The Trouble With Work (And What To Do About It)

Silhouette against city backdrop

If you work in a mid-sized or large organization, chances are that you’re feeling the effects of “VUCA” – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. This acronym, introduced by the U.S. Army War College, was adopted starting in the 1990s to describe a wide variety of non-military organizations.1 Volatility refers to the unrelenting pace of change, which “demands an urgent response from leaders.” Uncertainty highlights the challenges “that leaders face with getting clarity as to what is actually going on.” Complexity results from “a web of interlinking causes and effects” making “it difficult to diagnose a situation and to formulate an effective response.” And, ambiguity means the challenge “to understand the impact and meaning of events” and to react appropriately.2

There are many reasons for these VUCA conditions: global competition from a constantly shifting list of players, the ever accelerating speed of products to market, the rapid pace of technological change, increased workforce demographic diversity, and a host of other social, political, and economic factors that impact the workplace. 

In The Why of Work, Dave and Wendy Ulrich highlight the challenging social, cultural, and workplace trends that leaders must address if they want to create “abundant” organizations where employees are fulfilled in their work:

  • Declining mental health and happiness
  • Increased social, technological, economic, political, environmental, and demographic demands
  • Increased work environment complexity
  • Increased social isolation
  • Low employee commitment to their organizations
  • Lack of long-term commitments to people (at the level of society)
  • Hostility and enmity (fostering a win-lose mindset in society)3

Toxic Work Environments

If leaders don’t respond effectively to VUCA conditions, and if they don’t create the types of abundant organizations described in The Why of Work, it can result in toxic workplace environments. Such environments are typically characterized by:

  • Unclear direction from leaders
  • Constantly shifting, conflicting priorities
  • Slow, ineffective decision making
  • Repeated reorganizations and layoffs
  • Internal competitiveness and politics
  • Poor people management practices
  • Unreasonable workloads and unrealistic expectations
  • Low employee engagement through disempowerment
  • Obstacles preventing employees from contributing their best work
  • Lack of employee recognition/appreciation
  • Lack of career development opportunities

All of this can take an enormous toll on employees in terms of work performance, job satisfaction, stress/health, and personal life.

Work performance typically suffers in toxic environments. This is because frustrated, disengaged, disempowered, uninspired employees who don’t receive the leadership direction and management support they need to thrive can adopt a “stay and quit” mindset. They simply put in time, but they don’t contribute their best work. They are mentally and emotionally checked out.

Poor work performance is often tied to low job satisfaction. Employees who are not contributing their best work are most likely also unfulfilled, i.e., their work lacks meaning and purpose. They don’t experience the joy of realizing their full potential and making a positive difference because they can’t see the impact of their efforts on organizational results.

Work stress has a wide range of emotional effects, including burnout, frustration, hopelessness, boredom, anxiety, and depression. Work stress has also been tied to numerous physical conditions, including poor sleep, lethargy, fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and much more serious health issues.

The personal lives of employees who regularly work long hours due to job demands are often negatively impacted in terms of relationships with family and friends and insufficient downtime for rest, relaxation, and recreation. This can exacerbate emotional and physical symptoms.

Seize Control of Your Career

If you are employed in such a toxic environment and your work lacks meaning, you don’t need to remain a victim. You can seize control of your career by:

  • Assessing your values, passions, and innate strengths
  • Articulating your vision and mission
  • Taking positive steps to move your career forward

My Coaching Model

It may or may not be necessary to change your employer or your chosen field. It depends on how wide a gap exists between your desired vision for meaningful work and the realities of your current situation.

I invite you to sign up for a complimentary discovery session.  I’d love to explore how I can guide you through assessment, exploration, and action to realize meaningful work.

Back to Taking Action


  1. Stiehm, Judith Hicks and Nicholas W. Townsend (2002). The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy. Temple University Press, p. 6.
  3. Ulrich, Dave and Wendy Ulrich (2010). The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Win. McGraw Hill, pp. 35-36.