American Trauma

The evidence is everywhere to confirm what many of us have long suspected: the ethical culture of our largest financial firms is corrupt. Companies like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, or Barclay’s Bank promote screwing over their customers to make a buck for themselves.

My experience as a psychotherapist has led me to identify a far worse ethical lapse in the corporate workplace that has even more pernicious effects for a much larger number of people. Many corporations are more than willing to screw over their employees to make more money for themselves.

My office is filled daily with clients from up and down the economic ladder who describe harmful working conditions that prove this point.

There is the woman in marketing who is depressed and crying all of the time because her job description changed after she was hired. Now she has to leave her two-year-old daughter for two weeks a month because her superiors demand that she travel.

There is the lawyer who feels overwhelming pressure at her firm to work 70 hours a week. She is certain that if she doesn’t abide, she will be passed over for advancement and forced to do the worst tasks. She has been diagnosed with irritible bowel syndrome. Her marriage is teetering on the edge of divorce. She just discovered that her husband has been having an affair because he feels neglected by her.

There is the mid-level guy in IT who was made to work 36 hours straight over three weekends without any additional compensation. His anxiety is flaring and he is having regular panic attacks.

The destructive impact of corporations squeezing whatever they can out of employees leads to predictable results:  high levels of stress, depression, illness, family discord, divorce, and poor parenting. From what I’m seeing in my office, the long-term results of this chronic workplace maltreatment resemble the effects of trauma.

Why do my clients put up with such conditions? In large measure because they feel they have no choice. Jobs are hard to come by, and  the culture demands that everyone put up with it. No one wants to be seen as the first person to leave the office or say no to an order.

There may be other, even worse, reasons. Some of the hallmark symptoms of trauma are not recognizing the abuse and acting in self-destructive ways. When many of my clients first come in for therapy they are surprised to discover that they are not the only ones who are having a hard time handling the stresses of their jobs. They have come to believe that such treatment is “normal,” and if they can’t handle it, the problem is with them.

Certainly, my evidence is anecdotal and my sample is small and unrepresentative of the population as a whole. However, research indicates that one of the reasons that employment has stagnated while productivity and profits have increased is because companies are forcing individuals to work more for the same or less compensation. And if I’m seeing more and more of these problems in my practice, how many more sufferers are there who are not seeking psychological counseling?

The people I mention are all making a decent living. In no way am I making an equivalence between the travails of a high-paid attorney with the difficulties of someone who is working two minimum-wage jobs just to keep gas in the car, food on the table, and the rent paid. However, if things are awful at the top and  the middle, they can only be worse at the bottom.

Have workplace conditions deteriorated? Is a culture where corporate leaders have no compunction about exploiting workers something new?

Certainly, the history of worker exploitation is as old as slavery. But things don’t have to be this way. In the second half of the 20th century, we made great progress in improving the quality of work life for the average person.

There was a time, not very long ago, when it seemed possible that the populace could work less hours,  have more family time, enjoy good benefits, and rest in a secure retirement. Now we are told that this is an impossible, outmoded dream.

How has this happened? Over the last 30 years we have been bamboozled by a right-wing  marketing campaign that has made a virtue out of greed and a vice out of compassion. Unions are cast as the enemy, and freedom means freedom from rules to protect workers from corporate misuse.

Conservatives have done a bang-up job of convincing too many of us that not only must we accept continuously deteriorating working conditions, but that to complain about such things is “class warfare,” and to want anything better is “French,” “Socialist,” and morally wrong.

This propoganda is particularly ironic, because it claims, as part of its Republican message, the mantle of “family values.” In reality, if my clientele are any indication, the changes that the free-market corporate culture have brought about have significantly undermined the traditional family. Remember Dad coming home every night and families having dinner together? Remember weekends before the blackberry? Many of my clients can’t even form sustainable relationships because they simply don’t have the time or are never in one place long enough. It is commonly said in my practice that companies do promote marriage: to your job.

What can we do about this?

The first step is facing the truth. It’s tough to admit we’ve been had, but the results of 30 years of this free-market culture are in. It has been nothing short of the traumatization of the American workforce.

As much as our politicians struggle with our economic problems, in order to heal this American trauma, we need a stronger focus on challenging this pervasive cultural mindset.

It’s time for a new zeitgeist. We can begin to create a new culture by defining and demanding a new ethical standard of treatment for workers. It may be a long road back to the utopian vision of a well-treated work force, but maybe we can start with a 10-hour workday.

Our psyches, our families, and our nation are depending on it.

 

Dr. Glenn Berger is a psychotherapist, relationship counselor, business and artist’s coach, and young person’s mentor. He sees patients in New York City, in Mt. Kisco, NY, and around the world by Skype.

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4 comments

  1. Michael Randall /

    Well said: “right-wing marketing campaign that has made a virtue out of greed and a vice out of compassion”. This has become a culture-wide phenomenon. We need to wake up and remember the moral values of our founding fathers. Ethical thinking and behaviour will benefit everyone in the long run.

  2. Hmmm…I am very conservative, but what you are saying about right-wing could hardly be further from what I see every day. While getting people jobs is important for many reasons, don’t forget that the right values stay-at-home parenting, homeschooling, compassionate outreach, and a society in America where any person can reach for their dreams. People struggle financially for many reasons and need to work for many reasons, but I see many like me who have fore-gone greed and corporate advantage in lieu of family time. I found your post very judgmental and grossly generalized, which is ironically what the right is often accused of doing to the left, but the left appears to be somehow ” allowed” to bash.

  3. If we’re going to talk about science and evidence and what’s going wrong with our political and economic system, what happens if we take a few steps back? Sorry if this seems like a distraction from the topic, but I’ll get back to it soon enough.

    What do you think about the historical fact that the United States Constitution was written before the Theory of Evolution or the Laws of Thermodynamics were discovered? When your political and economic systems were set up by people who had fundamental misunderstandings about biology and physics, which includes psychology and economics, it should come as no surprise if the decision making structure of your country supports a lot of decisions that just don’t seem right.

    What do you think about the fact that the global environmental crisis was discovered in 1968 and predicted worldwide famine, which is an extreme form of poverty, and now a lot of people who have educations in economics are doing a lot of things that make themselves more wealthy and force other people into poverty?

    Does the evidence indicate that the problems you talked about here are being caused individual greedy decisions or moral failures, or does the evidence suggest there might be some kind of systematic plan at work here? Does the evidence indicate that treating patients individually for their emotional problems while the root causes of their emotional problems keep getting worse is really the most effective way to help them?

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to distract from your original topic. It’s a very good question if we talk about it within a framework that includes the root causes of the problem. I think about this stuff a lot too. As a commerically licensed pilot, my flight psychology training focused on How Not To Get Killed By Stupid Mistakes. An awful lot of people are risking their lives right now because they volunteered to defend a Constitution they didn’t realize was founded on faulty principles. Now that they’ve sacrificed so much to defend the right to an education, it seems kind of unfair to me that the people who got the education are so focused on the emotional problems of lawyers. I know a lot of people who have job-related emotional problems too, like PTSD, because they shot so many people and things like that.

    That’s my point of view, anyway.

  4. If we’re going to talk about science and evidence and what’s going wrong with our political and economic system, what happens if we take a few steps back? Sorry if this seems like a distraction from the topic, but I’ll get back to it soon enough.

    What do you think about the historical fact that the United States Constitution was written before the Theory of Evolution or the Laws of Thermodynamics were discovered? When your political and economic systems were set up by people who had fundamental misunderstandings about biology and physics, which includes psychology and economics, it should come as no surprise if the decision making structure of your country supports a lot of decisions that just don’t seem right.

    What do you think about the fact that the global environmental crisis was discovered in 1968 and predicted worldwide famine, which is an extreme form of poverty, and now a lot of people who have educations in economics are doing a lot of things that make themselves more wealthy and force other people into poverty?

    Does the evidence indicate that the problems you talked about here are being caused individual greedy decisions or moral failures, or does the evidence suggest there might be some kind of systematic plan at work here? Does the evidence indicate that treating patients individually for their emotional problems while the root causes of their emotional problems keep getting worse is really the most effective way to help them?

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to distract from your original topic. It’s a very good question if we talk about it within a framework that includes the root causes of the problem. I think about this stuff a lot too. (See my website if you’re interested.) As a commerically licensed pilot, my flight psychology training focused on How Not To Get Killed By Stupid Mistakes. An awful lot of people are risking their lives right now because they volunteered to defend a Constitution they didn’t realize was founded on faulty principles. Now that they’ve sacrificed so much to defend the right to an education, it seems kind of unfair to me that the people who got the education are so focused on the emotional problems of lawyers. I know a lot of people who have job-related emotional problems too, like PTSD, because they shot so many people and things like that.

    I don’t consider a solution to be “socialist”, I consider it to be following the evidence. That’s my point of view, anyway.

I, and my readers, would love to read your comments

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