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Birth Pangs in the World of Work
by Tanis Helliwell

When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves. -Viktor Frankl

We are experiencing a great deal of pain presently because of the upheaval of all the life and work values and roles on which we have based our security. Because of this loss of "knowns" in our lives many of us are suffering loss, confusion, frustration and often anxiety and panic. We might dearly love to retreat to the safety of the "old" system where it was safe, but this cannot be. Painful though this experience is, the shake up of old values and ways of working are the birth pangs of a new way of working.


Success, as our society perceives it, is frequently accompanied by a great deal of pain. Dr. Howard Hess, then corporate psychiatrist for Western Electric, said that people were promoted to their level of pain. The pain of what he called "success trauma" is caused by guilt, loss of peer acceptance, fear of increased expectations and responsibility, identity confusion and addiction to success. And psychological pain and disillusionment with our culture’s view of success appears to be happening at even younger ages. University of California psychologist Robert Perry has stated that he’s seeing more 25 to 35 year olds who "have made it and don’t like it."

I believe that people often do not change until the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying in the painful situation. We have come to this point now in the work world. Workers are crumbling with the pressure of doing always more with always less. Those employed in shrinking organizations envy those who receive retirement or severance packages, and individuals who receive these packages envy those who still have jobs. At the risk of appearing sadistic, I am hopeful precisely because so many people are in pain and will, as a result, put pressure on organizations to revise work policies that are unhealthy for almost everyone.

Many addictions arise in people who are afraid to heed the call of the soul. One man I know works 12 hours a day and spends the rest of his time making home improvements. He is a good provider for his wife and children, goes home each night and visits his elderly parents regularly. He is considerate of his fellow employees and is devoted to his employer. But he can’t stop working. His workaholism is an attempt to dull his soul’s call.

Addiction to overwork, as described in Diane Fassel’s book Working Ourselves to Death, can kill our soul if not our body. Characteristics of workaholics include denial, self-esteem problems, looking to others for approval, inability to relax, and obsessiveness. According to Fassel, this results in dishonesty, self-centeredness, isolation, control, perfectionism, lack of intimacy, self-abuse, physical and psychological problems and spiritual bankruptcy. These conditions of workaholism are soul destroying and the opposite of qualities that consist of living a soul-infused life. All of us ultimately come to a stage in our growth where the personality desires must submit to the needs of the soul. Workaholism is a refusal of the personality to relinquish control. The personality attempts—by doing more—to shut out the soul’s voice that calls the person to reflect both on what they are doing and how they are doing their work.

Dr. Larry Dossey, medical doctor and author of several books on the importance of the way we think about our health, points out that the largest number of heart attacks occur between 8:00 and 9:00 A.M. on Monday mornings. What are we doing then? Going to work. Doing work we don’t love is literally killing us. Some individuals numb their pain through television, cigarettes and alcohol addiction, while others become compulsive neat freaks, changing their clothes twice a day and keeping their homes spotless, in an attempt to control their lives. Still others have settled into a complacency—a learned helplessness—and in a numb semi-awake state walk through the motions of life without joy.

What all these people have in common is a desire not to think of their pain, nor to allow, the pain of their lives to assert itself. Sitting quietly without any stimulation would be almost impossible because the emptiness of their lives would rise and cause them considerable distress. Yet, if this is our situation, this is exactly what we need to do. We need to go cold turkey, depriving ourselves of outside stimulations and numbing addictions so that our distress becomes so great that the soul breaks through to be heard. These are the questions that it continually asks, "Do you really like your work?" and "Is there something else that you’d rather do with your life?"

It takes an incredible amount of courage to listen to the soul because, once we have heard its questions and answers, we can no longer pretend ignorance. This is not an easy process, but the pain we feel is the labour pain of birthing our higher selves into the world. What are the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual costs, of refusing to meet the soul's needs? We may believe that it is a great risk to leave an unsatisfying job, but most often we are at even greater risk if we don't leave. Short term gain and security often cause long term pain.

The late Mother Teresa comes to my mind when I think of risks we might be asked to take to heed the soul’s call. She was 38 years old and teaching geography in a convent school for the Loretta Sisters in Calcutta when she heard her soul’s call. Priests and her fellow sisters say that she was well liked by the students, good humored, a bit clumsy, but "not anything extraordinary." On September 10, 1946 on a train on the way to her annual retreat in Darjeeling she knew suddenly what her life purpose was. "I realized I had a call to take care of the sick, the dying, the homeless. To be God’s love in action to the poorest of the poor." She returned to the sisters and asked to form the Missionaries of Charity. As she says of her call, "Vocation is like a little seed. It has to be nourished; it cannot be forced. It has to come from above."

I believe that we, like Mother Teresa, have the seed of greatness within us no matter which form it takes, but if we do not listen and act on that small inner voice within us we will be unsatisfied with our lives no matter how great our acclaim from others.

Women and Men

Besides the first trend—the increase in psychological pain—a second trend having a large impact on the world of work is women's changing roles and preferences. In North America, women business owners are the fastest growing sector of the business community and now account for one-third of all small business owners compared with only five percent in 1970. Linda Tarr-Walen of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Washington DC was quoted as saying that women are choosing self-employment at a rate five times faster than men and are far more successful at it. In fact, about 80 percent of businesses started by women survive.

Women are leaving traditional organizations because they are seldom friendly to the qualities with which women typically excel. A 1997 study by Catalyst Inc. of New York and The Conference Board of Canada called Closing the Gap: Women’s Advancement in Corporate and Professional Canada states that there are two main factors that senior women managers credit for their success. One is doing more than people expected and the other is developing a style with which male managers are comfortable. Women might be unwilling and/or unable to do this and regardless of their talent may not be promoted in traditional organizations. Recent statistics state that although women managers account for 42 percent of all managers, according to the International Labour Organization, fewer than 3 percent of the top managerial jobs in Canada and only 2.4 percent in the US are held by women.

It is unfortunate that women need to replicate male management styles in order to succeed because this neutralizes the gift that women can bring to the workplace. Women have a more collegial management style and seek to promote harmony, consensus and look for the best solution to a problem regardless of whether they, or someone else, thought of it. Women, more often believe in life balance and prefer beautiful work environments with plants and windows that nurture the soul. Traditional male-dominated workplaces more often subscribe to working long hours in a stark environment. To succeed in traditional male-oriented organizations women often have to suppress their natural talents and soul values. This does not serve them and it does not serve the organization; the organization is not getting the best of that woman. Now, I appreciate that I am making sweeping generalizations about men and women. There are women, whose management style is more masculine, and men, whose style is more feminine, but these are exceptions to the rule.

I do not wish to see female-dominated organizations any more than male-dominated ones. Neither is better. I am suggesting a restoration of balance of female and male qualities and gifts that both the personality and soul value. The soul is holistic, not dualistic, neither masculine nor feminine. By striking this balance in our workplaces we foster the quality of interdependence on which the new age we are entering is based.


As well as changing women’s roles, another trend affecting the workplace is that we are working fewer years within traditional organizations. We have made a grave error in the last five to ten years by forcing retirement on people at an earlier age. People in their fifties often hold the experience, the history and the wisdom of the organization and this is being lost. Nor does this policy benefit individuals who, at the peak of their lives, find themselves too old to find a job. This is devastating both for them and for society. By delaying entry into the workforce and by forcing an exit from the workforce earlier, we have shortened the number of years people work to about 30. In a society where people are identified by what work they do, this erodes the very foundation of how they value themselves as human beings.

So individuals are discovering work alternatives. Many people, forced to retire at age 55, seek ways to stay in the workforce. Some become consultants and hire themselves back, either to their previous employers or to their competitors, and often at a higher fee than when they were full-time employees. Other retirees use the money from their retirement packages to set up businesses they have always wanted. In other words, they take their souls to work.

It is not only the older worker who is affected by the changing work world, the young are also. It is critical for the health of both them and our society that young people have positive initial experiences at work. This does not happen when individuals in their twenties cannot find suitable employment. Recently, The Toronto Star spoke directly to 1000 young people between the ages of 18 and 30 and the results from their interviews are startling. Although nine out of ten of these young men and women studied at college or university, they couldn’t move beyond entry-level jobs. Six out of ten worked as retail clerks, waiters, clerical staff, drivers, labourers, factory workers, data entry clerks, telemarketers and company service representatives.

It has become increasingly difficult for young people to find work—any work. Kevin Fabian, one of these interviewed, worked for five years after high school—as a clerk in a warehouse and then in a law firm. Thinking a degree would get him ahead, he went to university and studied international politics. At 29 years of age, Kevin finds himself unemployed and $45,000 in debt because of the loans he needed to finance his five years of study. If people do not find employment within the first few years of leaving school, it becomes much more difficult for them because their self-esteem decreases and they become bitter and frustrated and often give up. Even if they continue to seek employment there may be a tendency for a potential employer to think that there is something wrong with the young person that they haven’t found a job.

Yes, there are jobs available. However, the choices might not suit either the talents or soul of all people. Paul Martin, the Minister of Finance in Canada, recently reported that 20,000 computer programming and high tech jobs can’t be filled and that there aren’t enough electricians, plumbers, welders and stone masons. Each person needs to match his or her interests and talents to growing occupational trends. Education, by itself, will guarantee neither job nor happiness. Universities, and society as a whole, have been training youth for jobs that are in short supply. We need to reverse this practice before young people lose whatever hope they have for a future.

Yet, there is hope and much of it stems from eliminating the barriers that exist between the worlds of education and work. Boston's City Year Workshop and New York's High School of Economics and Finance are doing just that. All of the 1000 New York students have summer internships at local financial firms. This creates opportunities for students from the Bronx, Queens or Harlem to meet Wall Street’s business leaders. Manuel Martinez, a teenager from the Bronx, attends the high school located across the street from the World Trade Centre. He hopes to be an accountant and has an apprenticeship at Oppenheimer and Company. "I’ve made a lot of contacts with big accounting firms like KPNG and Smith Barney," he says, "and could call these people up for a job."

But given the large numbers of unemployed and under-employed youth, these programs are just scratching the surface. By delaying entry of youth into the workforce, and by giving them jobs below their potential, we are risking damaging their sense of themselves. This could take years or even a lifetime to repair. I'd like to see more programs offering youth opportunities for challenging work to give them a chance to develop their personalities. A strong personality is necessary to house the soul, and if individuals never satisfy their personality needs, it is unlikely they’ll satisfy their souls.


Some young people who have had difficulty finding meaningful work are starting up their own businesses or banding together with like-minded partners to form companies to compete in niches not covered by larger companies. This is what happened when Steve Jobs and Stephen Wasniak, in their twenties and fresh out of university, started what was to become one of the world’s best known computer companies—Apple.

Another example of entrepreneurship was exhibited by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the two screenwriters/actors of one of 1998’s best loved films, Good Will Hunting. Matt and Ben, both in their twenties and struggling actors, found that no Hollywood studio would take them seriously. So they wrote their own screenplay, included a role for well known actor Robin Williams, and became an overnight success.

However, it is not only the young, unable to find work in traditional organizations, who opt for self-employment. Many individuals are leaving organizations of their own accord to start up their own businesses. Why? Because they are seeking soulful work. Entrepreneurs are not interested in squeezing themselves into organizational boxes, but are more interested in determining where they can take the whole of themselves to work. And they seem to be happier in doing so according to a poll conducted in April 1997 by Angus Reid, which stated that 77 percent of self-employed people said that their job satisfaction improved since they became their own boss.

Entrepreneurs think in a way that makes them both successful and happy in their work. They have a knack for identifying their talents, interests and skills and then either finding, or creating, work that agrees with these characteristics. This thinking is contrary to the way the job search is traditionally done whereby we attempt to fit ourselves into the shape of the job we seek. So, if the organization is a square and we are a star, we attempt to make ourselves look like a square in order to land the job.

Squeezing Into the Organizational Box

We will never find soulful work by squeezing into a box that doesn’t fit because we bring only a small part of who we are to that work. The remainder of our unrealized potential, skills and interests have no place to go, which leaves us unfulfilled and frustrated. I am not suggesting that any job meets all of our needs. We require a variety of things to satisfy us: work, relationships, hobbies, faith, but most of us can find or create a job that comes close to fulfilling the work needs of both soul and personality. This path will lead to self-actualization, which is one of the defining qualities of individuals who have a soul-infused personality. The high road of work will create health not only for individuals, but for society as a whole.

Tanis Helliwell, author of best selling book Take Your Soul to Work, is the founder of the International Institute for Transformation whose programs are being taught by 20 focalizers in North American cities. As organizational a consultant, keynote speaker and workshop leader, she has worked globally to help individuals and organizations to develop their potential.

Her corporate clients include IBM, CBC, The Banff Centre for Management, The World Future Society in Washington D.C., David Suzuki Foundation, TransCanada Pipelines, World Business Academy, University of Calgary, MICA.

A bridge between traditional and new age worlds, Tanis teaches internationally at Christian, Buddhist, New Age Centers as well as leading tours to sacred sites of the world for 17 years.

Tanis's personal website is www.tanishelliwell.com.  For information on public programs by the International Institute for Transformation contact www.iitransform.com.


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