Recently, I have started to notice more and more the dangers of emotional shutdown at work. How the environment of 9-to-5 (or 9-to-11 for some) can cause serious emotional disconnection from life itself.
I left the intense world of private equity some time ago to do my own thing. One of the key catalysts for change was how dispassionate I felt. At the time, I thought this was mainly due to a growing disinterest in the subject matter of my role. But, that’s only half the story, because at its core, I still do enjoy investing.
Of course, I truly love what I do today, which is a level beyond enjoyment. What I see more clearly now however is that there was also something else at play behind my decision to quit. A growing numbness and lack of engagement that was becoming a coping mechanism for stress. Towards the end of my finance days, I often found it difficult to concentrate in meetings and felt very lethargic, almost as if I was sliding into a coma.
Numbness is a common experience in those who have suffered trauma, such as PTSD. Trauma sufferers continue to re-live their traumatic experiences in the present even though the event is behind them in the past. The brain and physiology have not registered this fact. Any innocuous event or stimulus from the external environment could be a potential trigger for a flashback. So, as an automatic coping mechanism, trauma sufferers often begin to disconnect from everything around them, including their work and loved ones.
This has parallels with how we might emotionally shutdown to cope with the constant sustained stress and mundaneness at work. Unlike with trauma, numbness at work is often not a reaction to a major one-off event, but rather a response to the constant drip of low level stress. A bit like Chinese water torture, it is the constant sustained pressure that drives people crazy, or to numbness.
Emotional shutdown as a coping mechanism might make work more tolerable, but it also means you live less fully. Because day-by-day you are conditioning yourself into a default state of numbness that you might carry with you into life outside work. A state where you feel less-and-less the joys and pains of everyday living that make life meaningful.
Noticing your state
Noticing how you feel at work is then an essential first step in understanding how work is affecting your wellbeing. And, in taking steps to remedy the situation. So, ask yourself: Do I feel numb at work? Do I shut down emotionally in order to cope, or is my coping mechanism something different?
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