Burnout and (Vicarious) Trauma-Inducing Work Environments: Part III

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

“Dirty Dozen” Stressors and Critical Strategies for Defusing Dysfunctional Fire

Part I of this series captures the realm of Vicarious Trauma and Caregiver Burnout, illustrating its common occurrence among many roles and relations in contemporary society. In addition, the essay examines how the humanitarian if not heroic efforts of helpers and healers can without sufficient awareness and supervision become a disguised and hazardous process of codependency. Part II more specifically examines some common psychological dynamics, cognitive beliefs, personality characteristics, and patterns of coping and caregiving between Codependency and Vicarious Trauma, especially how “E”asy it can be for an excess of empathy and enthusiasm to transmute into exhaustion along with unrealistic expectations, egoals, and varieties of inverted exorcism.


Now we come to Part III which focuses on the ways that organizational-cultural systems foster a TNT – Time-Numbers-Technology – driven and distracted, burnout-prone environment, though I’m not yet specifically examining dynamics that encourage VT. However, in a 24/7 always on, “do more with less” world that seems to forever cycle between constant upgrading and the next downsizing (or “frightsizing” as I like to call it) should it be surprising that employees increasingly alternate between feeling “lean and Mean” or exhausted and burnt out? And in a hazardous work environment, one’s resistance to VT is definitely compromised.

Three key questions need to be on employers’ and HR professionals’ minds: 1) what are some of the signs of an organization stoking the burnout fires and 2) how can I identify burnout in my troops? And finally, 3) what strategic steps are needed to defuse these burnout issues both from an organizational and an individual perspective?

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Fueling the Burnout Fires

Let’s begin with “The ‘Dirty Dozen’ of Dysfunctional Organizations.” (The following updates the list that first appeared in my book, Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout, and Depression.):

1. From TLC to TNC. People are always on call; there’s little boundary between work and home. Work environment is driven by “time, numbers and crises” not by “tender loving care.” Beware a philosophy that extols customers as kings while treating employees as peasants; it’s a formula for revolt, inertia or sabotage.

2. Rapid and Unpredictable Change. Both a constantly reorganizing or downsizing as well as an expansionary mode heighten stress levels. Also, unstable leadership and a revolving supervisory team/work force, and adjusting to new personnel along with a loss of institutional history and wisdom heightens pressure. Rules and procedures don’t appear to be operational; “the book” has lost some critical pages. Chronic uncertainty and mistrust from lack of timely information or from communication not perceived as genuine or accurate.

3. Destructive or Demeaning Communication Style. The norm is condescending, explosive or passive aggressive styles of communication; there’s excessive workfloor razzing or scapegoating. Managers are talking over employees; nobody is truly listening. Either defensive counterattacking or robotic groupthinking is common. You’re turned off from the repetitive, mindless mantra: “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”

4. Authoritarian Leadership. Rigid, militaristic mindset; “superiors” vs. “subordinates” or “inferiors” pollutes the ambience. Typical slogans: “You don’t get paid to think” or “My way or the highway.” Leaders blow up if challenged and break up any participatory decision-making or team building efforts. Often try to cloud the real problem by blaming, intimidating, or targeting others.

5. Defensive Attitude. There’s an overall dismissive attitude regarding feedback with little interest in evaluation of people and policies. Only numbers count. Not safe to give feedback; people quick to feel disrespected or rejected. Yelling and intimidation or, conversely, avoidance and minimizing are the preferred ways of dealing with conflict.

6. Double Standard. Different policies and procedures, bias in application, for management and employees, blue collar or white collar, racial or sexual discrimination – “Workfloor vs. Tower” dichotomy. Double standard also manifests as management gets substantial training or support for dealing with change processes and employees get minimal orientation and ongoing support.

7. Unresolved Grievances. No mechanisms or only adversarial ones – “us vs. them” – to settle grievances. Or, dysfunctional individuals protected or ignored because of contractual provisions, red tape, cronyism, or union cover, etc. Management has abdicated its leadership role; it fears or is or ashamed of having inadequacies, incompetence, or dysfunctional system dynamics exposed.

8. Emotionally Troubled Personnel. Management not actively assisting troubled employees get the help they need; no (safe/confidential) Employee Assistance Program (EAP) option. No coaching for supervisors dealing with dysfunctional personnel. “Good old boy” system turns an eye in the face of dysfunctional stress carriers and team killers. This gap can create a tumor for the work team – scapegoating, loss of respect for leader, apathy and lowered morale, etc.

9. Repetitive, Boring Work. Not just an assembly line syndrome. Also, “The Bjorn Bored Syndrome”: When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery! Your niche of success becomes the ditch of excess and stagnation. There’s a lack of opportunity for job stimulation-rotation-transfer or not enough new blood is coming into the system. And in a bad economy, people who are feeling burnt out, and would normally make a job change, cling tighter to “the devil they know.”

10. Faulty Equipment/Deficient Training. Equipment or procedures (or lack of the same) that don’t allow people to work effectively or efficiently…and then workers are criticized for not being productive. Also, tensions rise when management rapidly inundates people with new equipment and operational standards while not providing sufficient time and resources for successful training/startup.

11. Hazardous Setting. Disruptive ambient work conditions – temperature, air quality, repetitive motion issues, overcrowded space, and problematic noise levels, excessive overtime, nocturnal schedule, and interrupted sleep, etc. There’s an inflated number of health claims and/or grievance procedures. Personnel shortage results in lack of backup resulting in potentially dangerous work expectations and conditions.

12. Culture of Violence/Abuse. There is a culture or past history of individual violence and abuse, e.g., family battering, gang membership, etc. The person has been exposed to violent or explosive role models often with a context of alcohol and drug abuse. There is also an abusive systemic culture. Leadership covertly uses peer bullying to keep certain employees in line. There is cultural tolerance for predatory or discriminatory behavior. The workfoor is dubbed “The Plantation.” Finally, under sufficient stress, employees with lingering Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) can be set off.

This “dirty dozen” provides a slightly larger than life portrait of a hazardous work environment. While somewhat “blue” in tint, the “white collar” world also needs to pay heed. No matter the color, these dysfunctional workplaces both overtly drain and frustrate employees and generate a smoldering background. Now a seemingly trivial event can set off a chronically stressed, troubled individual. Of course, some folks are ready to go even in the best of environments.

Strategies for Defusing Workplace Stress and Strengthening Resiliency

So what’s an enlightened business owner or professional management team to do? The next segment will outline how organizations, professional healers, and personal helpers can encourage commitment, build morale, strengthen mind-body-spirit integrity, and prevent the spread of burnout and VT.

Let’s begin this survival strategy spotlight by outlining some broad, burnout prevention dynamics or “Seven Management Strategies to Defuse Negative Workplace Stress” posited by American Psychologist along with fleshing out by the Stress Doc:

1. Workload Fit – workload corresponds to a workers’ capabilities (sufficient training, experience, supervision, etc.) and resources/tools for meeting job demands; when “doing more with less” is morphing into “doing more with nothing” there’s a problematic gap between expectations (if not fantasies) and reality; “good stress” occurs when people have to mostly stretch into high yet doable workloads and time lines and not chronically strain and drain; and speaking of viable resources, technology/equipment is not always breaking down; you can reach knowledgeable people in a timely manner when you need directions or assistance,

2. Stimulating Work – people find their work meaningful, challenging, and rewarding; there’s opportunity for new and relevant learning along with applying knowledge and skills; and there’s a chance to achieve Organizational IRAs: Incentives, Rewards/Recognition, and Avenues for Advancement,

3. Role Clarification – ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined; and when role conflict invariably occurs in our TNT-driven and distracted world, there is a safe forum and trusted facilitator/mediator to resolve tension, confusion and discrepancies; sometimes you may need a task or matrix group to rewrite roles and responsibilities,

4. Employee Participation – allow employees input regarding actions that affect their job; absent this input, employees may feel like “pawns” simply being pushed around – their experience and knowledge seems devalued, they feel “out of control”…and people can both burnout and burn-up – smoldering passively and exhaustively, acting out aggressively, or getting even passive-aggressively,

5. In-house Communication – improve internal communication, especially about career development; employee participation and effective communication-coordination requires the existence of internal sharing structures – from regular team meetings and periodic division-wide or “all hands” meetings to focus groups and matrix planning meetings; and the key is that these small and large group venues really do ask for and act upon reasonable employee input; alas, sometimes workplace trust must be rebuilt for these sharing structures to operate effectively and efficiently, to yield workplace synergy – transforming parts into partners,

6. Workplace Socializing – time for social interaction among employees; encouraging formal and informal interdepartmental gatherings not only is good for morale and networking, but research shows it also plants ideational-operational seeds and cultivates new perspectives as well as possible innovative projects and practices, processes and policies,

7. Flexibility in Scheduling – when possible, create flexibility in employee work schedules to minimize conflict with outside personal/family responsibilities; may need to develop and negotiate pilot projects re: optimal office-telecommunication balance; also essential are strategies for keeping telecommuters in the everyday operational and career development loop.

Part III has outlined some basic stressors and strategies that profoundly impact the work environment and culture. Part IV will highlight the Stress Doc’s uncommon take on tools and strategies for “Building Stress Resiliency” in a TNT work environment-culture. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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