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Untenable stress in the workplace

Q: I am gainfully employed in my field. Most think I am lucky to have a job. In reality though, I am overwhelmed almost all of the time. In 2008 and 2009, my employer laid off many employees. We have re-hired a few employees but we are all working very long hours and our CEO believes we should be available all the time (e.g., weekends, holidays, vacations, etc.). I was at a funeral last week and he knew I was at a funeral. He called four times and was very insistent at me returning his call immediately. The expectations are enormous. The stress level at my company is through the roof. I have had colleagues walk out the door without another job lined up, because they could not handle it anymore. I have never seen this in your column. Is this common? Do you have any advice?

A: Unfortunately, your situation is increasingly common. However, I do believe these employers do not represent the mainstream. There are some leaders who don’t understand that employees need time to re-charge. Most employees can survive the work environment you are describing if it is a short-term requirement. As an example, if you are a manager of an engineering team and you have an upgrade that you need to have in your clients’ hands, you can all pull together, work wild hours and meet the deadline. However, as a long-term norm, most would consider this an unhealthy environment.

According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout can sometimes result from lack of control. If your schedule, workload or assignments are out of control, stress and burnout can occur. If you don’t have the necessary resources available (e.g., staff) this can also contribute to your stress level.

If you believe your situation is temporary, and could be remedied by talking to your CEO about boundaries (e.g., only dire emergencies require a call during a funeral) and securing additional resources, your situation may be salvageable.

Take advantage of your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) if there is one available. I consulted with Kathleen Greer, Founder of KGA, an EAP firm and sought her expertise. Greer offered, "Assembling a leadership team is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor and retention is important. When executives join an organization, they expect some separation between work and home. Unless a serious workplace crisis is brewing, it is not appropriate to expect round-the-clock work from a leader.”

You will need to honestly assess how long you can continue in this role if your desired changes are not made. I suggest developing a plan for remaining with the company (including establishing boundaries and adding resources) but also developing a plan for considering a new opportunity if your internal situation does not improve.

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