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Rescuing and Rejuvenating a Manager at the Bureaucratic Burnout Battlefront

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

At a recent small group workshop on “Burnout Prevention” I engaged a County Government Manager who was feeling trapped in a chronic, unrealistically demanding work situation. Not surprisingly, this precarious environment was taking a toll on her energy, focus, and morale. Our protagonist, a tall, seemingly self-assured, articulate, 50 + y.o. woman (let’s call her Anne), had worked for State Government for nearly thirty years (she was a little over two years short of retirement). For the last five years she has been the Manager of Personnel Records. More specifically, Anne, along with her 3.5 employees, was responsible for the upkeep of 13,000 records! The last couple of years of budget and staff cuts yielded a fairly hazardous, “do more with much less” work environment.

After reviewing the “Four Stages of Burnout”, with time a consideration, I peppered Anne with questions, and discovered that she has a good working and mutually supportive relationship with her staff. However, the team cannot keep up with the workload. Initially, Anne said there was no money to hire new staff. Feeling discouraged, she has thought of leaving the Department. For the last six months, every two weeks, she’s been checking new county job postings, alas, to no avail.

My sense was that Anne, despite her considerable knowledge and experience, was starting to gasp for air, while treading water in a whirlpool that’s slowly sucking her under. However, exhaustion alone was not holding her down. She was also feeling bound by the likelihood that a change of position means taking a demotion for the next couple of years. Transferring into a lower payment grade reduces the monetary value of her final retirement package, that “pot of gold” looming precariously over a two-year, almost-within-my-grasp horizon. Will she be able to outlast the taxing if not toxic status quo with mind-body health intact? Anne is caught in the old “Financial-Stress-Retirement Catch-22.”

Internal and External Intervention Steps and Strategies

With little time to spare, I proposed here-and-now efforts to patch some “battlefield wounds,” plug the energy drain, and generate “higher level” purpose.” Consider these strategic recommendations for transforming angst and anger into problem solving that emphasizes camaraderie and confrontation along with commitment-testing and creative community-building:

1. Circle the Wagons. When Anne responded to my question about team meeting frequency (“every two weeks”), I immediately suggested a 5-10 minute morning huddle, as much to remind the group that “we have each other’s back,” as to share battle zone data and critical time lines. Anne jumped at that suggestion.

2. Generate a Tangible Document and a Good Faith Test. Earlier I mentioned the difficulty in hiring new staff. However, with a little probing I discovered that Anne’s boss fairly recently said that if she could produce a facts and figures proposal-report county leadership might consider new departmental hiring for her shop.

Anne acknowledged she hasn’t been able to gear up to do the report. (I sensed the report was not a Herculean task.) Of course, some “spinning her wheels” resistance comes from being overloaded. However, another obstacle drags her down – third stage burnout “cynicism.” Her implicit message: Why waste my time! Will a report really make any difference? Alas, it may not just be exhaustion that leads to resignation…it may also be frustration or anger. I can imagine Anne thinking, it’s obvious that reinforcement is urgent; why should I have to jump another bureaucratic hoop?

Once again I tapped into her vulnerable yet smoldering emotional state. Intuitively sensing she needed added motivation and meaning, I expressed the belief that working on this report really provides an opportunity to clarify two basic choices – to weather the storm or jump ship. By generating an objective document, which can only clearly express the pressing need for additional staff, the sinking boat/life jacket call for arms is in upper management’s hands. Their response becomes a litmus test regarding concerns, commitments, and priorities as well as an omen for staying or moving on. And with this report, “You will have done all you could for yourself and your team.” Anne saw the light and, in a way, so did I.

3. Battle and Break Out of the Job Search Box. The final intervention step-strategy complemented step #2. It was apparent that her regular in-house job listings search was proving futile. I asked Anne if there was a Career Advancement Department or if there was an individual higher up the organizational ladder who might have some aerial view-inside perspective on other management position openings. In fact, there really wasn’t a career path resource for most managers; however there was a District Head (DH) who ran a special leadership meeting for higher-grade managers. Unfotunately, Anne was not eligible to attend, and it would likely be a couple of years before she could obtain eligibility (at which time she hoped to be in a position to retire).

Sensing this DH was a potential resource, I asked Anne about setting up a meeting with him. Alas, she was averse as it violated bureaucratic norms if not standard policy; someone at his level just was not approached by a Department Manager. I inquired about getting permission from her supervisor; this tactic was also shot down. (Anne did not seem perturbed about discussing her current job search efforts with her supervisor.)

Finding a Pass in the Impasse

Amidst our back and forth, seemingly thinking out loud, Anne lamented the lack of a program-pathway that enabled most managers to have adequate emotional support and lateral position-transfer options. And this wish was just the opening needed. Again I challenged Anne to flesh out a proposal for a role support/career advancement process-plan, not just for herself but also for colleagues who felt bureaucratically stressed and boxed in.

Finally, Anne stopped her counterpunching; we had reached consensus. In my estimation, the bottom-line moral of this interplay: Many individuals, who are not able to simply fight or advocate for their own interests (perhaps viewing such a stance as too selfish or self-serving) will leap to the barricades to defend the rights and opportunities of others. Taking a “larger” position-action not only provides safety in numbers, but transforms the motivational frame from “me” to “we.”

In addition, I shared with the group that Anne’s and my willingness to battle back and forth, not to give up in frustration, but to challenge each other, culminated in an “outside the box” synthesis. (Of course, you may have to discriminate between people capable of this manner of genuine, if not provocative, ideational interaction and those dysfunctional antagonists – power or egoal-driven, “my way or the highway,” bosses or passive-aggressive and “zero sum game” competitors who hold grudges and become vindictive.)

Actually, our cognitive spiral reflected the insightful observation of John Dewey, 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and the father of American Public Education:

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory; it shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

Closing Observation: There are times, especially at the “bureaucratic burnout battlefront,” when we all need a TLC “stress buddy”: someone who will give us “Tender Loving Criticism” and “Tough Loving Care.” Surely, words to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

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