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Archive for March 2013

Workplace Stress: The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.

Anyone who has been in a situation where workload is excessive and unmanageable, or where bullying and harassment are the rule rather than the exception would likely agree that these workplace stressors are insidious. They can creep up on you so subtly that you miss the warning signs until they are blaring at you, or worse, have knocked you flat. Before you realize it, you are in physical and/or mental distress, and the approach to “tough it out” to keep your job is a considerable burden. It’s all too easy to feel isolated and to withdraw from the key people who can support you.

Sometimes it takes a colleague, a friend, a family member or a doctor to kick you out of your spiral downward due to stress. I once worked with an amazing woman who was in a senior leadership position at an organization and was, essentially, working herself to death. Her doctor finally told her to take a leave of absence for a minimum of six months, but more reasonably a year. When she left, they backfilled her position, and the person in her place said the workload was impossible so they hired another person to assist. Even with two people doing the work, they said there was too much, and a third person was hired. It took three people to do the job my colleague had been doing for over three years. We all need to recognize when workload is beyond reasonable, and when to seek help to relieve workload stress before it becomes damaging to our health.

When it comes to intimidation, bullying and other abusive workplace behaviour, there can be multiple sources – managers, elected officials, colleagues or customers. It’s a reality in the workplace, but just as sexual harassment is an anathema that won’t be tolerated, these other abusive behaviours must also be eliminated from the workplace.

The March edition of Exchange, the LGMA’s member magazine, tackles these issues in Stress: The Good. The Bad. The Ugly. The feature story explores the types of stress we experience in the workplace – including the fact that some stress is positive and ultimately necessary for progress and success. It’s also unnerving that so many local government managers have talked about the challenges they face, and the lack of viable options to address the source of stressors affecting their health. We originally hoped to share some case studies with you, but the reality is that even retirees are not comfortable discussing their past experiences when there are so few solutions in place. But while your options may be limited – there are some tactics you can apply, and some decisions you can control, to help protect your health and support your job enjoyment.

Considering the research on the long-term damage chronic stress can cause in an organization, including impeding its productivity and customer service, you would think that the benefits of protecting a healthy work environment would take precedence and allow for prompt elimination of threats that can cause a toxic culture. So the hope is that organizations with toxic cultures will eventually implode in the sense that they can’t function effectively without change. This may happen if customer service is directly affected when people refuse to work for employers who don’t uphold shared values and a code of conduct based on a respectful workplace. And when services are directly affected, perhaps a true cultural change will be forced on leadership and on all employees until a positive, productive and engaging workplace becomes the norm.

Until then, maybe we need to wear pink shirts every day.