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September 23, 2004

The Silent Epidemic

It happened again today. Another husband, another successful Microsoft employee, left his wife and family.

"Was he suffering from depression?" I asked.

A surprised look. "How did you know?"

I knew because it's the third situation like this I've seen this year.

It's hard to know what is going on here. But I can make a guess.

My guess would be that for many people at Microsoft, the comparison between life at home and life at work is no contest. It used to be that for the average working man, his daily life was stressful, and home was a refuge from all that. This is the premise of the book Fascinating Womanhood; the notion that home needed to be a refuge, that housewives needed to understand their husbands' world of stress.

But then things began to change. Technology companies like Microsoft went out of their way to make things easy on employees. Need a soft drink, or a new computer? Need someone to come to your desk and give you a massage, or advice on office ergonomics? Need a private office? Anything to allow knowledge workers brains' to operate with a maximum of efficiency.

As for home life...well, I have four children (whom I love dearly), but our house isn't any kind of refuge from anything, except peace and quiet. Add to that the layers of angst and guilt that have been heaped on modern parents, and it is work that becomes the refuge from the stress of home.

And consider the rewards at Microsoft: good performance is rewarded, both short- and long-term, with kind words, encouraging emails, stock grants, and promotions. At home, if you are lucky, you may discover after 18 years that much to your surprise, your child is not actually an undereducated delinquent, but rather is on his or her way to becoming a functioning member of society, maybe.

So you put those two together and you wind up with a situation where men derive the majority of their sense of self-worth from how they perform at their job, not from how they do as a husband and father. At Microsoft, with the use of stock options and grants as compensation, the connection between individual performance and company performance is reinforced. But this implies the opposite; bad times for the company must be a result of individual poor performance.

And let's face it, times might be a bit tough at Microsoft now. Everything is in play; it is hard to be sure that you, your group, your division, your company is doing the right thing. Hanging over it all is a creeping dread that the company may be too large, too set in its ways, to compete. It's not everywhere, it's not all the time, but it's there, sometimes.

So you get the inevitable result; people's sense of self-worth suffers, and eventually real depression sets in. And this leads, ironically, to the balm that has healed in the past: towards the soothing hum of the office, and away from the crash and clatter of home, and the lives left behind.

Posted by AdamBa at September 23, 2004 11:28 PM

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And I thought it was just me who came to work to relieve stress. (And we don't even get the free drinks, massages, grants, stock options, or private offices. (Heck, I don't even have a cubicle!))

Posted by: Mat Hall at September 24, 2004 12:53 AM

Wow. I never really looked at it this way, but I could certainly see how this could happen. But if anything, I think it's more indicative of a communication breakdown between the spouses than anything. It's natural for a man to want to retreat into his cave (if John Gray is to be believed), but it's tough to talk to your loved ones when you're at work all the time.

Posted by: Rob Stevens at September 24, 2004 11:50 AM

Or it could be that after working daft hours for years on end you start to realize that you are essentially not contributing to your children's development. I can see how that could lead to depression and a belief that your family would be better off without you.

I used to laugh at the emphasis my company puts on "work/life balance" but now I see it for the long term productivity and retention tool that it is.

Posted by: Andrew at September 27, 2004 12:59 PM