Meaningful Work

Sleepwalking at work: suffering and complaining

4 minute read

We are living in a time where depression is raising worldwide — and our workplace plays a role in it. Being disconnected from the work we do is a common experience for many of us. Maybe is someone we know, someone we work with, or even us. When that happens we go to work because we have to, while we’re unable to find any interest in what we do. We often rely on acquired skills in the day-to-day, and we don’t have the curiosity to grow anymore. Often, we don’t even find the energy to connect with the people we work with, and we stop caring about the outcome of what we’re doing.

While sometimes there’s an external reason for this scenario to happen — after all, we all have a life outside work — more often the source can’t be clearly identified or it’s an entanglement of many different reasons: we are sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking is a form of dull apathy where the individual, existential pursue of a fulfilled life is entangled in a web of habits and behaviours that have been automated and repeated.

The sleepwalker isn’t awake: every day is a repetition of actions over and over, day after day, week after week. It’s important to recognize these habits don’t have a malicious source, they are most of the time a defense mechanism to survive the environment the person is in. They become negative because they turned into habits: workplace after workplace, environment after environment, toxic relationship after toxic relationship, these automated behaviours layered on top of each other, ending in a life that gets repetitive and dull.

Sleepwalkers can be grouped in two general types:

  • Unaware sleepwalkers: as the metaphorical frog that gets boiled by slowly raising the temperature, they ended up in a situation they don’t recognize because it happened over many years.
  • Aware sleepwalkers: they realize how difficult their days are, they feel they are trapped, but they can’t seem to find a way out of it. These people are often the hardest to shake out of sleepwalk because the awareness of their position wasn’t already enough to trigger change.

There isn’t a simple sign of sleepwalking because every behaviour could be an expression of it. It’s not the behaviour by itself that defines sleepwalking, but their mindless, automated execution. For this reason it’s necessary to not focus on the action in itself, but try to spot patterns of behaviour over time.

Is there complaining? Sleepwalkers, especially aware ones, can be often stuck in a loop where they behave in a certain way, then they complain about it, yet they keep repeating that action over and over. The complaint isn’t in itself a sign: the person might be in a really bad period, or in a bad environment, and once that is over or changed the complaint disappear. Complaining might also be a healthy way to vent and lower the internal pressure, as well as find sympathy. What can be noticed here is a repeated pattern of complaining as itself being the goal.

Is it logical? Repeated actions usually start as something useful, but over time they start being disassociated from the origin, because rarely the situation is exactly the same. This means that from the outside these repeated patterns don’t seem logical. This disconnection can be spotted more easily from the outside. Because the behaviour was likely rooted in an original protection mechanism, we also need to acknowledge that the person might feel attached to it and moving on might feel scary.

Does it cause suffering? Some forms of action or inaction cause suffering to the person doing it, and possibly to the people around them, either directly or indirectly. Again the action needs to be evaluated by its context: the same action might be in one context effective and leading to a positive outcome, and in a different context might cause harm. Yet, suffering and apathy are a sign that something might be happening.

Sleepwalking might look like personal, but it’s as personal as it’s systemic. Joining a group or a company that is sleepwalking will likely end up in the individual to start slowly but inexorably assimilate the negative patterns, and the individual agency gets reduced over time. A sleepwalking environment has to be conceived both as sleepwalking individuals as well as the system that makes people sleepwalk. The action on the individuals will thus affect the entire system, and vice-versa. Yet, any systemic fix doesn’t work if applied to the structure of the system itself, unless it’s aimed to awake the sleepwalking people inside it. Similarly, acting on a single individual won’t likely fix the environment, but might simply make that individual to move on somewhere else.

We thus need two kinds of awareness:

  1. Individual awareness of our own sleepwalking behaviours
  2. Systemic awareness of the forces in an environment that make people sleepwalk

It’s hard to acquire these two types of awareness on our own due to self-doubt, subjectivity, and limits in our perspective. We can then start by reaching out to one person, someone we trust and that with whom we can share this work. This will have multiple benefits:

  • Allow us to acquire an external perspective, as our thinking is reflected back
  • Allows us to recognize that our thoughts are shared by others
  • Allows us to have an ally in the change we are trying to make

A good way to start is to get better at creating a safe space, as it will allow us to get more sincere and reach a deeper level of trust.

One person by one person, we can trigger a larger systemic change.