When we care too much about work

Ruth Osborne

I do part time work at a not for profit organisation which requires me to manage projects. Amongst other things, the work gives me the opportunity to learn from the practical realities of being in a small sector organisation, and avoid becoming a ‘theory-heavy’ practitioner.

There was a time when my colleagues pointed out that I had on several occasions become quite emotional at work – of the ‘bad’ emotions variety that is. It was hard to hear this feedback. Thinking back, the source of my emotional responses was because my work was repeatedly criticised by someone else. No amount of gains on the project seemed good enough, and they kept changing what they wanted from me.

Difficult but honest conversations were held. Apology meetings took place. Shared solutions were sought, and we kind of found a team tool we thought would work going forward.

Everyone breathed out.

Several weeks on, during a management meeting, one colleague suggested a significant but crucial addition to the work being done by another colleague, who became emotional about it – of the ‘bad’ emotions variety that is.  Voices got raised.  The rest of us frantically tried to use the agreed, shared tool to resolve the interaction and either got ignored or shouted at.  It was team-work carnage.

Things were buzzing inside of me as I drove home:  firstly a degree of perverse relief that I was not the only leader who from time to time loses it in the work place; secondly a fresh appreciation that to emote (and err) is to be human and that we’re not (yet) bots. 

The third was a big curiosity – why?  Why did this happen for both me and my colleague?  It was absolutely apparent that the presence of strong, ‘negative’ emotions expressed meant there were strong, ‘negative’ feelings underneath them.  So what catalysed that quick shift from the head space to the heart space (#multiplebrainintelligence), significantly reducing the likelihood of reasonable, shared conversation and solution-seeking?

I did a lot of journaling about it at the time.  My reflections on the conversations, as well as my own feelings and behaviour and the behaviour of my colleague, showed that in each instance our interpretation of the subtext of what the other person was saying was “Your work, and what you have done, is not good enough”.  And in each case that message very quickly slid – as far as our ears could hear – into “You are not good enough” (even though that was not what was being said).

Because we work in organisations that exist to care for others, we care for our work. Deeply. With all our heart.  With everything in us. Our work so easily becomes us, and we become our work. 

So when someone criticises our work and therefore us, it is, in that moment, very (and deeply) personal.  Encouragements to “not take it personally” fall on deaf ears as a range of emotions flow like Hawaiian lava. And I think this is probably more so in our sector than in others – for we are the big-hearted sector. We work from our hearts.

It comes up quite often with coaching clients.  Recently a leader asked me “How do I care less at work, how do I disengage myself?”  (Now there’s a new topic for the HR sector to work on…) 

One of the things contributing to me not being able to objectify the criticism, was my work-life balance was out of kilter.  But it was not the work-life balance as outlined in my weekly planner and diary – for in terms of actual hours spent working, those had not got out of hand (I’m a scheduling-ninja).  It was more the work-life balance within my internal world – that is, my thought-life, my heart-space, my energy flow.

I had allocated far more than a fair share of me to work and in that happening, other areas of me had become smaller. If you like, my Work Persona was by far the dominant one over all the others.

A small but good example I can recall, is that the pilates classes I so diligently attended twice a week were not having the same physical and mental release for me – simply because I was doing them physically, but on the inside, my mind and focus was not on my breathing, body and exercises, but actually instead processing my work.

Coaching clients frequently make similar discoveries for themselves. Many solve it not only by adjusting their schedules (as a first step), but also working on being more present in whatever it is that they are doing at any given moment.

The turning point for me was via a throwaway line from a wise friend; it was both powerful and helpful:  “Work is just work.”  He turned it from a capital W to a lower case one.  It was the catalyst for me to make some adjustments to my allocation of emotional and mental currency.

The first adjustment was to realise that it was not all about me, in the sense that it was not all up to me.  The project would not sink or swim based on my contribution; therefore I didn’t need to overwork it, or feel the strongest about it.

The second is aligned: I began to own the team – that there are several people involved, and together we make this work.  Although I am a leader, I don’t have to always lead the charge in the battle for social change.  I recall that for several months I arrived at meetings more conscious of making a purposely measured contribution, and with that successfully objectifying the work, project, and any critique that came to what I had done.  Thirdly, I got myself into some coaching, which was very useful for processing my feelings about my relationship with my work, in a safe, neutral and productive way. 

Counter-intuitively, I became more engaged than ever at work. And it was encouraging to get the team's subsequent feedback, that I was altogether much calmer and easier to work with, but in no way disengaged. 

Now when something I do is critiqued, I can say that mostly I don’t get as upset about it as I used to.  It is after all, just umm… work.


As not for profit leaders and managers, we face a unique set of work place challenges.  The LEAD team are all highly experienced coaches and available to support you to find solutions, and develop increased skill, knowledge and confidence in your role.