The Corporate Shrink

All work and no play makes Jack just another typical executive in corporate America.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

I haven’t taken a vacation in two years, despite the fact that I’m a highly paid manager entitled to four weeks off per year. And I’m not the only one: Some execs in our investment bank consider business trips to be vacation substitutes, even though we’re actually working. Why do we do this to ourselves? (issue 80, page 46)

Imagine the travel-industry boom if everyone actually took time off! You’d think vacations would be no-brainers – opportunities to get paid for not working, spending time with family or friends, and recharging creative juices. But that’s not how many of us operate, for all sorts of personal and organizational reasons.

Some executives feel guilty staying away from work–they think they’re abandoning their hardworking colleagues. At first glance, these people may seem too good to be true: real team players who are dependable, tireless, and self-sacrificing. But they also tend to be obsessively driven, highly self-critical, and ultimately prone to burnout. Feeling ashamed to acknowledge the need for a break, they’re more fun at work than at home.

Others use work to avoid being at home, preferring the collegiality of professional relationships to dealing with spouses, children, family members, and personal obligations. For them, vacation is a dreaded incarceration rather than an eagerly anticipated experience.

We all know of companies whose culture rewards self-sacrifice and covertly punishes those who insist on having a life outside the workplace. The financial-services industry certainly hasn’t cornered the market on masochistic vacation practices. While not everybody lives by these unwritten rules, some jobs or industries attract those who have a need to avoid being home, who turn the workplace into a surrogate family, or who use work as a form of self-imposed isolation. As for you, I’d prescribe a well-deserved vacation.

I’m a founding partner in an advertising startup. We’re wondering whether it’s worth the expense to hire someone with the expertise to help us figure out the psychology of our clients and their customers. Does it really make a difference?

Contrary to what you might expect, I don’t believe that hiring a psychological expert guarantees anything. Some people, regardless of training, are naturally intuitive about what makes others tick. And I know some “psychological experts” who are far more interested in molecules than minds.

Advertising is certainly a “psychological” enterprise. Among other things, it’s about applying creative skills to influence the behavior of consumers. You capture their attention by appealing to what psychoanalysts call the “id” (their desires), while also meeting the requirements of the “ego” (their intellect and rational judgment), doing so in a way that minimizes the restrictiveness and criticisms of the “superego” (guilt and shame).

Advertising folks who do this best have a natural gift for empathizing with the customers they hope to seduce. By blending artistic ideas and business savvy with a deep emotional attunement to potential customers, they create great ad campaigns. But there’s no formula for any of this. If your startup has a few of these really talented people, then you’re probably in good shape without a shrink.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (