Survive Your Cubicle, Win At Life


My day job as a bereavement counselor for a hospice recently made a Top 10 Weirdest Jobs with High Salaries list.

Truthfully, my salary isn’t as high as the list makes it out to be. I earn enough to pay the bills, but not enough to own more than 5 shirts, one for each day of the work week. (Just ask my coworkers.)

Also, my job is not weird. It’s just not a job most people would want because you spend 40 hours per week helping families navigate through terminal illness, death, and grieving. So maybe it’s not that the job itself is weird, it’s just weird that anyone would be drawn to this field.

There’s something else you should know about my job. It involves the worst of two very different types of work: (1) endless, monotonous data entry that must be done within the confines of a cubicle; and (2) clinical expertise with an intense expectation attached– the expectation that no one will commit suicide under my watch, and that instead, they will miraculously live a brave life despite their loss and trauma.


My job is a reflection of your life because in both cases, you must balance the mundane drudgery of life’s practical demands, with the beautiful, challenging, profound reality of being human.

Therefore, whether it’s me in my cubicle or you in your personal life, we must hone the following 4 skills in order to stay sane and happy:

1. The ability to replace unhealthy coping skills with better ones.

My coworkers keep trying to kill me by way of carb overload. Every other day someone brings in a huge bag of warm pretzels, which disappear in a matter of minutes.

I think the power walk to the pretzel bag is the only exercise some of us get each day. When you dream of escape, warm pretzels with cheese sauce for dipping help you forget that you spend 70% of your week in a cubicle.

But I can’t keep fooling myself into thinking this coping mechanism is fine just because  pretzels are technically a low fat food. So I adjusted my coping mechanism by discreetly listening to music on my headphones while doing data entry. It’s not a very innovative means of escape, but filling the silence with music keeps me from daydreaming and procrastinating.

Everyone needs coping mechanisms because everyone’s life feels hard and unbearable at times. If you develop healthy ways of coping, you won’t develop diabetes (or a drug addiction, or herpes, etc.) while you wait for the storm to pass.

2. The ability to embrace your quirks.

I am responsible for providing emotional support to over 1200 grieving people, and I mostly do this over the phone.

Can you imagine calling 30 people each day to talk about what life is like now that someone they love is dead? Yeah. So obviously, I’ve got to be strategic about how to handle this task so I don’t burn out.

First, I refuse to make calls in a depressing cubicle. So I sneak into important people’s corner offices to use their phones. That way, I can stare at the gorgeous blue sky and remember that these phone calls are sacred and beautiful, not just tragic.

It also helps to sing songs I’m obsessed with while dialing phone numbers.

Or daydream about a naughty topic that I refuse to write about.

The families I support don’t need to know that I’m sneaky and weird. All they need to know is that I’m able take good care of them because I take good care of me.

So do whatever you need to do to make you a nicer, sharper, more sane person, even if it means letting your freak flag fly. 

3. The ability to not care what other people think.

During the first few months at my job, I was afraid to take breaks during the day. My bum was glued to my swivel chair because I didn’t want to get caught looking like I’m not a star performer.

But without breaks I began dozing off at my computer, or feeling too drained to support my emotionally fragile clients. So at some point I had to stop caring about how I might appear to others if disappear to do short power walks around the building.

You don’t have to defend your actions when it comes to self-care. But if I had to, I’d simply tell my boss, “Cubicles are shackles on the soul of humanity.” Or possibly something less dramatic.

4. The ability to say NO.

There are a few things at my job that threaten my sanity. I’ve learned to say no to them, and I’m preparing myself to say no to unreasonable demands in the future, because this is what it means to have good boundaries.

Speaking of saying no, I’m saying no right now to providing any personal examples of what I’m talking about. (I’d like to keep my job, thank you very much!) This is proof of how good I am at strategically saying no in ways that will benefit me.

Being able to say no to activities and people that may harm you can feel risky. And indeed, there is always risk of being rejected or disliked when you say no. This risk feels so threatening that you’ll feel like you have no choice but to be agreeable. But remember: Setting boundaries is always one of your choices. No options should be left off the table when it comes to your sanity and happiness.

Your Turn: What coping skills and self-care habits have you formed on the job?


Photo Sources: Photo 1, Photo 2

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9 Responses to Survive Your Cubicle, Win At Life

  1. Allie says:

    Awesome post! :)

  2. douglas says:

    i’ve done the 100 calls a day (for close to 3 years, for the hotel company that has a name like the famous cracker), which is phenomenally tough on an extreme introvert (the 100 calls a day). but I learned to take a well timed walk, and eventually the right step away in terms of personal development. my time there helped prepare me for my current job, night auditor. that brings a new kettle of fish to the surface. self-care is something I cherish and value. i have voicemail for answering my phone. and I make time for myself in the midst of the crappy hours. I still read the leadership and personal development books I did before taking the night shift, keep working on making me, the better and the brave. and I volunteer the heck out of my spare time. but kept great track of me. because if i don’t take good care of me, how can I help others?

    • Kimberly says:

      Right on, Douglas! That’s so awesome. Sometimes I feel like a big baby for complaining about the many responsibilities we grown-ups have…but then I read something like your comment and realize that the true grown-up *makes time* for things that bring him/ her fulfillment and peace. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. driven/witless says:

    Holy cow! Yes, Sheryl, you definitely win on the phone calls! And Kimberly, I love discovering more about what you do. I’m in a related field, in a way.

    I can relate to those phone boundaries. I actually ended a friendship because the other party could not understand why I wasn’t able to spend hours on the phone with her, talking about her problems, after I spent eight hours absorbing others’ woes.

    I also spend a lot of time in the field working directly with clients who might have experienced significant misfortune or trauma. These folks and their families are often grieving, even if they do not recognize it as such because, at least for the time being, no one has died. (Why must our culture often only ascribe “appropriate” grieving to death?)

    Anyway. Here’s what I’ve found is non-negotiable for my sanity as a person in a helping profession:
    1) Yoga, or some other physical activity that gets me entirely outside of my head.
    2) An incredibly inappropriate sense of humor. ‘Laugh or perish,’ that’s the motto. It’s never at anyone’s expense. But my god, if I couldn’t see humor in some of the horribleness that I confront I think my brain would short-circuit.
    3) Time at the end of the day to decompress and switch gears. This is an absolute. It might be 15 minutes or a couple of hours. I find I quickly unravel if I don’t have some space and time to be quiet and care for myself.
    4) Craft beer. Yes, really.
    5) Art, or looking at and listening to beautiful things. It’s often they way I remind myself that my job and what happens there is not the whole world.

    • Steph says:

      I am in a similar field to you I think (most of my clients having underlying trauma) and I love your list! Particularly the yoga and the time to decompress. My work life is so far from ideal it’s ridiculous, but it has taught me emotional survival skills in that “nesscessity is the mother of invention” kind of way :/

    • Kimberly says:

      Love your list too, driven/ witless. Just this year I’ve learned that #3 is essential for me. I used to suppress that need– there’s a lot of praise for people who are work horses, and our egos can get wrapped up in the pride that comes along with identifying ourselves as such. But then I noticed other things falling apart– my health, creativity, etc.

      Thanks so much for sharing! Now you’ve got me curious about YOUR day job. I’m nosy. :)

  4. Sheryl says:

    One of my boundaries with work is the amount of time I spend talking and/or on the phone outside of work. I talk to about a hundred people a day and live in a headset at work – you can’t pay me to answer the phone at home the first hour I’m home after work. All that talking and listening on the job means I need time to not have to talk or listen when I get home.

    And the breaks. I have scheduled proper breaks, but I can take personal time when I need to beyond those. Using it and listening to my own needs is important. When I’ve had a bad call I’ll perform better the rest of the day if I take a couple of minutes to calm down afterwards.

    • Kimberly says:

      Holy crap, 100 calls a day! Okay, you win.

      I totally understand your desire to stay away from phones when you get home from work. I’m the same way, only it’s more like I don’t want to have to take care of anyone’s needs but my own in the first hour that I’m home because I’ve already spent the day caring for people in crisis. (Poor Brian!)

      Yes, hallelujah for breaks. A walk, a snack, a chat with a coworker to vent, etc. It’s amazing how something so small at just the right time can make all the difference.

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