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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™


MAY 2004, Sec. I

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

Table of Contents

Shrink Rap:    
The Birth and the Path:  The Conjunction of Head, Heart and Healing
Work Q & A: 
   When Management Ignores Workplace Threats
Main Essay:     Coping With and Planning For Job Uncertainty, Downsizing or a Reorg

Part II

Readers:        
I Love My Job! (The Lost Dr. Seuss Poem); Signs That You've Grown Up
Heads Up:      
CFUN04 (plus interview); Howard County HR Society, Assn of Wedding
                        Planners; Maryland Assn of Election Officials; Legal Administrators
Offerings:       
Training Kit, Books, CD and AOL Chat
 


Shrink Rap:

The Stress Doc reflects on an extremely extended and arduous creative birth process and why he seems so attached to his most recent offspring.  Can you relate or, more important, will you be inspired?

The Birth and the Path:  The Conjunction of Head, Heart and Healing

My big baby finally arrived after a very, very lengthy birth process.  Carrying the baby as long as I have likely contributed to its unexpected length and weight.  But even more than my surprise by the size, I was not prepared for the intensity of my emotional reaction to the delivery.  Why should this be?  For nearly two decades I have been conceiving on a fairly regular basis:

a) in the early to late '80s in N'Awlins producing local and nationally syndicated radio features along with Cable and Public Television "Stress Brake" health segments - my "scriplets,"
b) then in the early '90s pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap lyrics - "Shrink Rap" ™ productions,
c) the mid-90s, yielded a self-published compilation of my former radio essays and raps, From Stress Brakes and Shrink Rap to Safe Stress and Cool Moon Cats:  The Wit and Wisdom of the Stress Doc,
d) beginning in '97, with John Straub as parts web architect and midwife, the generation of an award-winning website. Over the years, the site has been cited in a variety of national and international mass media venues,
e) early in the new century, my informally syndicated, monthly e-newsletter (around since 1998) was reviewed by The Internet Newsroom and featured by List-a-Day.com, and
f) in the past year there's been an "R & R" (Rap and Relaxation Exercise) CD along with a self-published collection of my articles on anger and conflict – The Four Faces of Anger:  Transforming Anger, Rage and Conflict into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  Hopefully, this list is not simply a peacock-like display.  (Of course, with distinct narcissistic tendencies, one can never be absolutely sure.)  However a question begs for an answer:  In contrast to the aforementioned creative efforts and products why has the publication of this book, generated an unprecedented sense of accomplishment?  Why do people comment on my face and eyes lighting up as I, the proud father, show off this child:  Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression - a Personal, Professional and Organizational Guide?

Hmm…maybe pride does have a role after all.  Despite my various achievements, there has been one constant over this fertile period:  in nearly two decades of trying, on my own and with the help of agents and in-house editors, I have never been able to get a publishing house to work with me from conception to delivery.  The feedback usually ranges from "It's good (my manuscript) but it doesn't quite fit our offerings" to "We love it…there's just too many stress books out there."

There's another historical source of disappointment that's relevant for this analysis.  I burnt out while working on a doctorate in 1981.  After several years of avoiding selecting a realistic topic, I attempted to turn a psychoanalysis-generated mystical-like experience into a dissertation.  Talk about going from on the couch to "off the academic wall."  I have pretty much resolved past feelings of dissertation failure and shame (even accepting the fact that my younger brother did earn a doctorate in psychology.)  However, I'm sure this experience, along with the periodic pangs of disappointment as subsequent book proposals or manuscripts were rebuffed, only fired my longing to be an author:  "I'll show them!"  More important, though, was the need to prove to myself that I could successfully complete an arduous and complex, frustrating and lengthy undertaking.

In and Out of the Zone

Actually, I need to clarify something here that directly bears upon my current sense of fulfillment.  About four years ago, a startup publisher and the President of AdviceZone.com, approached me about a book.  I had met a friend of the publisher at a Washington embassy party who then passed along my name.  (This was not my typical social circle.)  AdviceZone was a new dot.com publishing company/ambitious multi-service (Ask Jeeves-type) website.  My book was to have been their second offering.  However, as you've probably anticipated, AdviceZone was part of the great dot.com meltdown.  No more publisher, no more book.  My baby spontaneously aborted.

Bummed out big time, for at least a year I didn't want anything to do with my manuscript.  Still, even at this low ebb, there was a kernel of opportunity.  In all honesty, I had not been totally satisfied with the book that was to be published by AdviceZone.  Initially, my relationship with their editor had been fairly stormy.  She had previously edited a stress book for the Dummies series; she definitely had her own concept for this book.  Being a novice at this book game, and needing her guidance in certain aspects of structure and even content, after awhile I tired of battling.  And while she was helpful, still there were significant areas of contention.  Ultimately, I deferred too much to this editor's judgment.  Eventually, I just wanted to get a book out there.  And then the dot.bomb implosion and "publish interruptus."

In addition to some moping and licking of wounds, going into hibernation allowed my mind to take an "incubation vacation."  I was subconsciously contemplating changes in my book's structure and text; without knowing it, I was remaking and slowly reconnecting to my abandoned brainchild.  And then, after discovering my website, a New York City book agent emailed:  did I have a manuscript he could pitch?  He encouraged me to strengthen my book proposal.  Now there were noticeable promising cracks in my grief-hibernation shell.  But after a year of submissions and no takers, I was again enveloped in a dark cloud of resignation.

Writer Redux

In hindsight, several people helped revive my authorial fire; fortunately this was a flame that could not be totally extinguished.  Fanners of the flame included:
a) frequently talking about the book with a girl friend who had dubbed me a "word artist."  This paradoxical label helped affirm an identity; our relationship was helping rebuild confidence and was rekindling my aspiration,
b) an Internet colleague sharing credible information about a self-publishing company called FirstBooks Library; the advent of the Internet along with "on demand publishing" were critical for the success of "King Author and the Quest for the Holy Validation,"
c) joining a support group of entrepreneurs; one of the members just had a book published, fueling I'm sure some competitive juices, and
d) collaborating with another member who was launching an Internet storefront business.  This eventual storefront partner made an offer that was critical, especially with my precarious financial situation:  he would pay for the services of an excellent book editor and hopefully recoup his investment through our sales.  (The editor did contract work for a federal health statistics agency and was a colleague of the wife of my storefront partner.)

In January 2003 I took the plunge and plunked down about $1300 for the FirstBooks publishing package - paperback and e-book versions published on their site, print on demand hardcopy books that I could purchase and resell, along with some advertising and marketing services.  And while I thought a published book was close at hand, it would be almost sixteen months before delivery.  (Not to mention about another $1300 in additional publishing costs.  This project was definitely faith-based.)

Why the delay?  First, establishing a working relationship with a new editor always involves learning some dance steps together.  Oh yes, how soon one forgets.  The first new editor dropped out of the project after a month or so.  She claimed the amount of work required was more than her time and my business partner's budget could accommodate.

It was another six weeks before aforementioned editor #3 appeared.  She had a hearing and speech disability, so phone contact was limited.  We decided to work with hard copies.  And I had a hell of a time reading her handwritten edits, which were profuse.  Not only would she write out the corrections or suggestions, but she would also explain them.  And while it was humbling working with her, I was into a substantial learning curve and the book was steadily getting into final shape.  (Rules of punctuation, especially dealing with item lists, replacing the passive with the active voice, keeping tenses consistent, and going on a low-fat/low carb writing diet, i.e., tightening up some of those bloated sentences, were key remedial areas.)  Though vigilant about structure and logic, she did not need to inject herself into the basic content and insightfully irreverent style of the book.  An editor with a sense of ego boundaries…amazing!

The process, however, did shed light on areas that needed bolstering through additional content.  In fact, the book's Appendix of supplemental specialty articles - e.g., "Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays," "The Gospel of a Country Road" and "Survival Tips for Managing the Depressed or Vulnerable Student" - was an outgrowth of our work.

First Frustrations

Finally, I turned over my manuscript to my webmaster for formatting to FirstLibrary's specs.  Publication here I come.  Ah…not so fast.  The procedure for checking FirstBook's Adobe File version of the manuscript turned out to be maddening.  For starters, when reading their Adobe file version from my computer, some words and a plethora of underlinings were mistakenly bold in appearance.  And to add insult to illusion, not only did I have to generate Word document corrections to the Adobe version, I also had to type out the original textural errors, whether of my making or theirs.

After spending hours upon hours with these bolding errors, and in response to a plaintive call, my webmaster asked to see the Adobe version of the manuscript.  Lo and behold his screen did not reveal these errors.  I was getting false positives from my computer.  This definitely saved hours as well as my sanity.  When I confronted my rep at FirstBooks, wondering why I was not warned about this possibility, her calm reply:  "It so rarely happens."  GRRR!

However, there was no bypassing the ongoing delay between my shooting off error corrections and FirstBooks returning the amended Adobe version.  And adding to my angst was the fact that sometimes when FirstBooks made corrections on one page it changed the (correct) appearance of the bolding, italics, type size, etc. in subsequent paragraphs or pages.  Definitely a Catch-22:  identifying and correcting mistakes only was breeding other errors.  And I was being financially charged by FirstBooks for corrections.  This time I vigorously challenged my account rep over this accountability and accounting procedure and won significant financial concessions.  No more deferring to "the authority."

And lastly, it took two cracks reviewing my Author's Copy of Practice Safe Stress to find those obscure or all too obvious typos, run on sentences, and various and sundry errors.  So another four to six weeks were lost.  Still, I was not home free.  I had FAXED in my final approval, had signed off, was ready to launch, when a customer service type discovers that my payment, made two weeks before, had not been appropriately credited.  Ordering books from the publisher would not be possible.  There were upcoming speaking engagements and no books to sell.

The Stress Doc was definitely under STRESS!  Finally, losing it, I start yelling into the phone:  "This is not right.  This is terrible service."  It is amazing how quickly this customer service person was able to get a hold of my always-busy account rep.

I was somewhat taken aback by the spontaneity and volume of my eruption.  Obviously, the pressure had been building in the face of delays and uncertainty.  Clearly, this book and my sense of self were inextricably linked.  I eventually told the targets of my wrath that it wasn't personal; it was the editing and billing processes that had earned my "gripes of wrath."

Despite my doubts, D-Day, that is, Delivery Day, finally happened.  And it was worth the wait.  (Thank goodness for cognitive dissonance, rationalization, the lacunae or gaps of memory and a selective capacity for tuning out pain.)  I had a 370-page bouncing baby book.  Over this last protracted month, I would tell people that my baby hasn't been let out of the hospital quite yet…needs some minor surgery!

The Obvious Question

Would I do it again with FirstBooks or another self-publishing house?  The answer is a definite "Yes!"  Despite the pain and aggravation, seeing all those words and ideas - from the serious to the outrageous - my very own words and ideas, assembled together under a shiny new cover emblazoned with a picture of Munch's "The Scream" encircled by the universal negation sign and the word humor in the diagonal bar, how could I not fall in love with my offspring.  And with paper that's both easy on the eye and to the touch - nice size print, edgy graphics (the one salvageable from my AdviceZone daze), much bolding, and all in reader-friendly chunks of text…well, it's difficult capturing both my sense of pride and incredulity.  How did I create such a beautiful creature?  (It seems apt typing this paragraph on Mother's Day at Teaism, my writing haven, where much of the book's memorable semantics and imaginative substance were conceived and nurtured or wrestled with and transformed into an original yet accessible form and feel.)

Surely, this creation question has been posed by endless generations of parents.  For me the question takes on added poignancy and perspective knowing the book has been over fifteen years in the making.  (Imagine giving birth to a teenager?)  For example, one of the lyrics in the book, "The Burnout Boogie," inspired by a late '80s period of sturm und drang, unknowingly was a precursor to my pioneering rap lyrics.  It would be another five years before I would coin the memorable phrase and write a series of "Shrink Raps" ™.

In some fashion, Practice Safe Stress is a compilation of my best writings over these many years.  I've likened the book to a museum or gallery that's having a retrospective showing of an artist's body of work.  In one room is the artist's early phase, in another, in Picasso-like style, is my "Blue Period," and finally, the third room has my latest outpourings.  The analogy is not precise.  The book is actually divided into content chapters, not chronological essays; early and late concepts are interwoven (hopefully) into a structurally flowing whole.  And while some references are dated, e.g., the "Bjorn Bored Syndrome" (named for the '80s tennis great, Bjorn Borg, who suddenly burned out on the professional circuit) the vast majority of issues and concepts will have universal appeal.  This guide will have relevance for years to come.

The reason is basic:  the book reflects my working with and writing about the building blocks of being human and of being social animals, that is, being creatures who, alas, create both joy and wonder, along with pain and stress for ourselves and others.  Practice Safe Stress is a reflection and confirmation of the passionate, purposeful and precarious path steadfastly pursued these many years.  And I don't believe I'm taking much literary license when I describe the path and process as one involving intense periods of psychic loss and wandering in the desert, with many trials and "dark nights of the soul."  (Thank goodness for psychotropics and for a capacity for transforming angst into absurdity.)

Reflection, Conclusion and Continuation

While I wasn't sure where I was going with this essay at the outset, the objective and outcome seems more transparent.  First, it has been an opportunity to reflect upon the last two decades, especially the highs and lows in my literary quest to become an author.  Though still without a traditional publisher, I finally have achieved a real inner peace and conviction about the title "author."  (And I have been surprised at the book's halo effect:  people seem to view you in a different light when they discover you have published a book that exudes style and substance.)  As I told my brother's fiancée recently, "I'm not into dating right now…I'm focused on being a single parent."

Bringing this book to life, in Sinatra-like fashion - having done "it my way" - despite the many psychological and real world obstacles encountered lo these many years is, if nothing else, a truly self-affirming act.  No…let me be a bit more symbolic:  Practice Safe Stress is a window to my mind, heart and soul.  And when we courageously capture and affirm our own essence, and share purely the same with others, one image simply comes to mind - an act of "Love."

And second, the hope is that this essay will give you greater understanding of the dangers and opportunities when pursuing an unlikely and "never-ending" personal path and elusive goal.  Or, perhaps, my words will be an inspirational catalyst for embarking on your own passionate and soulful, "I don't know where I'm going…I just think I know how to get there" journey.

Finally, Part II of this series will further explore the emotional markers and mind maps, minefields and mishaps of such an extended undertaking.  More specifically, what are the essential truths and motivational insights about the artistic or creative process that are unexpectedly discovered or purposefully and painfully grappled with along this uncommon and seemingly unending "road less traveled?"

Until then, of course…Practice Safe Stress!  (And now you can both practice it and purchase it. ;-)

Work Stress Q & A

When top management has enabled past employee-employee abuse, how does HR pick up the broken operational and psychic pieces?

[Ed. Note:  The following query is a summary of the original submission.  The answer reflects some details not provided in the question below.   This Q & A originally appeared in WorkforceOnline.]

Dear Workforce:
We had an employee (we'll call her Alice) who formerly acted like a bully. Then Alice took four months of personal leave and came back [seemingly] a different person. Trouble is, a fellow employee who was a frequent target of Alice's taunts (we'll call her Tina) is now claiming Alice's return sent her into clinical depression. Tina had requested management move Alice far away from her location in the building, but management refused. Things are now a mess. Tina has turned in her resignation because of her depression, and our CEO is scrambling to convince Alice to move, which she refuses to do [and is also making some discrimination threats] so Tina won't leave. What should we do to quell these twin conflicts? Or is the situation too far-gone?

When Management Ignores Workplace Threats

A.  From enabling to blackmailing…your company's situation sounds like a classic soap opera:  "As the Workplace Turns" (over personnel).  And the script is dangerously dysfunctional.  So it's important we take a clear-eyed view of the dynamics.  As you note, the CEO has been fueling the hazardous workplace fires by his unwillingness to confront seriously the office dynamics.  However, I don't agree fully with your appraisal of "Alice the (Supposedly Reformed) Aggressor."  Though her surface behavior may appear different, I don't believe she has substantially changed.  I see her more as a time bomb; when sufficiently pressured (whether at work or in her home life) her threatening and bullying behavior likely will come to the fore.

Before listing some interventions, let me raise a couple of questions:  1) Did any other employees feel Alice's wrath or have concerns about Alice's behavior towards Tina?  (If necessary, would any employees be willing to attest to having seen the bullying behavior?) and 2) What do people think of management's basically tolerating harassment in the workplace?  In addition to generating safety concerns, I would imagine top management (as well as Alice's immediate supervisor) lost some respect in the eyes of number of employees.

By repeatedly ignoring Tina's request to create physical distance in the workspace of the two women, if anyone has a potential legal suit it's Tina.  Be that as it may, here are key strategic interventions:

1.  Consider an Outside Specialist.  It may be wise to bring in a conflict management specialist who also has a psychotherapy background (in light of Tina's post-traumatic stress/depression symptomatology).  If the company has an Employee Assistance Program, and has an EAP counselor with these skills, that's one intervention option.  However, when it comes to interpersonal intervention between employees, folks often prefer an "objective outsider" for privacy protection considerations.  Also, people want to believe that the consultant is not just a management mouthpiece.

2.  Get Key Players On Board.  After a strategy meeting with this consultant, you need to have a meeting with the two of you and the CEO.  To proceed with any confidence, the CEO must back the intervention process and strongly consider the recommendations. 

Also, if Alice and/or Tina have direct reports, these supervisors need to be brought into this planning meeting.  In fact, you and the consultant need to meet with the supervisors to better assess why Alice's hostile behavior went unchecked by the supervisors.  (I wasn't clear if these women reported directly to the CEO.) 

3.  Meet with Tina.  Assuming the CEO is on Board, you, the consultant and Tina would meet.  As the representative of management, you need to acknowledge that Tina was not sufficiently supported by management in the face of Alice's past disruptive behavior.  (I'm choosing to use language that will not unduly agitate Tina but, at the same time, acknowledges her past pain and present angst.)  Also, inform Tina that there will be a meeting with Alice about placing the two women in different sections.  (If at all possible, Alice should be the one to move.  Try not to add to Tina's sense of being victimized.)

4.  Meet with Alice.  Acknowledge the positive changes Alice has made, yet keep her behavior in perspective.  In AA or 12-step terminology, Alice is a "dry drunk."  She may have temporarily stopped drinking, but I don't believe she has truly done the necessary therapeutic headwork, heartwork and homework that would suggest she's well into recovery.  As you recognize, her legal threat indicates, "she hasn't lost her touch."

You can attempt to place Alice's need to move in a mostly positive frame:  in light of past interactions between the two, you believe to best sustain overall morale and productivity for the team and the organization (if not for each individual) sectional separation is necessary. Can Alice embrace being a "team player?"  (I'm not overly confident here.)  If Alice gets defensive or threatens legal action, I'd suggest Alice have the opportunity to meet alone with the conflict mediator or to meet with you and the consultant.  Perhaps a conflict management expert can get Alice to share some of the pressures she's been facing that contributed to her displacing aggression onto Tina.  Empathic listening may help reduce some of Alice's threatening communication.

If she remains defiant, you may have to inform Alice that in light of past unprofessional interactive history, you see this change as appropriate and necessary

5.  Final Strategy Meeting.  If Alice refuses to meet with the consultant and continues to fight a move, the next meeting needs to involve you, the consultant and the CEO.  The key, of course, is the CEO backing you and backing the need for workspace separation even in the face of Alice's threats.  I see Alice's refusing to move as insubordination and grounds for suspension (and if necessary dismissal).  Hopefully, the mention of suspension would have Alice dropping her defiant stance.  In this intervention process, share your understanding that Alice might not like the idea of moving and continue to recognize Alice's improved behavior.  However, you need to communicate that you expect Alice to continue her positive mode even after the changes have been made.  Both she and Tina's job performance will continue to be appraised.

6.  Closure Meeting.  Inform Tina of Alice's decision to move (assuming the latter agrees).  If Tina expresses a desire to meet with Alice in an attempt to reach closure, let the consultant help you decide on the sagacity of such a meeting.  Ask if the consultant can speak with Tina's psychiatrist regarding her readiness for such a meeting.  Tina has had a classic post-traumatic stress reaction to abuse; a meeting may be contra-indicated.  I'd suggest a formal meeting with you, the consultant and the two women for affirming your decision:  balancing positive changes and past interactions the shift will occur by this date.

7.  Follow-up Monitoring.  First, I would make sure a direct report is professionally supervising both women.  Some management coaching seems to be in order.  Also, I think for a month or so, you should be periodically meeting/monitoring both the women and their supervisors to see how all parties are adjusting to the change and are meeting their professional responsibilities.

8.  Hostile Work Environment Training.  Finally, some training for all parties on unacceptable behavior in the work place is required.  In addition to protecting employees, you will be protecting the company from future law suits.

Hopefully, these steps will guide you through this very trying scenario and will help all parties…Practice Safe Stress!

Main Article:

The Stress Doc posits a matrix for clarifying three types of organizational and job uncertainty or loss in our downsizing, “do more with less” work climate.  He also provides action steps for “coping” and “planning” with each contingency.


Coping With and Planning For Job Uncertainty, Downsizing and/or Reorg Survival:  Psychological, Career and Organizational Strategies

 

Today’s “do more with less” world, whether the result of reorganizing, merging, downsizing or my favorite – FRIGHTSIZING – surely poses a myriad of challenges for professionals and companies in the meeting planning industry.  And based on extensive training and consulting experience with an array of profit and non-profit organizations grappling with a variety of major change processes, two reorg challenges and actions quickly come to mind:

a) coping – managing psychologically the stress and uncertainty generated by possible or actual job loss or restructuring for individuals, teams and the organization as a whole and

b) planning – anticipating organizational change and generating steps for post-reorg system rejuvenation while also redeveloping a job-career-life path design whether remaining inside or moving outside his or her present company or organization.

 

In order to examine more specifically these “coping” and “planning” dynamics let me differentiate three organization-job status categories during times of major change:

a) organizational uncertainty – the possibility of reorganization and cutbacks are seeding anxiety and clouding the workplace atmosphere,

b) job loss – cutbacks have occurred and you were let go or upon seeing the downsized or diminished handwriting on the horizon, you have jumped ship and

c) reorg survival – you still have your position but individuals, teams and the entire organization are still reeling, wheeling and dealing with the restructuring aftershocks.

 

Examining these two dimensions – “Stress/Change Management Actions” (“Coping” and “Planning”) and “Organization-Job Status” – yields a 2x3 matrix.  Here is the matrix along with two action strategies in each box, followed by an explanation and illustration of each strategy.

 

Psychological, Career and Organizational Strategies for

Managing Uncertainty, Job Loss and Change

 

                                                               Organization-Job Status

 

                                           Org. Uncertainty                Job Loss                    Reorg Survival

 

 

 

     Coping

 

a) Stay Committed

and in Control

b) Start Exploring/

Networking 

 

a) Grief Process

b) Six “F’s” of

     Loss and Change

 

a) Four “R”s of

Recovery/Prevention

b) Group Grieving

and Bonding   

 

 

    Planning

 

a) Jumpstarting Dreams

b) Upgrading Skills

 

a) Self-Inventory

and Investment

b) Counseling and

Career Support

 

a) Team Building

b) Organizational

IRAs

  

A.  Organizational Uncertainty (OU)

 

1.  OU Coping

a.  Stay Committed and in Control.  During AT&T's revolutionary breakup, researchers studied how company executives were physically and emotionally coping with the turbulent transition.  One factor that reduced mind-body stress symptoms and that contributed to better physical health, that is, “psychological hardiness,” was staying focused on work goals and objectives.  These execs did not become resigned (at least not for long) nor did they become slackers.  They were also committed to a life, not just a work life.  They had support of colleagues, family and/or friends, found sustenance in religious or spiritual practice and were rejuvenated by hobbies.  Do you have a hobby in which you can temporarily, maybe even passionately, lose yourself?

 

The hardiest executives also had a realistic and non-rigid sense of control.  In response to this organizational quake, these men and women processed an array of emotions thereby realizing more quickly that the corporate territory would never be the same.  Whether likely remaining with the company or moving on, by modifying expectations or by letting go of prior assumptions, these execs achieved more objective assessments.  And their new perspective became a potent tool in decision-making.  No matter the course of change, they never felt totally bereft or completely at a loss (of control).

 

b.  Start Exploring and Networking.  The second coping strategy somewhat contradicts the notion of staying committed:  upgrade the resume, attend professional networking meetings and seek informational interviews, especially networking with a twist.  When that sense of control seems “slipsliding away,” people, understandably often turn to their home base industry supports.  Also, what about networking “outside the box?”  For heightened visibility try association meetings with groups not part of your familiar or obvious sphere of professional activity.  Try informational interviews with colleagues in the professional margins.  Not only will these steps help channel fear and frustration, but such exploration will also open your mindscape to new horizons, resources and problem-solving possibilities.

 

So coping effectively with organizational uncertainty or ambiguity often depends on a capacity for staying committed to quality work despite: 1) an anxious work climate and 2) the need to evolve an exploratory mode that may take you outside your company.  For inspiration, consider this F. Scott Fitzgerald observation:

 

The test of a first rate intellect is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

 

While often a source of tension, thinking through and integrating opposition tends to create a type of conflict that opens your “mind’s eye.”  This tension compels you to push the traditional boundaries.  You are now generating a “big picture” or novel perspective that often resolves the seeming contradiction, confusion or paralysis. You are no longer just in coping mode.  Frequently, a powerful new idea is a catalyst for productive risk-taking.  You may well be laying the foundation for planning and designing a job or career makeover.

 

2.  OU Planning.

a.  Jumpstarting Dreams.  In the early ‘90s the US Postal Service went through a reorganization /RIF (Reduction In Force) process that for many months had all levels of personnel feeling vulnerable and in limbo:  Would you still have a job?  Even if you were kept on, would you need to move to a less desirable part of the country to secure a position?  Would there by any senior buyouts?  Having a ringside seat for this transitional drama (and sometimes trauma), I discerned two categories of employees who seemed to best weather the storm – Jump Starters and Upgraders.

 

First the Jump Starters.  In the face of restructuring and organizational uncertainty, these employees started investigating the possibility of full or part-time self-employment.  I recall one gentleman saying how for years he had fantasized starting his own seafood business, but it remained a fantasy.  The tenuous situation at USPS was just the kick in the butt he needed to get more serious about pursuing his dream.  He could no longer count on his federal paycheck always being there.  While not ready to walk away from the Postal Service, he was planning for a new and/or expanded career path.

 

b.  Upgrading Skills.  The postal Upgraders were employees committed to the USPS and, if at all possible, were staying on ship.  These folks also recognized needing to take training classes to increase skills and their marketability within the organization.  And recognizing the urgency, some employees were even willing to go outside the USPS for the desired training.

 

The common thread for both planning types was being pro-active.  These individuals were not simply waiting for Headquarters to send a representative down from the L’Enfant Plaza mountaintop with those transitional tablets that would clear the clouds and provide an enlightened career pathway.  Realistic risk and responsibility were now the reorganizational passwords.

 

B.  Job Loss (JL)

 

1.  JL Coping

a.  Grief Process.  The loss of a job or position, especially one in which we’ve invested time and training, energy and ego, is obviously painful.  While financial fears may arise, it’s often the loss of identity that’s most disorienting.  Without my job, without my day-to-day proving ground – to demonstrate my talents, to achieve my successes – who am I?  And where will I go from here?  In the US Postal Service RIF, I recall the lament of a woman on a management trainee fast track:  “I once had a career path, then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it!”  Do you think she’s feeling disoriented, betrayed and abandoned, maybe even enraged?

 

Clearly this woman needs to grieve.  For example, sometimes we need to experience

some rage to help us overcome a feeling of being paralyzed.  Of course, we need to

grapple with our sadness and loss to temper the rage.  (Remember, a lot more people shoot themselves in the foot than go “postal.”)  This ebb and flow eventually helps us break out of our own ambivalence into a state of focused anger:  “I don’t like what’s going on…but how do I make the best of this situation – for the short-term and then beyond?”  This honest emotional eruption, expression and reflection may lay the groundwork for exploration and liberation.

 

b.  “Six ‘F’s for Managing Loss and Change”. When dealing with major loss, before you can truly plan, often you need to grieve.  And to maximize growth through grief – to nurture “Good Grief” – consider this six-step coping process.

 

1)  You must loosen your hold on traditional structure and security; that is, you must let go of the familiar

2)  You must confront anxieties and doubts generated by an uncertain future

3)  You must grapple with some loss of self-esteem, that is, some loss of face

4)  You must wade through the “Big Muddy” and “Big Moody” to forge anew a purposeful focus

5)  You must seek out and be open to new and unexpected sources of knowledge and emotional support for inspiring and objective feedback

6)  You must believe that if you genuinely engage with the above “f’-steps in time you will go and grow with the flow, that is, for the actual, psychological and symbolic processes of grief, death and rebirth there is always an element of faith.

 

As I once penned:  Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion each deserves the respect of a mourning.  The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time.  In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

 

 

2.  JL Planning

a.  Self-Inventory and Investment.  As we all know, shortly into the Millennium the dot.com world started imploding.  And I was a rescue worker at Ground Zero providing stress and anger management workshops for Fairfax County Government’s career retraining program.  Internet and telecom refugees poured into Government Drive as illusions, investors and IT companies were melting down.

 

Out of the downsizing and dissolution ashes, a key mantra emerged:  “Take time to grieve; take time for a self-life inventory.”  These displaced trainees were strongly encouraged to evaluate the strengths and vulnerabilities of their lives – their marketable skill sets, and the need for upgrading, as well as lifestyle habits, overall mind-body health and exercise patterns, the basic strength or toxicity of significant relationships, etc.  Participants were usually discouraged from immediately taking another position out of a sense of shame, panic or perceived desperation.  The plan was to fight impulsivity by investing time and energy in self-reflection and expert consultation.  (A favorite analogy:  If you were a car and brought yourself in for a thorough 50,000 mile checkup, you wouldn’t want the mechanic to just kick the tires or replace the oil, and then tell you to get back on the road.)

 

And for some folks, once over the shock and rage of being laid off, honest appraisal allowed for seeing the light, if not the silver lining.  These individuals could relate to my diagnosis of the “Bjorn Bored Syndrome” (BBS).  BBS is named for Bjorn Borg, the 1980s tennis great from Sweden who, despite being at his athletic peak, suddenly burnt out and dropped out from the tennis circuit.  After winning five back-to-back French and Wimbledon tennis titles the thrill was gone.  Add on the still necessary hours of repetitive, if not monotonous practice and you have the Bjorn Bored Syndrome:  “When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery!

 

And in the training program, the BBS contingent could finally admit that they should have left their jobs way before being pushed.  The stage for these individuals’ BBS had been set by their own need for “bs,” that is, to “be safe.”  For some, being previously downsized kept them holding on despite their inner dissatisfaction with the job; for others, golden handcuffs kept them chained.  And some were slothful or risk-averse.  Whatever the “bs” motive, the result was being trapped in the proverbial (burnout) box.

 

Now people were ready to embrace the Stress Doc’s inoculation for BBS:  Fireproof your life with variety…and honesty!  Key questions were:  What job or position really feels like me at this point in my life?  What will help close the gap between my ideal self and my real self?  What are keen interests or skills that I’d like put into action?  Where is the fit between position and passion?

 

b.  Coaching, Counseling and Career Support Groups.  A successful job loss rebuilding process often involves conferring with a career coach, after doing some grief work.  Of course, if you are feeling stuck in any of the grief stages – you can’t get out of a low energy, self-doubting, anxious or moody, bereft of hope, highly distracted, diminished powers of concentration and forever putting things off state – then psychological counseling needs to proceed coaching.  And perhaps an evaluation for depression; burnout can morph into a mood disorder if not properly addressed.  Consulting with the right professional is wise:  you may need to sort out unresolved issues surrounding previous work-life stage loss and trauma (e.g., previous job terminations or unfinished family or marital separation conflicts) from present pain and confusion in order to have the energy and clarity for new path planning.

 

And once beginning to recharge and refocus, a great next step is joining a program that provides access to a career transition support group.  For example, In DC there is Forty Plus, a volunteer-driven organization specializing in job and career path rebuilding and transitioning for professionals, academics, and managerial and entrepreneurial types.  Of course, resume writing and interviewing skills classes are essential.  However, the most cherished aspect of the program, as articulated by newly employed or self-employed graduates, is the catharsis and feedback, the networking and fellowship found in their support groups.  There is a “higher power” potential for healing and planning when relating intimately with people who have been and/or are walking in those “where do I go next and how can I possibly get there” career path shoes.

 

C.  Reorg Survival (RS)

 

1.  RS Coping

a.  “Four ‘R’s of Burnout Recovery/Prevention”.  Surviving a restructuring or downsizing may initially bring relief.  However, between dealing with the loss of colleagues, adjusting to new leaders, integrating unfamiliar tasks or people transferred into your department and, especially, having to “do more with less,” the relief is often short-lived.  In time, you may find yourself becoming “lean-and-MEAN!  Of course, sometimes you can be self-defeating and downsize yourself out of a position, that is, the wipeout is mostly self-inflicted.  Either way there can be a burnout reckoning.

 

Let me share some wisdom gained from being a grandiose, if not totally off the academic wall, doctoral student.  When pursuing the “holy grail” (or trying to cope valiantly with any exhausting “no win” situation) you can become rigid and righteous in your “oh so worthy” pursuit.  (Or is it really the pursuit of self-worthiness?)  You fight against the ego-deflating realization that your efforts are insufficient or your goals – dissertation or otherwise – are unrealistic and unobtainable.  And after “academic flashdancing whirls and whirls to a burnout tango,” you collapse in defeat.  And the only degree earned is being burned to the third degree.  Still, with time, there was a silver lining:  I became an expert on stress and burnout.

 

With a period of grief as a healing foundation, four activities greatly aided my rehabilitation and rejuvenation.  The rebuilding quartet consisted of “Running,” “Reading,” “Retreating” and “Writing.”  This “Four ‘R’” regimen heightens self-awareness, slows a burnout spiral and can prevent exhaustion and smoldering stress from combusting into a “3-D” burnout fire.  Don’t be left “depleted, diseased and devastated.”  Consider the “Four ‘R’s of Burnout Recovery and Prevention”:

 

1) Running.  Regular aerobic exercise, that is 30 minutes of running, jogging or brisk walking or other kind of continuous large muscle movement, not only increases your energy but possibly stimulates those endorphins (or other brain chemicals) – the body’s natural pain killers and mood enhancers.  It’s less a “runner’s high” and more a “runner’s calm” or “inner glow.”  The discipline in following an exercise regimen boosts self-esteem that has likely been charred if not scarred by the burnout process.  More specifically, no matter what else is going on (or not going on) in your life, exercise helps you create a “success ritual” – there’s a tangible sense of accomplishment and control.  And it is just this sense of purpose and power that is threatened by the erosive spiral of the burnout process.

 

2) Reading.  After reading up on my mind-body implosion, I turned to lighter fare.   During my existential trial and trauma, humorous readings helped me recover a part of my humanity that had seemingly dried up – a capacity for laughter.  Humor is also a vital burnout prevention vehicle.  With some emotional distance, humor helps us to better recognize the absurdity in our own self-sacrificing and exhausting egoal-driven quests.  Self-effacing humor pokes holes in and provides some proportion to all those ego- and mission-critical pronouncements and projects.  And hearty laughter has been likened to “inner jogging”; analogous to vigorous exercise it too releases those calming, feel good endorphins.

 

3) Retreating.  Both for recovery and prevention you need to reflect upon the fires around you and those consuming within?  How close are the flames or are you already tied to a burnout stake?  Have you already become charred steak if not feel like dead meat?  And if the latter, what have you done or what are you currently doing that is contributing to this decidedly dysfunctional or dangerous situation?  Often it takes a “dark night of the soul” experience to motivate soul searching and the reaching out for mind-body-soul support and sustenance.

 

4) Writing.  For me, writing is an extension of the “R & R” – Retreat & Reflection – process.  Not only does it help me sort out my psychic flotsam and jetsam, but it increases my understanding of the person-situation labyrinth in which I am seemingly trapped.  Capturing a painful experience in words often reveals or helps design some overriding purpose to hurt, helplessness and humiliation.  Let’s just say when it comes to transforming pain…“no brain, no gain.”  There is a sense of transcendence:

 

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes

One must know the pain

To transform the fire to burning desire!

 

b.  Group Grieving, Laughing and Bonding.  When it comes to “Reorg Survival,” the goal must go beyond individual rejuvenation or helping a survivor gain psychological hardiness.  The department, division or the entire organization may need rehabilitation.  When the reorg dust settles both morale and productivity often take a hit as trusted leaders and collegial buddies are no longer on the playing field.  Senior management needs to take the vital step of creating a support and problem-solving arena, e.g., one or more workshops or speaking programs, where the troops can assemble have a group grieving and rebuilding experience.  Survivors need to vent their fears and frustrations for:  1) recommitting as a community, 2) rededicating to the team or company mission and 3) refocusing on goals and objectives.

 

Obviously, creating a safe atmosphere for such communal catharsis is essential.   But so too is enabling participants to recognize both the serious and the humorous in most human experience and organizational endeavor.  (We’ve previously noted the therapeutic value of laughter.)  Also, people are more open to a serious message when it’s gift-wrapped with humor.  As an example of such a multifaceted undertaking, let me share the words of Myra Mobley, Employment Transition Services Manager/Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) regarding a recent workshop, sponsored by the Ft. Myer Transition team, that was part of the reorganization process involving the civilian and military personnel of Ft. Myer:

 

“Your Practice Safe Stress workshop provided invaluable information in a relaxed and positive atmosphere…Many of the participants have expressed their gratitude to our teams for providing this valuable workshop during this time of reorganization and transition.  They enjoyed their time with you and left feeling renewed and ready to tackle life’s difficult situations.”

 

For preventing reorg motivational meltdown and explosive (or passive-aggressive) acting out, with the help of a professional training leader/facilitator, try providing small and large group sharing, appropriate venting and genuine interaction; strike and tickle when the individual and the organization are hot!

 

2.  RS Planning

a.  Team Building.  A critical component of the above-mentioned Ft. Myer reorganization planning was integrating a variety of support services.  My workshop was just a piece of the intervention puzzle.  In addition to the Virginia Employment Commission and the Ft. Myer Transition Team, also on call was the Ft. Myer Community Service which provides individual and family counseling, substance abuse counseling, as well as career coaching.  Short-term coping and longer range planning services are seamless.

 

And this team of service providers and multifaceted employee resources, along with a large group information sharing and trust-building transitional stress program, creates an opportunity for systems intervention:  strengthening the existing organizational team structure in the psychological and operational aftermath of reorganizational change.  With the help of a team-building consultant, the backing of top management and ongoing regular team meetings (at least twice/month), the following group dynamic additions can have a potent team-building impact:

1) Two Hats.  A supervisor or manager needs to learn to loosen up some of the overt control reins and really wear a team member hat during meetings, not just a leadership one.

2) Rotate Leadership.  Try rotating the team leader or facilitator position among the team members.  A manager often gleans valuable information regarding individual personalities and group communication and relationship patterns with an increased participant-observer role.

3) Wavelength Segment.  In a “T n’ T” (Time- n’ Task-Driven) world, meetings often forego the chance for members to really tune in to each other.  Carve out fifteen minutes at the end of a team meeting and allow for some high-touch connection:  How are we working as a team?  Are we processing sufficiently the impact of any change in team membership, work procedure and/or policy?  Are there any emotional or interpersonal bumps in coordinating operations within the team or between the team and other departments?  Are we taking the time to recognize and acknowledge our post-reorganization “do more with less,” heroic efforts as well as our achievements?

 

This tuning in segment is similar to some of the small group interactive exercises in the previously mentioned larger group “Safe Stress” workshop.  Remember, in trying times, to go from transitional survival to transformational energy, to evolve from divisive group to cohesive team, tune in to turn on.

 

b.  Organizational IRAs.  In the aftermath of a turbulent if not traumatic transition, it’s vital that management make tangible efforts to bolster employee morale in order to regain or sustain commitment.  And during this planning phase, along with team building efforts, there’s no better booster method than providing those “Organizational IRAs”:  Incentives, Rewards and Advancement Opportunities.  Especially when asking folks to “do more with less,” bonuses, “on the spot” recognition and training classes are a wise investment.

 

People won’t thrive in an organization if they feel ignored or see themselves as an isolated island survivor just marking time till they are cast off the island.  Of course, motivational malaise will also break out if employees believe their fate is to be future fodder for the jaws of that reorg creature lurking just over the transitional horizon.

 

A final planning axiom:  Management needs to be as real and transparent as possible both when sharing critical information regarding parameters for current layoffs and reorg survival as well as regarding the potential for any subsequent restructuring.  An ability to provide vision (that’s not mostly hallucination), to offer sufficient IRAs, along with needed resources and support for goal achievement while taking an honest stand on the tough issues is the definition of effective individual, team and institutional leadership.

 

Closing Summary

 

Twelve broad psychological, career and organizational strategies for managing reorg uncertainty, job loss and change have been posited.  These strategies were derived from a matrix comprised of two dimensions:  a) the stress and change management actions of “Coping” and “Planning” and b) three organization-job status categories – “Organizational Uncertainity” (OU), “Job Loss” (JL) and “Reorg Survival” (RS).  A dozen strategies and interventions were illustrated.  The dynamic dozen:

 A.  Organizational Uncertainty (OU)

 1.  OU Coping

     a) Stay Committed and in Control and b) Start Exploring/Networking

 2.  OU Planning

     a) Jumpstarting Dreams and b) Upgrading Skills

 B.  Job Loss (JL)

 1.  JL Coping

     a) Grief Process and b) the Six “F”s of Loss and Change

 2.  JL Planning

     a) Self Inventory and Investment and b) Coaching, Counseling and Career Support 

         Groups

 C.  Reorg Survival (RS)

 1.  RS Coping

     a) Four “R”s of Burnout Recovery/Prevention and b) Group Grieving, Laughing and

         Bonding

 2.  RS Planning

     a) Team Building and b) Organizational IRAs

 By grappling with and implementing these strategic interventions, individuals, teams and organizations will improve their ability to respond to the emotional and interpersonal, the job-career path and system morale and productivity challenges generated by the reorganization-job loss-post-reorg process.  And, finally, these coping and planning strategies and interventions will not only enhance the quality of survival – whether moving or staying on – but will also help you to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, training consultant, psychotherapist, syndicated writer, and upcoming author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression.  The Doc leads Managing Anger/Preventing Violence workshops for the national professional continuing education training company, PESI Healthcare.  Mark, recently interviewed by BBC Radio, has a multi-award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as workplace resource in a National Public Radio feature.  As AOL's "Online Psychohumorist," ™ Mark runs his weekly Shrink Rap and Group Chat.  Email for his monthly newsletter recently showcased on List-a-Day.com.For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2004
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