What is your work life like?

By Dr. Nancy Buck

A recent radio program I listen to proclaimed that more people are unhappy at work than during any other part of their day, including being home sick and vomiting! Considering the amount of time most of us spend working, that means there is a lot of time that a lot of people are unhappy.

It didn’t take me much thought to return to my own work history. Early in my professional life I worked in a very stressful job as one of the front line people answering calls and dealing with folks who were experiencing mental health and emotional emergencies. One of the biggest stressors about this job was never knowing what each shift might bring. We might spend an entire shift completing crossword puzzles and catching up on paper work. Other shifts might include dealing with a person threatening suicide, or talking with a handcuffed person threatening violence brought in by the police. I didn’t hate my work. But I never got comfortable dealing with the potential dangers of the continuous unknown.

The first community mental health center where I worked happened to be located in an old grand home. Simply through ease of configuring office space, all of the emergency services staff occupied one large office space where we each had our own desk, phone, files, etc. There were a couple of private offices where we took clients for private interviews. The serendipitous advantage of this configuration was that we had colleagues to “return to”who could help us process our strategies as well as our own emotional upheaval in dealing with the last upset and upsetting client. And the rest of the staff working in the agency but not part of the emergency services team knew our large shared office space was the perfect place to take their breaks. They were always guaranteed other staff to “chat”with and to help them debrief and de-stress.

The hazard of being the place where everyone “hung out”was that we were also the dumping ground for complaints, upsets, and shedding of various staff members concerns and emotional turmoil.

Not only did we have to handle the stress of our expected clients in crises, we also were carrying the upset and burdens of our colleagues.

One day we of the emergency team decided we had had enough. It was time for us to take care of our own stress and begin more effective stress management and mental health care.

We instituted a rule that was posted clearly and in big letters so all could read as they entered:

You are welcomed to join us and will be invited to stay
as long as you . . .
State 3 positives you have experienced today


                        Tell us a really good joke.         

        Thank you for contributing to our good mental health today.
We hope to return the favor.

The results were awesome. At first people didn’t think we were serious. But when we told them we were. And we assured them we would invite them to leave if they could not fulfill one of the two criteria.

From then on things really started to change in our office. And the improvement was not only experienced by the emergency services team, but also by our “visitors.”

Some people took the joke idea as a challenge and would try and tell us a better joke this day than they had the day before. Some people told us they had to wait to enter until later in the day when they had finally experienced three positive things to share.

The biggest change was to the overall environment and tone in our office. People shared with us the positive, up beat and energizing aspects of their world and experiences. Each of us still faced the challenges and stress of our jobs, but we were able to create a work experience that contributed to our mental health and happiness. We asked for what we wanted and needed. And luckily we had good enough relations with our colleagues to get it.

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