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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

December 1999, No. 1, Sect. 2

Bowing to public pressure, the Stress Doc adds some satirical musings to the Y2K cacophony, especially on the signs of the times. He closes with some useful strategies for dealing with anxious or angry clients and customers and for surviving Y2K-Workplace Holiday Stress.

Learning to Play with Y2K
A Workplace Survival Guide

Between the calls from editors and journalists about holiday stress in the Y2K workplace and a reader challenging me to come up with some Y2K satire (thanks, Ashland), today's theme is set. There is something functional in not being a totally technology-obsessed individual. It's easier to engage in compartmentalization, if not dateline denial. As long as my PC is Y2K compliant for the rest, let the (computer) chips fall where they may. Just to show I don't just walk my brave talk, I'm scheduled to fly across the country on January 1st.

Actually, if the system collapses, I already see wonderful possibilities -- like my January 4th Jury Duty being canceled. With a little luck, I'll disappear into a bureaucratic black hole for another two years. In Washington, DC, every two years like clockwork, I am summoned for Jury Duty. There's a dearth of potential jurors with no shortage of defendants. I've likened the situation to a New Orleans Mardi Gras phenomenon: where half the town comes out to watch the other half parade! With the fairly absurd "Voire Dire" jury selection process, I'm not sure who's on parade or on trial.

I have started detecting a pattern: potential jurors wearing business suits tend to get excused. (So I'm dieting furiously in hopes of fitting into my one power suit; a Washington Mardi Gras costume as it were.) However, the best avoidance tactic encountered: a guy got excused by prominently displaying a textbook in the courtroom: Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. Enough of my ranting.

Warning Signs

Back to the Y2K-Millennium Madness…For me, a Portland, OR car dealership or gas station captured the absurdist sign of the times: "Are Your Tires Y2K Compliant?" I mean, what is this all about? Is there a conspiracy afoot -- planned blowouts at the strike of midnight?

Or, a motel's ominous billboard pronouncement: "Have You Made Your Y2K Reservations Yet?" As if one will unexpectedly discover that his or her house or apartment has been furtively lying on this San Andreas-type fault line all these years. And the unstable earth has been lurking, just waiting for this once in a lifetime opportunity to suddenly and menacingly emerge from below the surface crushing and devouring you, family and house in one Jaws-like crunch-quake.

Now I must admit Portland's panache when it comes to paranoid-inducing public messages. Despite several viewings, the following billboard encounter remains unsettling, if not startling: two larger than life Marlboro Men, each on horseback. One, leaning slightly toward his partner, declares (something to the effect), "Bob, I've got to tell ya…I have emphysema." Dynamite! It's true…if we made half the effort to purge the country of cigarettes and drunk driving (and alcohol abuse in general) as we do stalking Y2K monsters, a lot more lives and dollars would be saved than will be bugged. (Also, I'm surprised at Portland's aggressive stance on cigarettes. I mean, isn't smoking just a slow form of self-assisted suicide?)

Actually, about eighteen months ago I witnessed one potential danger of Y2K mania. At the close of a workshop, a participant corralled me. She wanted to know if her Y2K worries were ill-founded or exaggerated. With just a little questioning it was clear this woman was burnt out on her job and was in a marriage that was sucking whatever energy remained. She felt trapped in both settings, saw no way out and, to distract herself, was preoccupied about pervasive Y2K disruption.

While this example is fairly transparent and, clearly, there are legitimate concerns in all sectors of society, one senses that not just individuals but governmental agencies too add unnecessarily to the countdown drama. For example, my web master is the head of IT operations for a sizable credit union. The institution has been doing Internet banking services successfully for a couple of years. Now, using Y2K as a self-justifying catalyst, Federal regulators are making John and his staff jump through 11th hour regulatory hoops regarding their Internet operations. As John groused: "Where were these regulators for the past two years? It's like they are just waking up to the reality of online banking!" John, be thankful. In their bureaucratic, somnambulistic state, you had a couple of years head start.

Stress Doc Strategies

Anyway, spurred by those media interviews, here are some Key Tips and Strategies for Managing Y2K-Holiday Stress:

1. Allow for Client Anxiety. Many clients and customers will become unduly anxious. Some customer service, tech support or hot line survival telephone tips: a) Patiently acknowledge the possibility of even the most absurd outcomes, though I like to distinguish between what's possible and what's probable. Anything's possible; I usually seek better decision-making through probability. b) Accept that when people feel vulnerable and out of control they often become more aggressive. c) Don't take people's anger personally, if at all possible; also, don't put up with abuse. Say you want to help, but you have a hard time listening and problem solving when being yelled at. d) Consider encouraging the person's ranting, but structure the time; for example, you will give the caller one minute of venting, acknowledging that everyone's entitled to a couple of good Y2K tantrums. e) Another effective counter to telephone aggression, especially for those folks who aren't fully aware of their escalating anger: scratch the mouthpiece, then say, "I'm having difficulty hearing you with all this static." f) Finally, for the incorrigibly abusive caller, obviously hand him or her off to a colleague or supervisor. Though I like the strategy of barking into the receiver and then declaring: "If I'm gonna be treated like a dog I may as well start acting like one!"

2. Share the Responsibility. For professionals doing Y2K troubleshooting, don't isolate yourself from corporate clients. Keep your clients and customers abreast of problem solving steps, quicksand and barriers. Even better, have clients part of the problem solving process, if not on the trouble shooting team. This way if "Glitch Happens" everyone to some degree shares in the outcome. And if things go smoothly, throw a company wide "We Survived Y2K" party. (See 4. -- strategies for over the edge party containment.)

3. Avoid Burnout, Have a Backup. I know companies are marshaling the troops as if a D-day invasion is imminent. A number of DC Government supervisory personnel have had leave canceled for the next thirty days. One woman was even told to bring a sleeping bag to work. Frankly, chances are you are inviting human error, if not human anger, by having folks stay at work around the clock with minimal rejuvenation time. Have sufficient backup. Benefit from cultural diversity in the workplace. For example, my friend Hank, an Emergency Room Physician, always plays an altruistic role this time of year. Being Jewish, he's more than glad to work Christmas so his colleagues who celebrate the holiday have more family time.

4. Save the Party Strategies. As if burned by previous experience, one editor seemed especially eager to hear some strategies for preventing inebriation from running riot this holiday season. Some individual and crowd containment strategies: a) Break up just standing around and drinking with some group singing. The alcohol should dissolve most performance anxiety. And the group energy is naturally uplifting. b) Consider some interactive exercises, party games, if you will. A couple from my workshops come to mind. Break the larger group into groups of four or five. Then through discussion and a drawing exercise have people design a group cartoon or image (Dilbert-like, perhaps) that captures Holiday-Y2K stress factors. Or perhaps have the groups discuss New Year's resolutions -- each participant sharing one realistic and one outrageous objective. And, of course, such discussion and sharing must include the same pairing of excuses that will likely interfere with resolution achievement.

Over the holidays, especially in the increasingly e-oriented, non-personal, "lean-and-MEAN," "do more with less" world, many folks desire and/or need some human connection with a greater community. Some structured spontaneity and interactive intimacy just might be a helpful catalyst. c) Designate an inebriation intervention team to prevent alcohol-related disturbances at social gatherings. Choose four non-alcohol or light drinking folks, two of each sex. This group will circulate, socialize and be on the early lookout for firewater hot spots. For example, if a couple at a company party is beginning to contentiously clash, the male guardians take the man aside, the females the woman. Once separated and gently surrounded, hopefully, the potential for combustion will be defused. Of course, this approach might be especially appropriate for some of those traditional chaotic, hard drinking family reunions. (Maybe professional substance abuse counselors should be hired in the guise of food servers and preparers. At least there'd be the possibility for on the spot chemical and psychological debriefing before each guest departs. Might be interesting to discover how folks really weathered the family encounter? By the way, I'm off duty. ;-)

Of course, my two holiday wishes: First, that you learn to relax some and play with Y2K (though I gratefully accept all prayers for my January 1st flight). And that these tips help you, your organization and family…Practice Safe Stress!

 Mark Gorkin, LICSW, known as "The Stress Doc," is the Internet's and America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" (TM). An experienced psychotherapist, The Doc is a nationally recognized speaker, and training and OD consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management, Reorganizational Change, Team Building and HUMOR! His writings are syndicated by iSyndicate.com and appear in a wide variety of online and offline publications, including AOL's Online Psych and Business Know How, Mental Health Net, Financial Services Journal Online, Paradigm Magazine and Counseling Today. Check out his USA Today Online "Hotsite" Website -- www.stressdoc.com . For info on his workshops or for his free newsletter, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662. Spring 2000, look for The Art of Practicing Safe Stress: The Stress Doc's Survival Guide, published by AdviceZone.com .

(c) Mark Gorkin 1999 Shrink Rap™ Productions