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The Light at the End of the Week

May 9, 2009 | by Jeffrey Dunetz

Shabbat became my life raft, my refuge from a cruel working environment.

Every week is bad, but this week's Friday's staff meeting was particularly brutal. But, as always, I kept my mouth closed and didn't say a word.

Even though I have been with the company for less than a year, I knew very well that you were not allowed to disagree with the CEO, even in private. If you try to lay out a case for position that does not agree with his, the response is inevitably, “You're wrong,” or “If you think that you can convince me of that, you must think I'm stupid.”

Today, when I told him why we didn't get a particular piece of business, he berated me in front of my staff.

My new job started out with so much promise. The company has a great product. Before I came, results weren't what they should be. Half the staff was never on board, the rest were completely unmotivated. I was out of work for over a year, but I had won awards running a sales organization for one of their competitors, so they hired me to get the sales team into shape.

Even before I started, I knew that this company operated a little different. They relished being just a little crazy. The company was successful even though the level of support services they provided their employees were less than adequate. But I had worked at places like that before. To make it work you need to pull together as a team, and be proud of the fact that you were successful with smoke and mirrors. I looked forward to the challenge. Besides it was a chance to get off the unemployment line.

Senior management can sometimes seem to take pride in being nasty.

Soon after I started, I began to sense that this was not an environment that I was used to working in. Everyone looked nervous; people walked around scared that any minute they were going to get fired. They had good reason to worry. It seemed like everyday someone else was let go and given the usual excuses: “We have eliminated your position,” or “We're reorganizing.”

In reality, people were terminated because they had fallen out of political favor and replaced. One person was hired away from a successful position, and let go to find a new job two weeks later. I recruited a friend of mine to be an assistant to one of the executives. She was hired ― and fired ― two weeks later. Management decided to fire someone with three kids, four days before Christmas. To make it worse, I was forced to do the deed even though I didn't agree with the decision or the timing. This father was there for a few years and was familiar with turnover of the place. He took it very well, much better than me ― I couldn't sleep for days.

Senior management seems to take pride in being nasty. They brag about making people cry, or slipping something into a contract at the last minute, hoping that the customer won't catch it until it was signed.

If someone is too successful, management changes his or her compensation package retroactively. And if you voice something contrary to the CEO's opinion, you become on the “outs,” basically ignored and down the slippery slope to dismissal.

Despite the atmosphere, my team began to perform like they never had before. Sales are up 40% over a year ago ― unheard of in an industry that was down 2% overall. Yet at least once a week at our regular Friday staff meetings, I was being told that my team was under performing, even though all the numbers proved otherwise. Any confidence I had built up during my 20-year career was quickly dissipating.

After three months, I became depressed to the point of wondering whether I'd seriously lose it.

I began to realize that I made a major career mistake. Compounding the mistake was the absolutely lousy job market. It took me a year and a half to find this job; can I just go find another?

I felt trapped. After three months at the job, I got seriously depressed. The scary kind, when you wonder if you are going to seriously lose it.

There were days when I would come home from work and just crawl into a fetal position in my room, spending hours feeling sorry for myself, wondering what I did wrong, why was I being punished.

At a friend's 40th birthday party, I had a panic attack and made my wife go home even though the party had just started. She told me that if the job was making me sick I should quit. But I was always taught you don't quit a job until you find another one, so I couldn't do that.

At first I tried to hide my depression from my friends and family. For a year and a half they heard me complain about not having a job. How could I tell people that I was miserable in my new job? That it was making me sick?

I finally unloaded to a friend. Two years ago, I told him, I was on top of my industry. Since then, I got laid off, spent 18 months out of work and now I'm stuck in a horrible position. I felt as if I was being punished for doing some serious wrong. Maybe I was too sure of myself and needed to be taken down a couple of notches. I just wish I knew so I could correct it.

My friend told me that it was kind of silly to think I was being punished. Every life experience, he said, was for learning. “What are you learning from this experience?"

I joked that the only thing I am learning from this job was to really appreciate Shabbat.

Then it hit me. Maybe that was it! They could take away the pride in my work; they could fire me and take away my source of income. But the one thing that they could never take away from me was Shabbat. Shabbat was about God and family. No, they couldn't touch that! That was the way to get through it.

I felt like Rocky Balboa when he realized that he couldn't win the fight. All he cared about was being able to withstand the punches and be on his feet at the end. I knew I couldn't win against management, but I needed to keep on standing as long as I could or at least until I found another job, and Shabbat became the key.

With every mean-spirited word or sarcastic comment, every time they ignored the record and told me that I was doing a lousy job, I began to count the days to Shabbat. That was the bell for the end of the round. If I could only make it till Shabbat, I would be out of their world of cruelty and into God's world surrounded by the warmth and comfort of my family and friends.

When I pick up the Kiddush cup, the weight of a horrible day at work is lifted off my shoulders.

The funny thing is that it's been only the last few months that we have begun to celebrate a traditional Shabbat dinner at home. Before that, we just lit candles and went to shul. Now when I come home from those horrific Friday staff meetings, my table is decorated with candles, challah, a Kiddush cup and a heavenly Shabbat meal is served. It's almost as if God put the solution for my malaise into my wife's head.

Now, no matter how bad that Friday meeting is, when I pick up the Kiddush cup and begin to recite the prayer, the weight of the horrible day at work is suddenly lifted off my shoulders. The pit in my stomach goes away, and I begin to feel truly happy, sitting at the table with my family, feeling the warmth of their love.

The Sages give lots of different reasons why we have Shabbat. Some say it is to recognize God as the creator of the world. For me, Shabbat is a life raft, thrown to us once a week. It's a time to rid ourselves of some of the weight dragging us under, to look over the bright light of two flickering candles, to see our family and realize what is really important in the world.

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