Take care of ‘the other bottom line’

Question:

“With nearly 30 years of professional experience behind me, I find myself at something of a crossroads. Originally credentialed as an engineer, I’ve secured a number of promotions over the years and now function more as a manager than as an individual contributor. Over the past five years, I’ve been challenged by upper management to do more with less. As a result, I find myself working longer and longer work weeks with no end in sight. I find myself enjoying my work less and less and wondering more and more about what lies ahead. I used to enjoy coming to work. Now, I feel an increasing sense of dread every Monday morning. Frankly, I feel stuck and don’t know how to get unstuck. I’d appreciate any insights you can offer for how I might get out of this predicament.”

Answer:

In the consulting practice I lead at Organization Development Consultants, Inc. (ODC), we see a fairly steady stream of referrals from our organizational clients for individuals who, like the reader, are struggling to effectively meet the ongoing challenges of their work responsibilities. While we are not clinical psychologists (i.e., we are industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists and organization development professionals), we are frequently engaged to conduct return-to-work (RTW) or fitness-for-duty (FFD) assessments for our organizational clients. Is the employee psychologically and emotionally fit to continue to meet his or her work-related responsibilities? If not, what accommodations or alternatives might be pursued?

While the popular media is quick to report upon instances of workplace violence, there are many, many stories that go unreported because they do not rise to that level of visibility. Conservative estimates suggest that up to 10 percent of the U.S. workforce can be categorized as alcoholic and that 10 percent of the workforce will use illicit drugs or substances at some point during their work careers. A significant percentage of our workforce struggles to meet professional commitments while simultaneously struggling to constructively cope and adapt to the stressors and challenges with which they are confronted.

Dr. Hans Selye, the noted endocrinologist, identified a predictable series of coping stages that human beings exhibit when they are confronted with stressors. His “A-R-C Model” is recognized as the definitive paradigm in this area, as follows:

Stage 1 – Alarm

Upon encountering a stressor, body reacts with “fight-or-flight” response and sympathetic nervous system is activated. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin are released into the bloodstream to meet the threat or danger. The body’s resources become mobilized.

Stage 2 – Resistance

Parasympathetic nervous system returns many physiological functions to normal levels while body focuses resources against the stressor. Blood glucose levels remain high, cortisol and adrenalin continue to circulate at elevated levels, but the outward appearance of the organism seems normal. There is an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. The body remains on “red alert.”

Stage 3 – Collapse

If the stressor(s) continue(s) beyond the body’s capacity to cope, the organism exhausts its resources and becomes susceptible to disease and death.

There are many causes of work-related stress, including:

Work overload Too much work leads to feeling over-burdened.

Work underload Too little work leads to feeling bored or under-challenged.

Change Unexpected change leads to feeling the need to react to variables one had not expected.

Role ambiguity Uncertainty regarding the roles/parameters within one which operates can be unsettling.

Conflict When conflict is resolved in “win-lose” fashion, participants can feel tense and burden.

Career development Uncertainty regarding one’s career path can be unsettling.

Performance appraisal Performance appraisals can be the source of unwelcome or unwanted surprises.

Assuming supervision Assuming supervisory responsibility can be unsettling, especially if one has not been prepared for the role.

Colleagues Conflict and stress arising from unpleasant interactions with co-workers is a frequent source of job dissatisfaction.

Work conditions Working in physically uncomfortable or unpleasant work conditions can be stressful.

Technology Despite the promises that all of the latest gadgets will make our lives simpler and easier, the truth is they have only complicated our lives, unless we take the time to control how and when we use and access them.

So, how does one go about coping with all of these sources of stress? Here are some quick suggestions:

Relaxation training Learning how to practice a regular regimen of relaxation can be a powerful weapon to combat stress.

Exercise Exercise is a proven stress-buster. Building in a regular exercise regimen to one’s slate of your professional commitments can pay handsome dividends.

Nutrition Eating on the go and/or eating quick and easy foods (e.g., fast food, processed food) yields diminishing returns, over the long term. Better to eat healthy foods in accordance with guidelines of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association).

Behavior modification Learning how to lead a healthier life and to better cope with life’s stressors is perhaps the most powerful path to be pursued. Accessing your organization’s employee assistance program (EAP) or seeking our professional counsel, on your own, is encouraged. As a starting point, engaging in some self-study is recommended. The following are some books that are helpful as one seeks to map out a more integrated lifestyle:

  • “Feeling Good” by David Burns
  • “The Inner Game of Stress” by W. Timothy Gallwey and colleagues
  • “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Ultimately, as George Asaf observed, “What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile.”

The prescription in this column is to take some time for yourself, to center yourself, to do your best to meet life’s challenges without becoming unglued, etc. Along the way, perhaps you can find an opportunity to help your colleagues to do the same. To do so is entirely consistent with the concept of “quality of work life,” the idea that the organization’s “other bottom line” (i.e., its culture) has a lot to do with performance at its bottom line.

Daniel A. Schroeder, Ph.D. is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. (www.OD-Consultants.com). He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or Dan.Schroeder@OD-Consultants.com.

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