Saturday, February 18, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Human Resources in the Pressure Hangover

Kate Burke and I met in cyberspace when she reached out to me to interview me for a class project on social entrepreneurship and suicide prevention. Six months later, she is interning for the Carson J Spencer Foundation remotely from Washington, D.C. and helping us build our Working Minds Program. Her blog speaks to the challenges HR professionals face when trying to promote mental health in the workplace.


Unless you’re a park ranger, this image is in stark contrast to the realities most of us face when we head into our days, in particular our workdays.  Instead of calming colors and soothing sounds, the concrete jungle and an impression that challenges loom as large as the buildings can surround us.  On such a day, I came across the following quote by Victor Frankl:

When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.

This quote struck a cord with me.  There were quite a few things outside my control, which were consuming my energy and hopes.  I was a manager of 20 administrative staff, which included extensive performance management and employee relations duties, in one of the largest professional services firm in the US and globally.  The economic downturn had required a number of tough staff decisions as well as a restructuring of my team.  These stressors mirror situations faced by many Human Resources professionals noted in an HRCrossing article titled WorkplaceStress and the Human Resources Professional.  One of which is…

Dual allegiance: Trying to be of service both to the managers and blue-collar employees can put enormous stress on the consciences of human resources professionals. If, by chance, adversarial relationships exist between the two groups, then the human resources professionals may get scorned by both sides and viewed as inefficient meddlers.

I felt I was between this proverbial rock and a hard place. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has also noted in their report Stress at Work that “extensive literature links job characteristics (e.g., low levels of control and work overload) to job stress and stress-mediated health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease and psychological disorders”.  Their diagram included here shows how a mixture of work stress and factors from outside work can work for or against people with possible negative outcomes for health.  This stress trap was also termed a “pressure hangover” in an article titled “Creativity Under the Gun” in the Harvard Business Review.  The article notes that working under pressure situations can require a few days for recovery.  This idea supports further the idea that chronic stressful conditions increase risk of illness, by not allowing recuperation time between pressure intensive projects.

For me, the work stresses in addition to other life stressors were making it more difficult to keep my emotions in check.  The phrase “Let it go” was oft repeated by friends and colleagues, with an occasional “You care too much”.  So how does one manage if you want to care about life but have no framework on just how is it you, “Let it go”?  Even while “being proactive” is a catch phrase in corporate America, there is a gap in proactive work being done to create Healthy Workplaces as it relates specifically to mental health.  Seemingly ever-increasing stress levels in the workplace are compounded by evidence I observed that organizational leaders are not fully prepared to handle employees who are facing severe stress, depression or other mental illnesses, and even less those that are contemplating suicide.  I would say this is mostly due to lack of knowledge versus lack of caring.

As is mentioned later in the HRCrossing article, I followed the path of many HR professionals, and took my own advice in making a change.  I resigned after 10 years in an intense corporate environment to pursue a master’s degree in Social Enterprise at American University with the intention to find structural solutions for healthier workplaces and work lives.  This program is allowing me to bring together my experience from business, entrepreneurial practices for new business structures – whether for profit or non-profit – and a commitment to live and encourage more balanced living of integrity.  In the course of my studies, I researched whether there were people applying the methods and ideals of Social Entrepreneurship to the field of mental health in the workplace and came across the Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF).  In particular CJSF’s program, Working Minds, is an answer to what I had observed during my time in Human Resources and Management and was encouraged by how they are bringing the entrepreneurial spirit to this conundrum creating healthy workplaces nationally and internationally. 

Working Minds showcase workplaces that practice innovative and effective approaches in promoting mental health at work through contests.  They also open dialogue about mental health in the workplace by providing education and training in suicide prevention.  This approach not only works to help the individuals facing challenges, it also contributes to the organizations through a double bottom line of social/health benefit and financial benefit.  Instead of the costs associated with absenteeism and turnover, Working Minds equips leaders to create a working environment where staff can get assistance and continue to contribute to the organization.  The training normalizes the discussion of mental health, and provides intervention skills when needed.  There is also focus on re-integration after crisis situations, all of which helps create an environment where people can reach out for help as well as continue to contribute.

I am excited about what Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF) and Working Minds is accomplishing and being a part of expanding their work.  I encourage you to join in the effort by being a changemaker in your organization.  Open the dialogue with your leaders about creating a healthier workplace.  If you or any colleague you work with is at a crisis point, reach out for help through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  This link can also provide more information about warning signs.  Become informed and ask for training from Working Minds.  


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kate Burke is a consultant with over 15 years of experience in business in the private and non-profit sectors.  Ms. Burke's most recent experience is in operational management and human resources with the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.  She focused on performance management, process improvement and change management projects in San Francisco Bay Area and Washington Metro Area.  Ms. Burke has also worked with a locally based management company, a national non-profit higher education association and national life insurance company.
Ms. Burke holds a B.A. from Westmont College in International Studies with an emphasis in Latin America, including studies in Costa Rica.  She is a Masters candidate in Social Enterprise with the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC.


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