays a big role in employee motivation…. more than you would ever know.

Till today, he is one of the person I most respected. This CEO began in the company as a management trainee- and rose to the ranks to become the CEO. His philosophy in business was simple- recruit and send sales officers to every nook and cranny to sell our product and services…. and then ensure that good after sales services is to be followed. He invested heavily in sales and in customer support. He was a completely hands on person who personally went to staff sales roadshows- one time…. he even made an entrance by flying in dressed in a superman suit- to signify ‘super sales’.

The company was from an overseas franchise and was initially insignificant in the market. From his leadership, he was able to turn the company from nothing to one of the top companies in Malaysia.  We had to worked with so many limitations and legalizations requirements but despite of all the odds, we were able to excel. So as an employee and newcomer, I felt privileged and honored to be working for this company.

About a year or so from working, I started noticing that the company is moving a little too much towards profit instead of service orientated. The company survived through its good sales outreach but the customers are retained through world-class services.  It started as little cracks, but I remembered telling my colleague that if things goes on like that, the company would be going downhill (my prediction came true a few years later).

The company, was after all, an overseas franchise- and very much controlled by the headquarters overseas. The values of the mother company had changed- as the shareholders wanted to see the profit, and the top management teams are gradually replaced by ‘talents’ that did not knew the heart and soul of the company- and was probably not born yet when the company was first set up.

I guess the pressure to show more sales and revenue was pushed upon the CEO. Regardless, he ‘retired’ a few years later and the company was never the same again. It was then, like it was in the HQ, led by those who did not grow with the company.

I was young and very self righteous- like Greg Smith, I increasingly felt I was working for a company that I no longer believed in. That I was no longer proud to tell people I work that company anymore.

As I clung on that belief, I got more and more negative. I also got more and more stressed- I was gaining more and more weight, I had all kinds of health  ailments. Sometimes I hated myself and my guts for not having enough courage to leave.  I had blamed all my miseries and my health problems to that company. Even though I was good at my work, but I am sure no one liked to be around me too much because I was too negative. I was having constant nightmares and unrestful sleep, my temper was out of control and my weight would not go down despite the hours of ‘punishment exercises’ in the gym and diet plans.

It was also in the midst of  job stress, that I started and build this blog- and was able to pack it with articles and insights that came from my own experiences and through observing others. Because I knew how job stress, or the inability to handle the stress can wreck havoc to our health.

Anyway, a series of events like gaining the guts to travel which started my journey of risk taking saw me ultimately resigning from corporate life and plunging into the unknown (written quite a lot about it here)- after I could no longer take the stress that time.

The bottom line is, every company’s out to make a profit and satisfy its shareholder

Every company is out to make money- to use the lowest cost to bring the highest yield. It is a fact that probably would not change. Wanting a public listed company to be fully people-orientated rather than profit-orientated is like asking the sun to rise from the west instead of the east.

A company that is all mush about values would likely not survive in this fast paced world. Maybe I am a cynic, but that’s a reality fact- like it or not, I’ve learned to accept this fact. If we cannot come to terms with it, then we would keep blaming the external or trying to change things that we can’t. In a way, we are using the ‘victim’ mentality- we blame external parties for our miseries instead of trying to empower ourselves and take accountability.

It may not be that bad after all.

You may plant within you the idea to go and work for a non profit, NGO– it other words, working for a cause that you believed in.  But politics exist everywhere, my friend. And left on their own without government funding, NGOs still have to survive. So sometimes they need to resolve to means of getting funding that is not agreeable to all. Even Mother Teresa, in order to continue her mission of helping the poor, have to accept money from infamous people– it all depends on how you are looking at it.

Even if you take a paycut, you may find yourself working for someone that you cannot respect. And you would be left wondering to yourself: “should I work for a boss who pays me peanuts and treats me like a servant and whose values I cannot respect; OR work for a company that I cannot respect but at least pay more than twice, and I get to call some shots, and have documented procedures and processes to fall back on.”

Maybe you decide to give up your job and go into healing. But you may be disgusted because people just want the shortcuts. You may want to help them but they do not want to help themselves.  They asks you for shortcuts, and they keep haggering the price with you. If you done anything wrong, they may even want to sue you- and earn some money from it.

I have seen with my own eyes- a kind and compassionate superhuman who dedicate her whole life to help others- and would in about just anyone. But some people, who had nothing when they first knew her- end up backstabbing and betraying her, or feel jealous of her success. You may think that helping the poor and uneducated is a ‘kind and noble deed’- but it really takes a great person to do that full time. Because, even if there would always be those who are grateful, most may betray or leave for ‘greener pastures’.  But she has it within her to continue- totally rare to be seen nowadays.

We have a choice

It is up to our state of mind. We cannot change the external but we can change our internal world as well as influence those around us.

If we choose to bang our heads against the wall, we would end up hurting ourselves- while the wall is just there minding its own business. In fact, it would not even cause a dent at all.

No matter how much we complain or get stressed over, the bottom line of every company would never change.

It is how we choose to live our lives. Yes, the company may be profit orientated, and you may not be able ‘to look newcomers in the eyes and tell them that this company is a great place to work in’.

But take comfort that the tough environment would shape the leader that these newcomers have the potential to become in future.  When I look back at my own self, even though I’ve chosen not to climb to high positions, I know the quality of work that I was able to deliver was due to the skills and experiences that I’ve acquired from stressful and tough working environment. And to many I know who now hold respectable positions (who started out in the same place as me), their invincibility was drawn out of years of ‘practice’, rising from the bottom up.

There are no shortcuts.  It is through practice that the knowledge, talent and skills really ‘sink in’.

If the company does not know how to appreciate staff by offering a reasonable salary range, staff, especially good ones, would leave. It is the company’s loss, not the staff. And if the company, like what Greg Smith had alleged that Goldman Sachs is doing- maximizing profits and squeezing their customers dry, then in the end, the company would go down.  But if you are a good worker, then you would still have the skills to secure your next job, with probably a better company.

You real solid foundation that you have acquired through years of ‘hard training and experience’ is what that would get you though the toughest of times. Those who uses ‘social skills’ and ‘rubbing shoulders with the big bosses’ but have no real knowledge would be easily thrown off once their luck runs out. But through hard work, we make our own luck and our own destiny.

Making peace with ‘injustices’ and ‘unfairness’ in this world

You can still choose to -work for a company whose values you may not totally believe it.  Why? Because it pays you a decent salary, and with the salary- you may be able to choose to do good. Like me, the salary enables me to maintain my blogs, to fuel my travel, to do charities and donations. To be able to do things that brings value deep in my heart. I was able to pursue my hobbies with zest and enjoy my freetime because I need not worry where the next paycheck would come from.

Yes, I still have sleeping problems- I don’t sleep well on weekdays mornings where I have to go to work-… even though the condition is very much reduced from what I had previously experienced.  I do qi gong exercises almost each morning and short meditation to give me back energy and alertness.  When I look back at improvements that I could see in myself, I had to acknowledge that these transformations came at the moment of toughness and my adaptations to it. There is no teacher like experience.

The values in my current company does not deviate much from the previous ones. There is nothing one can do to change the business world. The only thing we can change is ourselves- I work because there are groups of people that I can help. Even though the situation is bad, I can use my skill to do my best to make their lives easier.  I give from my heart in my job and I hope that one day, the staff who have left us and eventually become a boss or leader would be kind and human to others.

Of course, my old nature still rear its ugly head and I can still be seen opening expressing my displeasure to my bosses and colleague-turned-friends about how I think things could improve.

And I do what I can. If I am tired, I go back home because work will never finish. I try prioritize on the important tasks first and do the rest later. I take my rests, take stock my priorities in life and consciously do my best not to deviate from them, amidst whatever temptations that comes my way.

At times when things are really going badly, I’ll tell myself, well, if Joseph Pilates not only survived the concentration camp– not only he was able to make the best out of an seemingly impossible situation- by developing the exercises (known as Pilates) today and helping the prisioners survive the outbreak of influenza in 1918.  If he was able to rise above the challenges, then why can’t I?

You can do- and you would surprised at how a change of mindset can help you see things differently. Even though you may think the top management are evil giant vampire squids (to quote Goldman Sachs’s reputation), remember the folks around you who are just out to earn a honest living, who are breadwinners with mouths to feed or elderly parents to take care off.

What you can do to help them? If you bring in more revenue as sales for that company, they would still have a job. People who sign the sales contract do so with their eyes open. Investors investing in any form of investments do so with their eyes open- we all know there are no guarantees but there are sore losers.

If you help with the administrative work, you help to process their requests. Even if your job is to clean the toilets, heck, at least these poor stressed out souls have a clean toilet to go to (sometimes people hide to toilets to take a break).

Whatever you chose to do, let your life be guided with a strong purpose.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a quote from  Apelles Poh, from his book “Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often”:

To savour life, two ingredients needed are observation and awareness, especially self-awareness. Without awareness, we run the risk of going through life without life going through us; of having a tight schedule but an empty soul; of having a high net-worth but a low self-worth. Develop mindfulness for the small yet significant moments; have a sense of presence; and we would not have lived in vain.

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