The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist (tm)
JAN 2001, No. 1, Sect. 1
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we
Table of Contents
Heads Up: Media Exposure, AOL/Digital City Chat and AOL/Online Psych
Q & A: A Stress Survival Guide for HR Managers/Professionals
Shrink Rap: The Comeback Kid or It's Never Too Late for a "Tongue Fooey" Moment
Main Essay: "How To" Manual for Leading a Practice Safe Stress Program: II
Readers' Submission: Here's to the Next Pres.
1. Media Exposure:
a) Stop the presses. Just got a call from CBS News in New York. Will be going up to tape a
segment on Workplace Violence on Thursday, Jan. 24th. They found my website. Details to follow.
b) That classic Stress Doc essay, "Four Stages of Burnout," appears in HR.com Human
Resources Online: Digital Marketplace for the human resources industry or www.hrhub.com
2. Chat Groups:
a) Stop by my AOL/Digital City "Shrink Rap (TM) and Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9:30-11pm
EDT DC Support Chat . It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful and
supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and experiences with
Stress Doc "Work Stress" Q & A: Todd Raphael of workforce.com asked me to come
up with a general survival guide for HR Managers and human resource professionals. He will be
publishing an edited version in the spring. Here's the original.
A Stress Survival Guide for HR Managers/Professionals:
Ten Stressors and Five Management Strategies
In today’s 24/7, constantly changing, merging and consolidating, "do more with less"
work environment the letters "HR" could as easily stand for "Hub of
Reorganization" as for "Human Resources." And, in fact, it’s the intersection
of these two organizational dynamics – human exchange and systemic change – that accounts for
the inherent challenge and performance pressure for the HR Manager and other human resources
professionals. When a person, over time, is confronted by high demands along with rapidly
changing requirements and responsibilities (especially related to the welfare, safety, rights, etc.,
of others) and believes he lacks sufficient control, authority or autonomy to deal with such high
pitched and fast paced demands the result is predictable: Chronic Stress!
Let’s begin with a list of HR-related stressors:
1. Availability and Accountability. The stress factor is double-pronged: While HR may
be a separate department, it is hardly an island in corporate waters; all company personnel believe
they should have some representation through HR. HR should be at the beck and call of all employees.
And if the HR professional totally buys into the rescuer role, taking every personnel problem home
at night…beware: Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away.
2. Objectivity. The challenge for an effective and widely accepted HR department is to
maintain some functional independence even when part of the management structure. The HR
professional must be somewhat detached from yet, also, be an objective and concerned advocate for
both management and employees to be a robust problem-solving (not just numbers crunching) force in
3. Multiple Roles. In light of his or her hub position, not surprisingly, the HR
manager/professional often plays many roles – from coach and counselor to cop and confessor. And,
if that’s not enough, he or she must be the organizational or interpersonal safety net or back up
when there are breakdowns or problems with: a) manager-supervisor-employee relations, b)
reorganizational change, such as a downsizing, c) hiring crises, d) outdated or illegal policies, e)
prejudicial procedures, etc.
4. Disgruntled Personnel. Clearly, as outlined above, there are HR demands and
responsibilities aplenty. The proverbial icing, of course, is having to negotiate problems with
people who have a grievance with a supervisor, are upset about pay, performance evaluation or
promotion (or termination) issues. Certainly, it can be emotionally and professionally rewarding
helping rectify a significant personnel problem. Still, chronically providing service to angry
customers can all to easily result in a case of "brainstrain."
5. Transitional Glue. Especially in times of rapid or volatile change –mergers, downsizing
or rapid startup or growth – the HR Manager often becomes a company cheerleader (or that stress
confessor). He or she often must help folks sustain morale in the face of an uncertain and possibly
vulnerable future. The HR goal: not allowing the company’s "esprit de corps" regress
into an "esprit de corpse!" The HR Manager may become the messenger helping employees and
supervisors interpret reorganizational pronouncements from the management mountaintop. Sometimes the
HR leader must assume the Moses mantle while the employee tribes wander for a period in the
transitional desert. Anyone for the training class on, "Parting Really Large Bodies of
6. Crisis Management. When the hub of the wheel, a potential danger is the belief that you
are the center of the corporate solar system. All organizational life depends on your energy source.
The HR Manager must realize when certain crises are outside his or her sphere of productive
"hands on" influence; one must resist the "solo savior syndrome" role. When
downsizing trauma started evoking racial tension and threats – the pulling up of a KKK website and
public playing of a Louis Farrakhan tape – in a federal government division, HR called for the
Stress Doc. As a critical incident specialist my role is clear: to stop the vicious cycle before it
turns violent and to lay the groundwork for productive conflict resolution and team building.
7. Privacy Requirements. An ongoing challenge for the HR Professional interfacing with
numerous individuals, departments and senior managers is sharing critical information and upholding
employees’ privacy rights. Another stressor recently came to my attention: an HR Manager unsure
how to respond to a supervisor’s breach of confidentiality. This supervisor unprofessionally (if
not, illegally) shared with her employees that a colleague was hospitalized for mental health
reasons. Such a breach is like a virus that can contaminate everyone’s operating system and sense
of security. The HR Manager’s standing as a leader is on the line, not just the supervisor’s.
8. Ever-changing Technology and Policy. Like other corporate entities, The HR Department must
keep up with new software and data processing systems. Increasingly, having an internal website for
sharing key information with employees is critical. And invariably, to get up and running
technologically takes longer than anticipated. Glitch happens!
And, of course, there are ever-changing policy requirements or cultural diversity/gender issues
– whether mandated by Congress or the EPA. Also, let’s not overlook the rapidly changing or
constricting dictates from corporate headquarters to field operations. All these systemic forces can
undermine a sense of control of everyday HR functioning.
9. Training Demands. The HR Team cannot provide individual handholding with employees for all
personnel issues. Depending on company size, HR must have enough time and staff to provide classroom
orientation on HR-related matters. An HR manager often needs to delegate the training function to a
subordinate. A manager who cannot delegate is a manager who cannot survive. Individuals must be
encouraged to do reasonable data gathering or research or else HR will be enabling inefficient, if
not dysfunctional, dependence.
10. Office Space-Time. Finally, the HR Manager/Department must discover that elusive balance
between reasonable physical access and protected space for productive energy. Feng Shui rules even
in Corporate America. (A good friend sent this Encarta definition: FENG SHUI ("fung shway"
= wind and water) is the study of environmental balance. The system studies people's
relationships to the environment in which they live, especially their dwelling or workspace, in
order to achieve maximum harmony with the spiritual forces believed to influence all places.)
A department without some "closed door" time and a closed meeting space for the HR team
invites both productivity and morale problems – from actual privacy violations to free-floating
privacy anxieties amongst employees.
Here are five survival strategies:
1. Balancing Interdependence and Autonomy. The HR Manager and Department must strive to
project both an image of operational objectivity and a defender of privacy while performing an
overall management function. Collaborating with department heads is vital, for example, when
bringing on new hires. At the same time, the HR professional must also develop a capacity for
"detached involvement," that is, being sensitive to personnel issues and individual
employee concerns while resisting the rescuer role. If you’re always taking work home –
literally or emotionally – your personal/personnel boundary is starting to erode. See #2.
2. Reaching Out to Specialists and Consultants. Whether taking things too personally, feeling
overwhelmed processing a significant downsizing of staff or stressed upgrading a computer system,
don’t be that lone Rambo or Rambette. Reach out for expert support. Especially with seriously
disgruntled or dysfunctional employees, whenever possible, collaborate with an Employee Assistance
Program counselor. And as mentioned, for widespread department tension consider using a corporate
change/critical intervention consultant.
3. Balancing Administrative Work and Human Relating. Beware becoming a solitary HR numbers
cruncher sequestered in your IT fortress. Don’t lose the human touch. Periodically, walk around
your shop. Swap stories with folks on the work floor or in the office corridor. Be the HR bridge
between management and employees. And, perhaps most important, rotating different hats will help you
follow that Stress Doc maxim: "Fireproof your life with variety!"
4. Encouraging Independence by Setting Boundaries. These three boundary-setting
strategies will enable the HR Manager to successfully juggle various roles and responsibilities.
a. Delegation. Clearly, giving others a chance to demonstrate their skills and expertise while
you monitor (not micromanage) their performance is vital. Balancing "The Triple A" –
Authority, Autonomy and Accountability – is a critical management and stress management tool.
b. Education. Another key stress manager is helping others not be so dependent upon your
indispensable knowledge. Training for employees and supervisors on HR-related procedures,
negotiating information on websites, and encouraging self-initiated employee data gathering, etc.,
is vital in today’s time- and task-driven environment.
c. Separation. Finally, generate the space-time dynamics for optimal performance for HR.
Balance accessibility and boundaries with "closed door" time; design a form and function
layout that allows for vital interdependence between HR and employees. One HR department
installed a dartboard on a back wall for stress relieving fun and friendly competition. Model
the stress management mantra: "Giving of yourself and giving to yourself!"
5. Maximizing Team Meetings. For the HR Manager and his or her staff, productive team
meetings are essential for sharing a logistically and emotionally demanding workload. Meetings need
to be more than time- and task-driven staffings; build in a fifteen-minute "wavelength"
segment for group brainstorming and venting around emotionally tough personnel issues – dealing
with pink slips, reorganizational uncertainty, turf battles with other departments, and cultural
diversity tensions, etc. Let a staff member acknowledge sources of work pressure; as a group, assess
the strengths and roadblocks affecting solid team coordination and cooperation. Perhaps even
rotate the leadership of these meetings amongst your HR staff. Learn to wear both team member
and manager hats.
Recognizing the ten stressors and five strategic interventions will lighten your personal load
while strengthening your leadership hold. And it will enable you and your entire HR team to…Practice
Shrink Rap: The Comeback Kid or It's Never Too Late for a "Tongue Fu" Moment
A week into the New Year brought a defining moment; a moment charged by unresolved conflict and
wounded pride buried in my psychic underground. This unexpected occurrence, motivated by an
historical political drama, would be an opportunity if not for revenge then for some professional
vindication. The memorable sequence started with an email from a known Washington, DC media attorney
and literary agent. She had seen The Washington Post, Style Section piece during the height of the
post presidential election uncertainty. The bold headline: "Stress Doc to Bush and Gore: Face
Facts, Chill Out." Another distinctive feature was the accompanying triptych of a scowling Gore
and Bush (with bandaged boil) along with a smiling pic of yours truly, wearing Blues Brothers hat,
and sunglasses pushed down on my nose, with mischievous eyes peering out. (To see my original photo,
go to www.stressdoc.com, click on Stress Doc Bio link in left ladder index; see "Cool
Anyway, back to this momentous morality tale. Ms. Double AA (Attorney/Agent) had also checked out
my website and in the email commented on my varied endeavors. Asking if I had thought about having a
book published, she proceeded to list several of her authors appearing on The New York Times
best-seller’s list. Health and psychology are two of her strong suits.
Of course, Ms. AA does not know that, Athena willing (the Greek Goddess of creativity), my
inaugural book, Practice Safe Stress with The Stress Doc: The Art of Managing Stress, Burnout &
Depression, will pop out of publisher AdviceZone.com’s computer screen in about a month. Actually,
the book initially arrives in hard copy…Finally. (For tickets to the ever delayed bris, email
Another small item momentarily escaping Ms. AA’s radar screen is the fact that over three years
ago yours truly had approached her when exploring the world of literary agents. At the time she gave
me the brush-off, somewhat haughtily declaring: "Come back when you’re more famous."
Who Says there Aren't Second Acts?
So now the Stress Doc wheels are spinning. While still intending to write a second book on anger
for AdviceZone.com, the possibility of exploring more established, bricks and mortar publishing
houses is tempting. I already have a working title: "Top Ten Commandments for Practicing Safe
At this moment, confidence is waxing in my ability as a writer and in my ability to attract
regional and national attention. Since the Summer 2000, I’ve been featured or interviewed in a
myriad of media forums, including Cosmo Magazine and Women First, profiled in The Washington Flyer
(the publication of the DC-Metro regional airports), quoted extensively in Fox News Online (for a
piece on sex and humor) and just before The Washington Post buzz, a four page profile in Biography
In fact, how I obtained The Post interview is instructive. Seeing the spread in Biography, with
it’s centerfold-like Stress Doc in "Shrink Rap" (TM) regalia pic, my gut told me to run
with it. And I did…straight to a Post Style editor and to a reporter. (I was hoping for a story on
local author gets some national pub.) Two days later I hear from the reporter, we set up a lengthy
telephone interview and a dramatic opening paragraph is born: "With all the post-election
stress that Al Gore and George Bush are surely suffering, we took it as our patriotic duty to call
"The Stress Doc," otherwise known as Washington Psychotherapist Mark Gorkin." (Now
you know why one of my favorite aphorisms, especially apt when dealing with the media, is: "I
no longer count on nor discount any possibility.")
While these dramatic media happenings are exciting, as significant are the three or four
newspaper, magazine, radio and web-based media professionals – from big and small
markets/audiences – who come to the Stress Doc Den for commentary on a weekly basis. These
interviews are helping me cultivate a national presence. What this all means is that, previously, if
such a person as Ms. AA approached me (okay, such a person never did) I may have been a bit
intimidated. Today, I’m ready to match her arrogance with some of my own attitude.
It takes us a couple of days to hook up by phone. After superficial pleasantries, Ms. AA
acknowledges that a few days went by before she recalled our meeting years ago. When I remind her of
her earlier parting words, her basic Type A nature bursts forth: "So, are you famous yet?"
Without missing a beat, and with a blend of boldness and smugness in my voice, I retort: "You
called me, didn’t you!" (Definitely a Bogie or Clint moment.)
Raise the flag for all struggling writers and artists who’ve been dismissed by the publishing
and artistic powers that be; who’ve displayed false humility in the fragile hopes of artistic
visibility. My pointed retort took some of the airs out of the AA ego-balloon. We quickly agreed on
a meeting time. And, of course, will keep you posted on the dance.
So what’s the moral here? Forgive my lyrical lilt: Sweet things can come to those who wait and
write and who build an uncommon website. And too, not being afraid to counter blustery bark with a
confident bite. Surely poetic words to strive for and some wisdom to help us…Practice Safe Stress!
(c) Mark Gorkin 2000
Shrink Rap™ Productions