Are You Unhappy at Work or in Life?

Published: July 18, 2023

The older you are, the more likely it is that it’s both. There’s a window of opportunity in adulthood to shift direction. Once past that window, most of your energy serves to keep things the same, no matter how miserable. Pain gets normalized over time. It’s easier to endure a known discomfort than it is to risk the consequences of change.

Unhappy people often make their workplace the venue for the expression of displeasure – especially if they are in a leadership position and buffered from job security consequences. Everyone underneath them learns to brace for the storm. It passes and returns in predictable cycles.

The law of gravity explains the cascading effect. Unhappy leaders are tolerated, therefore sanctioned. When the behavior endured from the top of the organizational chart occurs at the bottom, employees are disciplined. Turnover happens at the bottom of the org chart when toxicity is modeled from the top. A punitive culture is solidified, along with its consequences.

There are always a handful of leaders whose wellness drives the culture of an organization. If they are healthy, their wellness shapes the vibe beneath them. If they are broken, however, the system moves to a position of constant readjustment to their volatility. If it were a marriage, it would be described as an abuse cycle.

Clinically, the four stages of an abuse cycle are: tension, incident, reconciliation, and calm. Tension escalates to an event. The event requires repair. The repair eases the tension. The relief gives way to the next rise in tension. This cycle eventually defines relationship culture.

In a perfect world, you would identify the key leaders that drive the organization’s wellness and devote whatever resources are needed to keep them healthy. If they are well, everyone is well. Call it coaching or call it counseling – intervening where it matters most benefits the whole. If the parents are well, the kids don’t have to brace for the next trauma.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.