The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psyumorist (tm)
Oct 2013, No. I, 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 I:
Shutdowns: Once Again On the Edge
Shrink Rap II: The Missing Parent Syndrome (MPS): How Psychosocial Loss
Impacts Adult Children & Strategies for Building Bridges and Reworking the Grief
Readers’ Offerings: Responses to “Shootings and Shutdowns”
Testimonials: Wells-Robertson/Community Services, Gaithersburg City
Main Essay: Building Stress Resilience and Organizational Hardiness
despite Doing “More with Less”
Phone Coaching-Consultation-Counseling with the Stress Doc ™ and Offerings:
Books, CDs, Training/Marketing Kit: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to
www.stressdoc.com for more info.
Shrink Rap I:
Shootings and Shutdowns: Once Again On the Edge
For many in the
Greater-Metro DC area, the close proximity in time and space between the
Washington Navy Yard tragedy and the Government Shutdown travesty has only
heightened a sense of vulnerability. Of course, none are more impacted than
Federal Employees. Yet, even if not a Fed, so many folks in this region are
connected to the federal government for their livelihood and well-being.
Holding the government hostage has wide-spread and profound ramifications. (And
with each passing day, dysfunctional trunk-like tentacles constrict and impair
more and more of the nation.) Individuals and families are once again living on
an economic-political and psychological precipice.
As a friend and
federal employee passionately noted after the Navy Yard horror, some system-wide
support, including timely information updates, more than just water cooler
discussion and rumor, would have been vital to help federal employees cope with
their own emotions as well as the status of family, friends, and colleagues. In
her (national security) shop, “no one talked about their feelings or concerns…I
was crying and praying for families and friends.” And one suspects she and many
others are praying such a rampage does not happen again.
The Rise of Grief
Ghosts and the Need for Grief Groups
this current intersection of crises stirs memories related to previous shutdowns
or threats as well as previous shootings (e.g., the sniper-related reign of
terror back in 2002). Grief ghosts will likely be walking the halls and cubes
of government buildings as well as in basements and warehouses for the
foreseeable future. Employees won’t just be burnt up; many will be feeling
brinksmanship finally ends, there will be numbers of employees who will not be
able to return to “business as usual.” While some individuals may benefit from
counseling services through the federal Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs),
federal agencies can send a much more positive and proactive message. Agencies
need to recognize the normative nature of trauma-induced or trauma-related
stress as well as the tension inherent in repeated exposure to critical
uncertainty. Large numbers of people may need time to vent and share with their
colleagues, including the need for some communal grief work and emotional/team
support. Please consider the following intervention/prevention steps for
positively moving and supporting people through this challenging if not
Helping managers and supervisors understand the impact of the challenges and
crises hitting federal employees today, including the likelihood of
stress-induced or trauma-like echoes. Also, we know that individuals carrying
around their own personal pressures and tensions, not related to the recent
upheavals, can become quite anxious or agitated, may feel more out of control,
during such a stormy period. Such training will enable management personnel to
more compassionately, effectively, and efficiently recognize and reach out to
employees needing collegial or professional assistance. This training would
also help managers facilitate some team sharing and support. Of course, some of
the management personnel may need their own counseling, coaching, or emotional
bolstering. Again, many folks are uncomfortable reaching out to the EAP. This
strategic step would provide an additional resource.
Two forms of employee support come to mind:
a. All Hands
Meetings – this would provide some of the content mentioned above; again,
it’s a way of disseminating to the branch or division, as a community vital
information and to acknowledge the recent confusion and chaos; sharing and
grieving is seen as normal and natural; a 30-60 minute session seems appropriate
b. Support Groups
– these groups would be voluntary and smaller in number (based on my experience
as a stress and critical incident consultant, group size should not exceed
fifteen). And, if given sufficient time, say one half-day, some truly
productive grieving, problem-solving, and individual/team healing can occur.
And this setting will enable a trained facilitator to identify and encourage
individuals needing more emotional support to seek appropriate assistance.
The bottom line:
Through no fault of their own, federal employees are caught in a political
crossfire. Eventually, appropriate follow-up debriefing and/or additional
support will be needed. The above interventions will help employees be more
resilient in managing the aftermath of these stressors; people will sooner be
able to productively resume their missions, roles and responsibilities. And in
contrast to the factions of dysfunctional and erosive stalemate, federal
management will be perceived as a proactive and constructive force for the
Mark Gorkin, LICSW,
“The Stress Doc” ™
Stress and Critical
Shrink Rap II:
The Missing Parent Syndrome (MPS): How Psychosocial Loss Impacts
Adult Children & Strategies for Building Bridges and Reworking the Grief – Pt I
Two recent events
reminded me of what I am dubbing “MPS” – the Missing Parent Syndrome.
The parent is not literally missing; more MPS reflects a sudden, overwhelming
event or illness, and/or chronic condition (e.g., a serious stroke, perhaps with
lingering post-depressive symptoms, or ongoing dysfunctional substance abuse,
maybe even severe workaholic patterns, etc.) that affect mind-body-psyche
health, feeling of fragility vs. hardiness, sense of self, and capacity for
mature engagement with others.
In addition, the
Missing Parent may be away for lengthy periods of time because of the type of
work; think of a mother or father in or employed by the military stationed
overseas. Of course, a person temporarily living outside the family doesn’t
automatically breed an MPS scenario. However, upon the MP’s return, if this
individual and/or the family have prolonged difficulty with reintegrating
healthy partner-parental roles, the extended household may be sowing MPS seeds.
The MP just cannot
be as emotionally available as they were before the bio-psycho-social turning
point. There’s a new or exaggerated self-centeredness, callousness, or
pronounced cautiousness; their defensive and self-protective walls have gone up
limiting give and take openness and authenticity. The MP will push you away –
passively or aggressively – if you get too close to their pain or shame. And if
the pattern persists, what may have been a psychological-interpersonal problem
for the child can take on biochemical dimensions, including states of intense
agitation, aggression, and/or depression. And this phenomenon is particularly
pronounced and hurtful when the parent is still physically present in the
child’s life. Also, MPS may involve adult children of almost any age as much as
youngsters and teens.
Let me provide some
“Missing Parent” examples, along with key family dynamics, followed by some
MSP intervention strategies:
1. Lonely, Wounded
Mother and “Clinging” Son.
A Supervisor, who I’ll call Eric, in a recent workshop with five other
management-level colleagues, shared how his once vital mother (now in her 50s)
has become depressed, has gained considerable weight, and mostly stays at home.
Actually, it’s been ten years since she really has been that vibrant fun loving
woman Eric once knew and still longs for. Ten years ago this late 20s gentlemen
left for the military. Also, his younger brother graduated high school and was
spending less time at home. More recently, Eric has become engaged and his
fiancée is expecting. He did not mention any involvement between his mother and
In addition to the
family separation issues, I suspect “grief ghosts” were rearing and roaring.
The oldest son’s father had left the household when he was one. The father
eventually remarried and there has been really no involvement with the family.
For this man, the mother, not the father, is the “missing parent.”
However, the mother
has always been bitter about the loss; and I’m sure her ex’s remarrying only
added that proverbial salt to the wound. In fact, over the years Eric shared
how his mother would scold him for behaving “like his father.” He acknowledged
looking like his father. Still, when Eric drives fifty miles to be with his
mother, this young man can’t understand why she won’t make an effort to get
dressed or doesn’t want to go out and have a good time. In addition to not
understanding her depression, he refuses to recognize that his mom, at least for
the foreseeable future, will not be recapturing her former, seemingly joyful
manner of living. Not surprisingly, Eric himself is becoming increasingly
depressed by the visits. And, alas, he knows his mother will not seek medical
assistance for her depression.
Logical and Psychological
Not surprisingly, the group wanted Eric to “honor thy mother,” to accept where
she is and just “be” with her. A popular suggestion was staying home and
sharing Chinese delivery. And, of course, a vital component of mature love is
placing another’s needs before one’s own. (At the same time, one must be aware
of possible unhealthy self-denial patterns, e.g., giving one’s self away and
thereby enabling another’s dysfunctional behavior and decision-making.)
It’s vital to recognize that before a person can implement logical
problem-solving, he may have to engage in psychological processing. And in this
instance, Eric needed to own his anger fueled by unrealistic expectations of his
mother. In addition to not understanding his mom’s depression, he is presently
trapped by irrational anger. But at a deeper emotional level, his anger
distracts from a painful sadness regarding the reality of his mother’s
compromised state and living condition. And sometimes children can be
frightened by role reversal – when a parent becomes less functional and
In addition, it’s
hard to say precisely what impact Eric beginning a new family is having on his
mother; it is possible some old echoes (abandoned by Eric’s father) and fears of
further disconnection are being stirred. Of course, mom may be worried that she
will be eclipsed by her son’s new constellation.
After much back and
forth with the group, the true complexity of the family entanglement began
dawning on Eric. He seemed receptive about calling the EAP for guidance. In
hindsight, I wish I had more specifically explored or mentioned two resources:
1) does his mom belong to a church, and might a church member make a home visit?
and 2) if contacted, a counselor from a United Way Family Counseling Agency
would likely make a home visit, with the hope of developing a supportive
relationship with his mother. The longer term goal, naturally, would be getting
Eric’s mom the medical and therapeutic help she needs.
counseling for Eric would allow him to grieve the lost “idealized mother,”
enabling him to feel less deprived and burdened. And with this step, he has a
real fighting chance to become a more realistically caring son. In addition,
Eric spoke of a conflict with an older woman in the workplace that certainly had
“mother-child” overtones. When MPS issues are not acknowledged, disguised or
misguided battles invariably break out.
And in Part II, I
will do some exploration that hits close to home: how the death of my
girlfriend Diana’s 19 y.o. daughter, and Diana’s subsequent emotional
devastation and withdrawal, impacted the relationship with her still living 17
y.o. daughter. And why and how, nineteen years later, opportunity arose to: 1)
revisit this painful “missing parent” issue and 2) clear up and clean up much of
the wound. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!
1) Hi Mark!
Fantastic take and
recommendations on the federal dysfunction that is gripping the nation: good for
Roop, LPCC-S; CEAP; SAP
Director, LifeServices EAP, Workplace Behavior Sage
information I received from my co-worker today.
Thank you so much
for addressing how we’re coping with the tragedy in the Navy Yard.
I felt emotion was
swept under the rug when I came to work the next day. The streets covered with
media, I watched pools of federal workers walk through the very street that was
riddled with police cars, SWAT vans, ambulances, and fire trucks just the day
before. I was personally apprehensive about coming up the escalators to see
what the street looked like after such a tragic event. I was so surprised to
see it was as if nothing had ever happened. I guess I was expecting a more
solemn commute and reintegration to the workplace—maybe a wreath or bouquet of
flowers close by. I don’t know…
The office did not
address what we might be experiencing emotionally until later the next week.
Again, thank you so
much for addressing it. Your words were very comforting.
Of course—I’m not
sure what service my comments would provide. I was just hoping to give my
perspective on the issue; help someone maybe.
As a military
spouse and 23-year veteran, I’m surprised there has been no bereavement of some
sort here on the street. When a small child was killed by a weather event in
our town in Oklahoma, the community came together and mourned. Similarly in
Hawaii, when a young Airman was killed by a freak work accident, the community
came together with his family and mourned, brought flowers, and remembered him.
I’m just so curious
why, in the federal government, don’t we come together as a community? I think
it would be so helpful to many folks who otherwise don’t have that support
Anyhoo, I hope you
have a great weekend. Thanks for listening.
S. Yes, anonymous
would be great.
Wells-Robertson/Community Services, Gaithersburg City Government; 5-Hour
Resiliency and Rejuvenation Team Building Retreat
July 1, 2013
Mark, thank you very much for the information. I appreciate the follow-up and
will certainly keep your services in mind.
And thank you very much for your efforts during our retreat. I’ve heard
wonderfully positive follow-up comments about how useful, empowering,
invigorating, and relevant the workshop was. The team definitely left with a
Britta Monaco | Director | Department of Community & Public Relations
City of Gaithersburg | 31 S. Summit Ave. | Gaithersburg, MD 20877
P: 301-258-6310 x2111 | F: 301-948-6149
Subject: retreat feedback
From: MHerndon@gaithersburgmd.gov and email@example.com
From both the Wells and Community Services perspectives, we appreciated the
atmosphere you helped us create whereby folks felt comfortable talking and
discussing sometimes sensitive issues. We appreciate your motivational style
and bringing in your sense of humor which is so very helpful and fun! The
humor and style of presentation you do is very contagious and really gets the
participants to be truly involved in the process. We feel the role play and
self-reflection exercise were great. The role play really fostered teamwork and
creative group thinking.
We also appreciate the time you gave us prior to the retreat so you could do
proper research and prepare for the issues we felt were important.
City of Gaithersburg
301-258-6395 ex 1
City of Gaithersburg
Subject: Wells Robertson Staff Retreat
I personally want to thank you for your patience and your special ways of making
things so clear during the whole day.
We were all awake and willing to continue to participate until the end of the
day, and that to me means a great “facilitator”
Acting Clinical Supervisor
Wells Robertson House
City of Gaithersburg
Tel. 301 258- 6390
From: Shadell Canty
Sent: Thursday, June 27
To: Wells Robertson; Community Services
Thanks!!! Excellent Retreat!! I was very motivated. I am proud to be a part of
the Wells team and I am proud to work under the leadership of JFB, Lourdes and
Elaine Johnson!!! Kudos to everyone!!!!!
A somewhat shorter
version of this Q & A was just published by Workforce.com. It’s a very
contemporary and relevant question, ironically posed in poetic format:
How do we cope
with employee stress from them having to do more with less?
My answer is straightforward yet thought-provoking prose and ideas, with an
occasional twist of humor, of course. Enjoy!
How do we cope with
employee stress from them having to do more with less? Like many companies, ours
has had to make tough choices in recent years. So far so good.... but we want to
defuse any problems that might arise.
-- Chief Worry
Officer, services/software, New York City
Resilience and Organizational Hardiness despite Doing “More with Less”
I like your job
title. The troops will more likely sense you feel their pain. And this is
vital, for research has updated the old saw: “Misery loves company.” Actually,
it really likes miserable company! While I’m being a tad playful, there
is a serious message. When a company has had to make tough cutbacks, one of the
most important dynamics is that everyone in the company makes some sacrifice;
all, in some fashion, are walking in those “more with less” shoes, (and
occasionally feeling the bunions)
Let me also provide
a proactive list of stress resiliency bullet points:
1. Hold Town Hall
Consider having an
“all hands” meeting for the troops to review where you’ve been as
company-division-department, etc. – bumps and strengths – during this tough
transition. (And if necessary make it web-video friendly; get a “satellite”
perspective.) I might hold a panel forum with an array of levels having an
opportunity to share what have been the challenges, the stress points; some
humor here is especially invaluable. As I once penned: “People are less
defensive and more open to a serious message gift-wrapped with humor.”
highlight what has been learned, including improvements made, noteworthy efforts
and achievements, as well as areas to be strengthened. Perhaps give out some
awards. Especially underscore where there’s been interdepartmental sharing and
synergy. Not only did systems circle the wagons in tough times, but they
interlinked, supported, fortified, and coordinated as well.
Perhaps after the
town meeting (or even in preparation for the big event), do a similar “local”
analysis as noted above. The more people believe they are being listened to,
that their diverse “worries” and ideas are respected and considered, the more
they will see themselves as not just part of the problem but also instrumental
in the solution. (Of course, acknowledgement doesn’t mean agreement. And most
don’t expect immediate accord. But people want to know their argument is being
genuinely heard if not addressed.) Finally, people will begin seeing you as a
meaningful change agent – an aware, effective, and responsible individual who
impacts positively mind, motivation, and morale and is also worthy of trust.
“TnT” Environment. Management, in particular, can do two things to
facilitate trust, especially vital in a changing, sometimes uncertain or
turbulent environment. First be transparent – Transparency and Trust are
soul sisters and brothers! As much as possible, share openly with folks what
you know and what you don’t know. Don’t fudge facts. Be clear when you are
speculating. Don’t put a positive spin on a problem to suppress angst in the
short-term. That pseudo-Yin energy will likely turn around and bite you in the
Second, allow your
audience or team members to raise tough questions and even to challenge some
decisions made. Employees want leaders that can handle intense and intimate
interaction without management getting defensive. And hold off jumping on
someone’s attitude if they are not being abusive. (A little or occasional
attitude isn't unreasonable if "streamlined" or "right-sized" times have
persisted for a good while.) Don’t handle an encounter by immediately proving
why “you” are right and “they” are wrong. Again, at least confirm that the
other party believes you understand their perspective. And if you are not sure
of an answer, say so up front. Also, let people know of the research you will
do to address the problem raised. And provide some time-line for report back.
This kind of head-heart toughness also builds your trust account
Psychological Hardiness a Priority.
hardiness is a concept developed by Dr. Suzanne Kobasa and her research team
while studying the health of AT&T executives during the stressful breakup of “Ma
Bell.” Some execs were having a hard time physically and emotionally, while
others were coping effectively with the transitional storm. The hardiest
executives demonstrated what I call the “Four C’s of Psychological Hardiness”:
The hardy execs while not crazy about all the changes were still committed to
doing really good work. They also were committed to finding work-life balance;
they were not spending long nights at work hoping they would be rewarded for
These effective execs understood that they would have to let go of some real
control; they did not bury themselves in their silos, but were more open to
exploring new assignments and role-responsibility shifts.
The most stress resilient were able to release considerable control as they
understood that “change happens.” These individuals were quicker to grieve
their loss, perceived or actual. They were also quicker to jump into new
learning curves; and did not fight being an uncomfortable beginner. I would say
their personal mantra; I’m a learner not a loser!
The hardiest execs engaged in regular aerobic exercise or physical
conditioning. Not only does exercise help you stay fit, manage your weight and
improve your endurance and cardiovascular health, but it also releases
mood-lifting bio-chemicals, a good antidote to mild feelings of agitation and/or
depression. Also, when everything’s up in the air--you can’t seem to close any
projects or meet elusive deadlines--structured exercise provides a self-defined
beginning and endpoint, for a tangible self of accomplishment and control.
instituting a wellness/hardiness program or competition among departments, with
some team rewards at the end of the challenge?
Follow these four
resiliency-hardiness building measures and your ship, even when hitting some
rough water, should continue to stay the course. Bon voyage!
Mark Gorkin, MSW,
LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote, kickoff and webinar
speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known
for his interactive, inspiring, and FUN programs for both government agencies
and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a Team Building and
Organizational Development Consultant as well as a Critical Incident/Grief
Intervention Expert for Business Health Services, a National EAP/Wellness/OD
Company. He is providing "Stress and Communication,” as well as “Managing
Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for a variety of units at Ft.
Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft.
Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral
A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service,
the Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of
Anger. The Stress Doc blog appears in such platforms as HR.com,
WorkforceWeek.com, and MentalHelpNet. His award-winning, USA
Today Online "HotSite" – www.stressdoc.com – was called a "workplace
resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's
"Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-875-2567.
(c) Mark Gorkin