THE BLOG
08/28/2015 04:10 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2016

The Emotional Toll of a Cutthroat Work Environment

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A recent article in the New York Times revealed the bruising workplace environment at Amazon. The gist? Amazon employees are encouraged to poke holes in one another's ideas, give secret feedback about coworkers and work incredibly late hours (emails after midnight, anyone?). The takeaway was that Amazon pushes its employees beyond their limits.

But Amazon is not alone in this approach. As a New York City psychotherapist and former attorney, I understand when my patients complain of grueling hours, cutthroat competition, and the sacrifice of personal and family time. Today's competitive corporate culture forces many people to confront a real-life conflict between personal and professional goals, productivity versus pleasure. Whether you work at Amazon or elsewhere, a demanding workplace environment can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional health if you are unprepared for the risks and tradeoffs. While professional success is a most worthy achievement, it should not come at the cost of your physical or emotional health.

Work-life balance is familiar term, but what exactly does it mean? It means being conscious of the choices and tradeoffs you are willing to make to get ahead. It means knowing what is important to you and what you are willing to sacrifice for added money or prestige. It means acknowledging your particular strengths and weaknesses and not trying to fit into a workplace culture that doesn't suit your disposition. It means balancing what you have to do to earn incremental income with the personal cost. It also means making work bearable, and acknowledging when workplace stress is negatively impacting your life.

Maintaining a work-life balance takes intention and planning, but it is possible for every one of us when we set it as a priority. Even the most hard-driving people make decisions about where they draw the line. Here are a few things to think about when you are faced with work-life conflicts:

Don't let inertia set in. If you feel stressed in a way that is affecting your mood, keeping you up at night, or causing conflict in your marriage or with other family members, then it is time to do something about it. Focus first on your relationships at work- with a boss, colleague or even an assistant -- to better understand if there is underlying tension. Strained work relationships can undermine self-esteem and impede productivity, but they also increase tension at home, causing conflicts with a spouse or children. If you notice work relationships are a frequent source of conflict it's time to address them before the problem gets worse.

Re-set priorities at different stages of life. Tradeoffs change at different stages of life, so at each major life event -- marriage, children, elderly parents, illness, death of a loved one, or any traumatic event -- take a pause. Ask yourself if more money or added prestige is worth missing important life events, like a Little League game or time with an aging parent? Think in terms of short- and long-range goals and responsibilities. What do you want or need to achieve today? Where do you want to be 5 years from now? Think of each decision as a tradeoff between present and future goals and personal and professional commitments.

Talk to someone. It's vital to remember that the simple act of talking to someone can bring relief and improvement in your lifestyle and mental health. People often seek counsel because they experience symptoms of distress, but are unsure of the cause. Marital problems may be caused by work conflict and vice versa. By talking it through will you gain insight into the source of the conflict. Find someone you trust -- a mentor, a counselor, friend or family member. Seek support if you feel that something is off.

Be realistic about how you manage stress. Not everyone is the same when it comes to their ability to tolerate stressful events and a demanding work environment. Some people thrive on the competition and pressure, but it's not for everyone. Don't feel the pressure to conform to someone else's way of working unless you are prepared. As Socrates said: "Know thyself."

Examine what success really means to you. Does success mean a large bank account, the acquisition of skill or expertise or being of service to others? Make sure you define success for yourself. You don't want to look back on the sacrifices you made and ask: "Is that all there is?" Make sure that your definition of success is your own.

The bottom line? A cutthroat and bruising workplace environment is not for everyone. Know yourself. Don't feel pressure to conform. Define what success means to you. Take a step back and evaluate your priorities. Don't be afraid to draw a line in the sand. And whatever you do, don't be too hard on yourself.