During my 35+ years in public relations (working in corporate, government and non-profit sectors), I was typically the one tapdancing through the office with my hair on fire, cheerfully juggling multiple deadlines, all due this morning. I was almost always the first to arrive each day, and the last one to leave. I seemed to take a perverse pride in being recognized by all as the indispensable “go-to” person on any team.
But that word “indispensable” is problematic. . .
The dictionary definition is: “something or someone who is so good or so important that you could not manage without it, him, or her.”
In fact, I somehow believed that I was so good and so important in my workplace that for months leading up to my “widowmaker” heart attack, I went to the office almost every Sunday morning to work all day on a major project that I decided needed far more focused attention than I could fit into my regular work week.
Nobody ever told me I HAD to come in to work on my days off. But since I seemed to be the only person on staff capable of leading this project, I began to normalize my Sunday shifts by explaining that actually, I get far more work done on Sundays because the phone’s not ringing and I don’t have meetings to interrupt me. . .”
Does this defense sound familiar to you, too?
A close friend once told me over a glass of wine at her office retirement party about an old poem on the myth of indispensability. She’d been reminded of this poem, she said, because all evening, she’d been hearing her soon-to-be-former colleagues ask, “How will we ever manage without you?”
But she already knew the sobering answer: nobody is indispensable.
She also knew that these same colleagues would not only manage perfectly well without her, but after a certain amount of time, they would barely remember that she had ever been there.
Here’s an excerpt from that 1959 poem by Saxon White Kessinger that may address your own misguided belief that you too are indispensable:*
“Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul.
“Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.
“You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.” *
After my heart attack and subsequent cardiac complications in 2008, that 35+ year P.R. career abruptly ended. Because of ongoing debilitating symptoms caused by a second cardiac diagnosis of coronary microvascular disease, I was simply unable to function as I needed to.
I knew it, and – worse! – my wonderful colleagues knew it, too. A brief return-to-work trial became a humiliating disaster.
It was a demoralizing time for me. My desperate hope was that my doctors would come up with a magical remedy for my cardiac symptoms, or that I would be “cured“, or that I’d at least be well enough to go back to the work I loved and was good at doing. All I wanted was to feel “normal” again, during a time when nothing felt “normal” anymore. And what would be most “normal” would be to go back to work.
Whenever my work friends would call or visit me at home during those early weeks of recuperation, their messages were reassuring variations of: “We miss you so much! Work is just NOT the same without you!”
So imagine my stunned shock within a short time after that failed attempt at a graduated return-to-work trial when I learned that my full-time replacement had been hired, had moved into “my” office, and by all accounts, was a nice guy doing a great job.
Somehow, the entire workplace seemed to be surviving just fine, and the world was continuing to spin on its axis – all without me!
This can be a hard pill to swallow if you still somehow believe you’re indispensable, and especially tough if the role you’d been planning to resume as soon as you felt well enough is no longer even available to you.
Here’s the trouble with “normalizing” an abnormal work ethic that requires you to act as if you and only you can do whatever it is you are doing, or by remaining within an organizational environment that openly promotes an unhealthy “always on” culture: this sense of forced indispensability can actually affect your physical and mental health, leading to psychological burnout or severe physical illness.
One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, suggested a significantly increased risk of coronary artery disease among those who work 11 hours a day or more – findings that were enhanced by lifestyle habits often associated with those who work 11+ hours a day (high stress, lack of exercise, smoking or eating unhealthy take-out meals.(1)
It’s ironic, isn’t it? Even when the corporate culture itself may be making you sick, you may still feel desperate to return to the same environment that made you sick in the first place. After last week’s Heart Sisters article on learning the fine art of p-a-c-i-n-g was published, for example, not every reader agreed with my suggestion that heart patients might want to consider accepting the need to slow down. As one reader astutely commented:
” I’m still resisting this one. Don’t like it! I liked and relied on the woman I used to be. I miss that woman!”
I get that. I too strongly resisted this kind of advice in the early days, post-diagnosis. I had somehow turned into a person I no longer recognized. That person I used to be seemed to have disappeared. How could I get her back? And what could I be doing to speed up this annoyingly slow recovery business?
When I wrote one day about what a painful transition it had been for me going from being a racing-around-in-charge person to one who needs long naps, I heard from a self-described recovering Type A personality, who wrote me a comical essay that I re-posted here as “Life After Heart Attack If You’re a Type A”.
The interesting twist: even beyond the workplace, this pervasive urge to do more than we’re capable of doing can be seductive for many of us – ranging from the responsibilities of volunteering to never turning down a request to babysit your grandkids, even when you’re not feeling up to it.
Please remember: even if you truly believe nothing will get done if you’re not the one to do it, others WILL find a Plan B that works for them. This will happen. Nobody is indispensable, as those who believe they are almost always discover far too late. As the former president of France Charles de Gaulle liked to say:
“The cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensable people.”
Image: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about working – and not working – after a cardiac event in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (if you use their code HTWN , you can save 30% off the list price).