Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Poisonous Workplace

How many of you folks work in a poisonous workplace? Probably more than a few. Every organization has initiatives in place in order to keep their employees, if not happy, at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs. If your organization is anything like the one where I work, you probably receive questionnaires every year asking you how satisified you are with your job, your management, your working conditions. You fill out the questionnaire, and that's the end of it. Nothing ever changes, because apparently no one who reads the questionnaire seems to care.

I try not to post about my work place too much because, well, one never knows who is reading our blogs. But things are so bad where I work that I feel the need to "vent", as it were. Stress is a killer, but even more dangerous than stress is the feeling of helplessness. This is a feeling that permeates many workplaces at the moment, and I think ours is no exception. And it is taking its toll on people at all levels, not just the so-called "front-line" employees. In the past five years, in our relatively small office, these are the folks who have been affected:

A. Had high blood pressure and died of a heart attack.
B. Had high blood pressure, a heart attack and cancer.
C. Had cancer, died.
D. Is battling cancer and recently had a heart attack.
E. Had cancer, died.
F. Has high blood pressure.
G. Has high blood pressure and heart disease.
H. Is battling cancer.
I. Had a stroke while sitting at her desk.
J. Quit suddenly, due to stress.
K. Is on a four-month stress leave as of yesterday.
L. Several more have quit because of stress.

If I were an office administrator in an environment like that, I think I would want to take a serious look at what is going on. Instead, the approach is to crack the whip even more. Disciplinary steps are taken against folks who speak out about increased work loads.

How does this happen? What kind of a society have we become where people are so expendable they are regarded as pieces of machinery -- robots. The bottom line is how much money the organization can save. People leave and jobs are doubled up, folks are forced to take on more responsibility.

I rarely -- if ever -- hear laughter in our office anymore. I do see a lot of frustration and tears. In the past few days I have witnessed people crying, I have had other folks asking me, "Is my face red? I think my blood pressure is soaring today." And these are folks in management as well. Yesterday I had lunch with one of the doctors, and she was so stressed and upset about a situation, she just needed to talk to someone. She told me she always feels better after talking with me.

The situation in our workplace has taken a toll on me as well. I go home at the end of the day, and I am too demoralized to do anything. I rarely paint, I don't enjoy blogging as much as I used to do. I don't read as much as I used to read, I feel as if a switch inside me has been turned off. Do any of you have any suggestions? Believe it or not, we belong to a union in our workplace -- a union that used to be one of the strongest in our country. I think it's time to get them involved. Having said that, I like my job, and I love the people with whom I work. They're a wonderful bunch of people, but enough is enough.

In the meantime, please bear with me, and I hope you will continue to visit my blog. If I don't always have the opportunity to reply to your wonderful and thoughtful comments, I love hearing from you. Have a fabulous day, everyone...!


Carol E. said...

This is just awful. My deepest sympathies. I have had some stressful jobs, but nothing that exaggerated. When it causes all those physical ailments and depression, it is truly poisonous and needs an immediate change. I hope the union can help you. If not, I hope another job (a happy one) falls into your lap. A job without laughter is not worth keeping.

Kathy's Klothesline said...

Sounds like you do need some intervention....but who wants to be a whistle blower? You find yourself in a tough situation. I have worked in that environment before. It is usally one person creating the atmosphere. They seem to be able to surround themselves with followers and then go on to make life unbearable for those that choose to not follow.... Good luck with this and I hope it is resolved soon.

Katy said...

I was in the same place earlier this year. I actually found myself so stressed I started to cry in a lawyers' office.

The thing that has worked for me is planing my escape while quitely waiting to get laid off. Probably not helpful advise, but there it is.

Kathryn said...

I'm fortunate not to be in that position now, but i have been in the past.

For some time i worked at a highly stressful job in hospital as a crisis line operator. However, the problem was NOT the folks calling. It was management & administration (M&A) because we were also the gatekeepers for admission.

M&A had a number of stressors they placed on us & it seemed that daily they tried to think up new ones to add.

It takes a special kind of person to work that job & be good at it. After several years there we had a really good crew, but there was growing discontent & if something wasn't done folks would be leaving.

I approached one of the Admin about this & suggested we do things to lower stress & add motivation. She looked at me & said, "It is a transitional position & not intended to be long term. Employees come & go." She had no desire to keep good employees & keep the department functioning efficiently. We were disposable, in her mind.

Wish i had an answer, Jo, but if i did i'd be winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Hope you can find ways to help you with this.

A human kind of human said...

I am so with you on this one. In my case the frustration and stress is caused by senior people who are totally incompetent being appointed and then they expect their subordinates to do the work for them. Should something go wrong, it is then easy to blame the subordinate, but when there are complements, it is claimed for the self. I have slowly but surely withdrawn from many of the responsibilities I used to take onto my shoulders voluntarily. This has helped a great deal although now I get frustrated when the work does not get done, but in self defense I stay detached. You can try that, but I must warn you, if you take any pride in your work, it is very difficult to do.

Seeing a psychologist who is bound by ethics to keep what you say to himself, and realy spilling the beans also helps. I did that and it was of immense help to me.

Boodoggy said...

Count me among those in the same situation. For me the saving grace is that retirement is just months away. I count the days. I'm also documenting those things I want to remember and spew forth on my exit interview!

Cyth said...

Hi Jo, I was in a place a number of years ago that I perceived to be noxious and , indeed, was, for me anyway. That is where I developed full blown IBS. And though it has been 8 years since I left that situation , I am still dealing daily with IBS.
I was a teacher, a so-called "specialist". But I in no way felt "special". But I'll spare you my tirade about that. Many of my colleagues , other "specialists" would often complain also. Many smiled they're way through, and I was forever wondering HOW they managed that. We too tried approaching our union about inequities and perceptions and expectations.And it aided us not at all. I had one very dear friend and colleague that complained unabashedly and incessantly and I
very naturally followed his lead. My Mom used to tell me that whining and complaining was only making it more difficult for me, to try and focus on other issues of greater pleasure. But I was so wrapped up in feeling miserable and complaining to my complaining friend that I couldn't see her wisdom.
I've been away from it 8 years now and finally have begun to see that I was mostly, if not entirely the creator of my own reality. I've begun( notice I say "begun") to realize, and better, BELIEVE,that we possess the power to guide our own happiness or misery . I wonder if you can do the same, be your own cheerleader, not for anyone else , but for you. Maybe others around you can follow your lead. Then perhaps all you cheerleaders can form a little bubble around happiness and mutual support.
Please don't let me mislead you. I was miserable, even when I could see what is was that I had loved about teaching. I was caught up in the misery, which then seemed to take on a life of its own. I've been done with teaching for 8 years and it has taken me this long to see it in a new perspective AND I'm still working on it. I guess that's what life is all about. You always seem to me to be an upbeat , glass-half-full kind of person( I'm usually the glass-half-empty type ).I'm just wondering if you can find that in yourself and hang on for dear life until you can then be that positive spark that you AND your colleagues need. Maybe , MAKE it YOUR reality.
It ain't easy and I send you a heart full of good wishes.

Inty swetha said...

i can feel your pain here ... oh Jo! your work place sounds just like my college!!

i don't have a solution to your problem .. but even i feel like i'm stressed out when i come from college.. so when i'm in home, i don't try to recollect what has happened there.. i listen to music, and talk with my mom and sis or go to a park and enjoy the evening breeze and the moonlight!
try that if it is possible!

Alissa said...

I've been there myself, though not nearly as bad. Luckily I found a new job that was only a slight decrease in pay - believe me, it was worth it!

Land of shimp said...

I do have suggestions, Jo. I'm not sure any of them will help, but here goes. I would contact the union. Although no one wants to blow a whistle, you are working in an environment that can't be sustained. Yes, you make money there, but try not to let that hold you hostage. There are more positions in the world, and nothing will change unless people band together to make the effort to bring them about. It starts with one person.

Beyond that, for the things you can't change at work, engaging in some behaviorism is always a good idea. Cue up cheerful music before you go to work, have it ready and waiting for you so that you just push the button when you get home. Rent comedies, and do the same thing with your DVD player. Read a book by Russel Sage, or Dave Barry.

What you can't immediately change in your work environment, you need to address in your home environment.

It's a mood management technique, and it does work. Right before your leave, take a look around your treehouse, and name five things you love. Love the smell of your shampoo? Remind yourself of that, and as you close the door behind you and head off to the stress palace, remind yourself, "This is my haven. This is where I will return."

Envision putting your work stress in a little boat as you approach your door, and visualize sending it down the river.

There are things we can't change much in life, so we have to work with the stuff we can change. Do you have a favorite, sweet book from your childhood? Start reading that. Anne of Windy Poplars cracks me up each and every time I read it.

Go for a twenty minute walk as soon as you get home, stir up your endorphins. You may not feel like doing this stuff at first, just trying forcing yourself. You'll be amazed at how well it works after a few days.

Manage your mood, and be discerning about the stuff you let in right now. Read the humor blogs. Ever tried "It's lovely, I'll take it!" ? It's a real estate blog with hilarious pictures on it.

This isn't a great time to decide, "Oh, Schindler's List is on...I think I'll watch."

It's really hard when you start to lose enjoyment in things, and it's not good for you. Even if you find yourself staring blankly at funny movies? Commit to it, and do it. It really does work, we are creatures of the habits we create.

Try The In-Laws, the original version. It's a laugh riot. Give yourself permission to shed the worries as you walk in the door :-)

Nancy said...

I'm so sorry you are working in such a sad environment. I once worked in one that was very similar, and I can say from experience that it is not worth it. My husband also worked in a very high stress environment for many years and has ended up with a disease he will have forever. Is there any way of finding another job? Believe me, once your health is jeopardized, it is forever. A job is just not worth it.

TC said...

I think you need to do what you need to do. I once worked @ a business where a relative of the boss was causing BIG problems and I couldn't very well tell him to quit it. Was a stressful job to start with and then that. I got sick every night if I ate more than cereal. Good for the weight, bad for the emotions.

You need money and you need work but it sounds like NO ONE needs to work under such conditions, I don't care how much you are getting paid. Please take care of yourself.

PhilipH said...

Quit. That's what I did, more than once! It's not easy, I admit, but it can save you from serious illness if you let it get to you too often.

Hundreds of thousands of hard working people struggle through a job and/or environment they abhor. They dream of retirement only to drop dead as soon as that day arrives.

Their job was slowly killing them.

I have been lucky I guess. I have never been unemployed since leaving school, aged 14, and have worked in a variety of disciplines. When the job became too stressful I moved out, moved on. It can be done.

I wish you well Jo. I think I know how you're feeling.


I was going to give you a list of suggestions, but Land of Shrimp has covered the most important ones, I think.

For 3 years I was in charge of Human Resources, and I spent a great deal of time going through the complaints rendered by employees; the difficulties, etc. It was part of my responsibility to try and remedy them, so of course I did.

One of the things I did was start a job rotation program; a cross-training program, so that the majority of people (not in upper management) could not only learn each other's jobs, but actually perform them every 3 months - for two weeks.

By doing this, we had our own in-house staff that was trained if someone was out sick or on leave. We also had each person 'walking in each other's shoes' for two weeks', so they better understood the pressures and difficulties associated with each job.

It created a much better environment because each had experienced those pressures and trials; each understood how the work flowed from person to person, and once they better understood those procedures, they then were better able to do their job as well as have an inclination as to what positive (or negative) effect they had on the other people who had to follow on or be involved with the total effort.

It worked so well I was promoted to VP of Human Resources, and then I suggested upper management try this same thing. They tried it; liked it, and we had a rotating president and vice president every 9 months - it worked smoothly and successfully.

Aside from what Land of Shrimp has told you regarding your own personal approach to resolving how it's affecting you, you might get with some of your co-workers and create a collective suggestion - a letter that's delivered to your Union Steward, and let that person present it to management.

I've done union negotiations many times; it takes having a representative who will be diligent and honest - in order for that person to perform well, they have to have input direction from the individuals.

Instead of the annual questionnaire (or in addition to), I think a series of letters that offer positive ideas, would be good.

Rather than letters of complaints or questionnaires that aren't as detailed as a letter might be, you might be able to talk to individuals on your lunch hour, and see what can be accomplished by each department sending a single composite letter to management.

Anonymous said...

You took the words right out of my mouth.

From where I come from, one used to say, that 'grown up trees won't allow anyone to bend them.'

Allow me to wish you a heart and health strong as a such a tree. Yes, I know many times I should say that to myself, but than all of a sudden it seems not to work. Hoping that shared strength, turns out to be double strong.

Anonymous said...

Jo you have my deepest sympathy, I do know exactly what your talking about. I used to work for a government department where this happened and I watched extraordinary, talented people crumble under the pressure. I was able to leave because we had decided to return to our home state, but I can't imagine I would have been able to stay in that job indefinately anyway. I also watched people become ill. I in the last weeks was often in tears, frustrated, stressed and depressed. People did try to involve the union, pressure was applied to make us sign workplace agreements locking out the union. If you complained you would find yourself being given the worst tasks and asked to work unreasonable hours. I don't know what the solution will be for you but sometimes it is best to stand up and fight at least you can feel good about doing something, you feel as if you have some power over your life again, but just remember it won't be easy.
I am currently feeling like an absolute basket case due to stress but mine is related to my neighbour, although they have used my work place to cause stress as they have made numourous complaints about me, work had wanted me to accept a transfer and to allow them to think that I had been fired or disciplined, that just made me angry. It might have helped them but it certainly was not going to help me, as the next time I had a confrontation with these revolting people, getting me sacked would have been added to the usual tirade of abuse. I had done nothing, they had no justification to their complaints and yet I was expected to appease them in the hope that they would stop. I had been ignoring their behaviour, llike the damage to my property etc for months, in the hope that it would stop, it hasn't. I suspect that as with my neighbours, if your workplace has bullies the more they get away with it, the more emboldened they become, creating a vicious circle of continuing bullying, pressure and stress. To stand up to people like that can be demoalising, as you have to confront their behaviour and lies. I do hope things get better soon, start planning an escape, your life is not worth a job that leaves you demoralised. And as to the blog I also know what you mean, I have done the same thing recently. I also find I am not commenting as much, the blog is neglected and lacking in enthusiasm, sometimes you just have to take time out and regroup as it were. Good luck and I will be thinking of you.

Avril Fleur said...

Where the hell is your union rep while all this is going on? Unacceptable. Time to get them involved? They should have made themselves involved long ago. Get the ball rolling Jo, it's ridiculous that things are going on like this. Fight, fight, fight!!!

Brandywine said...

You have my sympathies. It's hard to be unhappy at work when we spend so much of our waking hours there. Escape if you have to, before your health is affected.

nelsoneroni said...

I really hope you can find a different job that keeps you growing and smiling!

I certainly can relate to job stress. One particular job had me so anxious that I developed a nasty rash all over my neck. My co-workers named it "the Nelson rash" and five years later, the phrase apparently is still used around the office!

Miranda said...

My sister is working in an environment like this. Almost every other week she is in the boss's office for what they call a "fact finding" on her. Because someone in the office has "tattled" on her for something they took out of context. The latest biggets one turned out so terribly that I'm surprised she didn't punch her boss in the face. He actually MOCKED her at the end of a meeting where he docked her pay for three months. For something she did ON HER OWN TIME! It's really sad for her too because in the town where she lives, there are NO jobs and she can't just quit. She has been living through hell for over 6 years now. And it has given her multiple ulcers. This is the main reason I get anxious about returning to the work place, I can only hope that when I do since I'll be working from home I'll be able to avoid situation such as these.

Russell said...

Wish I had some good words that would make you feel better - but I don't.

Just try to be with people who make you feel good about life, who laugh easily and will help you take your mind off work.

You are a person with great abilities and perhaps this difficult time will propel you to make a change in your work life - a change that will make you feel better and more fulfilled.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'm just glad to be working here in Michigan; regardless of the environment.

Meggie said...

It seems to be a workplace epidemic. Some days my daughter is so stressed, I fear for her health.

the walking man said...

You do realize that without realizing it you have defined the new work place model don't you? Squeeze more and more from fewer and fewer. Increase and maximize the bottom line.

I was listening to someone or other who described the current Wall Street uptick (3000 points in 6 months)as coming from corporations declaring their savings n wages and benefits of them they laid off as a profit.

Of course this is going to stress out the remaining employee's who are doing 16 hours worth of work in 8 hours with OT forbidden and discipline coming when the required 16 hours is not accomplished in the given 8.

You could stand and fight...BUT WHO ARE YOU GOING TO FIGHT, ADMINISTRATION BY YOUR OWN WORDS IS FEELING THE SAME why tilt at that windmill? It would only worsen the situation for everyone in the office.

I seriously suggest a bit of therapy (1hour every couple of weeks) and an anti depressant. maybe some Valium or Prozac; either of which when done in a low dose would not impede your performance levels and would slow down the serotonin re-uptake a bit, promoting the bodies natural chemical calmness.

Jo said...

Carol, you're so right. People need to enjoy their jobs and their work environment. Laughter is necessary!

Kathy, yes, there is indeed one person creating the atmosphere here too, and we need to do something about it.

Katy, *chuckle* I can identify. I am doing the same thing.

Kathryn, gosh, what a sad story. Unfortunately, that seems to be the same everywhere. And speaking of Nobel Peace Price, did you hear who DID win it? Omigawd...!

A Human... "In my case the frustration and stress is caused by senior people who are totally incompetent being appointed and then they expect their subordinates to do the work for them. That is precisely the situation where I work too, and it's SO frustrating...!

Boodoggy, you're very lucky. I applaud you for documenting things so you can let them know in your exit interview. More people should do that!

Cyth, very good advice indeed. I always tell me co-workers to keep their heads down and do their work. Some of them have a lot of difficulty that that, though. My motto at work is, "Never complain, never explain..."

Inty Swetha, yes, I try not to think about it when I get home, but sometimes things can drag us down a little bit. Music does help.

Alissa, I have been thinking about doing the same thing. I'm glad it worked for you too. :-)

Alane, thank you!! What wonderful advice. It is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada, and I am going to do all of those things. And yes, I love my little environment. It's really my sanctuary, and being in it relaxes and nourishes me. And this weekend I am going to do some paintings. I will show them to you when I am finished.

Nancy, gosh, I'm sorry to hear about your husband. It would appear that people where I work are being permanently affected by the environment as well.

TC, thank you! That's very good advice, and I have been thinking of it more and more. We only get one "kick at the cat" as it were...

Philip, yes, that seems to be almost a syndrome, doesn't it? People literally work themselves to death. As soon as they retire *poof* they're gone.

Diane, you just may be a genius! Thank you for the wonderful suggestions. I am going to suggest them where I work. I think, also, the managers should be more aware of the work flow of the "front line" people, and they are not.

Robert, "grown up trees won't allow anyone to bend them." What a fabulous saying! Can I borrow that?

Book Pusher, omigosh, it sounds as if you are going through an awful time ... even worse than mine! How absolutely dreadful...! What is wrong with people???

Avril, several people have spoken with the union rep, but nothing ever seems to get accomplished. I think it's time to get head office involved.

Brandywine, yes, that is the unfortunate thing, isn't it? People spend a lot of time at work, and we have to enjoy it.

Nelsoneroni, LOL. The Nelson Rash! Omigosh, I think you have just coined a new phrase. In our office, we have the Nelson Rash too. I love it. I hope you're better now. :-)

Miranda, your sister's story sounds completely unacceptable. I think there are workplace laws about that. It's too sad for words. Please give her a hug for me...!

Russell, thank you. Yes, I would love to be able to paint full time. It's all I really want to do, and hopefully I could earn a living at it. Right now, I don't even feel like painting.

JR, you have one of the world's most intersting job! :-)

Meggie, omigoodness, that's bad. Well, she has her mom to take care of her. :-)

Mark, "Squeeze more and more from fewer and fewer. Increase and maximize the bottom line." I have actually read almost those identical words in the Minutes of meetings where I work. Only they call it "consolidation". *sigh*

A.M. said...

Hi Johanna,

These posts are excellent, but there's no way of escaping this nightmare anytime soon, especially, in a recession. You know what sucks? The fact that I work my butt off for a company such as this one and Miss. Trunchbull goes around not even trying to be quiet and says "you should fire them all." How the heck is an employee suppose to function even remotely after a comment like this, and I assure you there are other comments that are just as demeaning and disrespectful as this one. Trying to stay detached only goes so far.

TomCat said...

Josie, I take it you're familiar with diaphragmatic breathing, progressive relaxation, and other stress management techniques. If not, email me.

On the other hand, you could put the big boss' face on a dartboard and organize a contest in the office. :-)

Paula Slade said...

Frankly, if it is that stressful and demoralizing I would be planning an exit strategy and looking into different opportunities while establishing a timetable with attainable goals and skills needed to make the transition. Reinvention time. I'm sorry you are going through this Jo. :(

Firefly said...

I really feel for you... or actually with you. I work in a workplace which is so poisonous that I am looking to get out as soon as possible.