Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Society of People Playing By Different Rules

I witnessed something at Target a few weeks ago that still bothers me. I was there with my wife and kids. Kids are ages 8 and 5. The store was busy and the lines were long. A worker signaled for someone to move to a different line. Suddenly a man started yelling. I don't know if he was mad at a customer because he thought the customer cut in front of him, or if he was mad at the worker for the way she handled the line. He then shouted at the worker. He called her a bitch. He demanded to see the manager. She said "I am the manager." Meanwhile we completed our transaction and scurried out of the way so the kids didn't have to watch this man in action. 

The commotion around the checkout lines is something to be expected in a busy store. I don't know why the man went from zero to angry so quickly and why he insulted the worker with a slur. Aside from thinking "What the hell is going on here?" and "What's wrong with this man?" I also wondered if this was a preview of more vulgar behavior to come. I've written about vulgarity before. I don't think I'm making selective observations. I think there's some truth to saying we live in a vulgar society. I also wonder if the era we're heading toward is one of "I can say whatever I want to say." Maybe this is backlash against political correctness. We've all heard people gripe about political correctness. While a portion of society will continue to be careful and deliberate with their language, it could be that others will go the route of saying anything they want at any volume they desire. 

Many times I have seen people disrespect workers. I didn't view this episode as merely a matter of a customer being mean (and sexist) to a worker. It looked like an angry man who cared not for societal norms that call for civil behavior and measured language. I don't know what's going on. Maybe we're increasingly a society of people playing by different rules. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

"A cascade of little annoyances can easily gather momentum"

"A cascade of little annoyances can easily gather momentum." That's a quote from the book Cultivating Teacher Renewal: Guarding Against Stress and Burnout (Barbara Larrivee, 2012, p. 8). Chapter one in her book is entitled “The Consequences of Stress and Burnout.” As she notes, some stress is normal and useful. The problem, she says, is when stress is long-term and ongoing. Therefore, “the goal is not to be stress free but rather to keep the harmful effects of cumulative stress at bay” (p. 3).

She makes the distinction between big stresses and little stresses. We all deal with job stresses of various sizes. An example of a big stress she mentions is an increase in work responsibilities that becomes hard to manage. Another example of a big stress I can think of is the endless stream of e-mail we endure. I get increasingly irritated by long e-mails in my inbox. Brevity, people, brevity! I try to keep my e-mails short and to the point. Lately I find a phone call to be way more efficient than a sequence of e-mails.

We shouldn’t overlook the little stresses that add up, like someone knocking on your closed door when you're eating lunch or someone who asks you for a last-minute favor. I really try to be respectful of people's time. I try not to shove work onto people's plates. I think a lot of stresses -- big and small -- could be lessened if we better respected each other's time. I rarely meet someone looking for more work to do. Most of my colleagues are stretched to the max.

Larrivee says there’s a link between stress and burnout. She describes burnout as "the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that results from chronic job stress and frustration" (p. 8). She emphasizes that burnout is a process that develops over time. Unfortunately, people often don't realize something is wrong until they've reached the exhaustion stage.

I'm trying to be more aware of the stresses I'm encountering. And I chat up my colleagues about stress. We should be talking about our stress and sharing our coping resources. Workplace norms like "do more" and "be more productive" can leave one feeling inadequate. I'm not running around advocating that people "do less" or advising people to "be less productive." I'm only saying that we shouldn't make each other feel like we're never good enough or that we should always be doing more work.

The myth that we have summers off to restore ourselves doesn't help. Many of my colleagues work through the summer by teaching courses and by catching up on research. For some of us at teaching-focused institutions, summer is the only time we can do research for an extended length of time. And for some people, teaching in the summer isn't optional, it's something they need to do to pay the bills.

Most of us want to be team players and be productive members of our institution, but there are times we have to say no and times we have to be protective of our time. We want to make meaningful contributions without burning out. I'm increasingly interested in learning about (and promoting) personal strategies and forms of interpersonal and institutional support that can lessen our stress so that we're in better shape for the long run.