Sorry Team, Not My Best

Yesterday I wasn’t at my best near the end of the day for my teammates. Ironically the reason why was precisely because all through the day, I’d been at my best for a number of people. I found myself jumping from one person to another, expending a lot of ‘me’, without time to pause, reflect, debrief and center myself. My 11 years plus office mate I historically debriefed with has moved on.

It started at 7:40 a.m. and ran right through until I shut down during a team meeting around 3:15 p.m. At 4:10 p.m., I walked out the doors where I work and carried it right into the usual transition sanctuary of my car. It wasn’t until early evening at home, cup of orange pekoe in my hands that I worked through the days stories and gave them up.

Like me, you’ve had those days where you too gave a sizable portion of yourself to others, beyond your typical capacity? At some point, your saturation level was reached, yet you were pushed beyond into your reserves and without your typical full self-awareness, that one extra thing came your way. And it’s that one extra thing that causes us to either shut down or act in some way we wouldn’t typically. The proverbial straw that breaks the camels back.

The weird thing about yesterday was I’d sum it up as a good day for the most part. It sure didn’t go the way I’d drawn up the day in my mind when arriving at 7:30 a.m. though.

I’ve already worked through a full day yesterday twice; experiencing it live and working it through in the sanctuary of home last night. I’ve no desire to lay it out here a third time. Suffice to say, in addition to the regular responsibilities of the day, 4 people unexpectedly shared with and entrusted to my keeping, their own substantially heavy life events.

Now this is a privilege; to be the one person who comes to mind when a crisis comes up and help is needed. I’m so thankful that I’ve done enough in the past that my voice at the end of the phone, my physical presence or reply to their email was what they sought.

It was a perfect storm you know; arriving at work early with an idea to revising some workshop materials, having a call 10 minutes after arriving even though that call came 20 minutes before I officially start at 8:00 a.m. Then heading into a workshop 5 minutes before it was due to start after a huddle with two team members about an important topic expected to arise at our meeting later in the day. Then working through the a.m. break because I was needed, prepping for a lunch meeting with someone who also needed me but couldn’t make it. Hurriedly eating a shortened lunch after giving up 45 minutes of it for someone else who needed me. Responding to a couple of consults from co-workers via email seeking my advice on how to proceed with someone’s trauma, wrapping up a shortened workshop and then heading right into a team meeting for the final two hours of the day. It might be exhausting to read this paragraph, but it was ever more so to experience it first-hand.

That might not sound like a lot to many of you. Comparatively speaking, you might have days much more draining that mine. I’ve no wish to contest who’s days are more taxing so I’ll concede that for you the reader, you may have far more energy draining days. The thing about working with people though, for those of us who live it, is that if you really want to be effective, you have to open yourself up and touch emotions to empathetically feel some semblance of what they are experiencing. Then you listen, acknowledge, support and where appropriate and invited, provide hope and encouragement with some advice on finding resolution and forward movement.

To do this and do it well, you listen attentively and respectfully; it’s time consuming and can’t be rushed. So when you think about it, you move quickly doing what you’d expect and in the moments when you should be processing and recovering, you’re unexpectedly in the middle of another story; and there were some major ones shared with me. So it’s move quick, halt; move quick, halt; and it happened all day.

So in my team meeting, with no debriefing, no down time, receiving a full agenda and all of us feeling individually pulled and stretched of late, I shut down to avoid saying and acting in some way I’d later regret. It wasn’t any one thing someone said but rather a few comments which in those circumstances, had me disengage and I told the team I was doing so. My capacity was exceeded, my reserves near exhausted, and we still had 45 minutes to go at that point. I knew I had one last call to make to someone who only seconds before our meeting, also really hoped I call before the days end.

My perfect storm.

I’m glad actually about one thing. After 3 decades in the Social Services field, people’s anguish and life stories still impact me and affect me. That’s important for me at least, to know and have awareness of. To know I am still of help? That to me is it’s own reward.

Today shall be good. I shall be better.


Thank You My Peers; This One’s For You

I want to pass on my sincere thank you to you, my colleagues who work on a daily basis advocating for those who are on social assistance. This article is specifically directed to you; as it’s all about you and the great work you do. If you like what you read, share it –not necessarily on the net; maybe with your co-workers who might miss it otherwise. Share it with your family if they wonder what it is you really do all day; your kids if you suspect they don’t have a clue about the impact you have and the tremendously important work you do.

What this isn’t is a self-serving post slapping us on the back broadcasting, “How great we are!” for anybody to hear. You know as well as I do however in the value of receiving encouragement and acknowledgement.  We dole that out all day long! So allow me to extend my 900 words of thanks and for a few moments this day, allow yourself to just read and be acknowledged.

Don’t you love those ‘light bulb’ scenarios where you see that exact moment on the face of someone you are working with who suddenly grasps what it is you’re sharing? Of course you do! It is precisely because of your intervention that they suddenly ‘get it’; ‘it’ being something that helps them move forward. Because of you, they not only know something intellectually, they understand it and own it when that moment happens; learning just transferred from you to them. Well done!

These are pretty great people we work with and for aren’t they? They have the survival skills to get by on what amounts to less than minimum wage in many jurisdictions. While many people in the general population wouldn’t remotely consider working for less than half the minimum wage; you and I know that the people we serve have no choice but to accept less than half those wages. Not only do some in society begrudge them this meagre amount to live on, those same people expect social assistance recipients to smile, be in good health, get around and look for work, get an education – but not if they can get off assistance without it of course – and keep themselves dressed and groomed smartly. Best they are thankful and don’t have a poor attitude or show discouragement either.

We however are the sensitive ones; the compassionate ones. We aren’t just bleeding hearts. We are wise enough to know holding other people in judgement for how they live their lives and the choices they make is wrong. We’ve come to understand that these social assistance recipients are… well… people. We know how intrinsically essential we become in their lives because they tell us don’t they? Not all of them of course, but many do express their gratitude and thanks. They know we are in positions of power and can help move them forward or make things more difficult. The best of us, – you of course – take that responsibility on each day with each person you interact with and sometimes we do it so naturally we think it’s no big thing. It’s huge!

We are their role models; we may be the sole person in their lives who treats them with respect and dignity. We may be the lone person who actually sees something of value in them and most importantly believes in them. I don’t exaggerate. We know how fragile some of these people are, growing up in broken homes and enduring abusive relationships. We have to walk that fine line between caring enough to be helpful and not over-caring to the point where we suffer compassion fatigue and burn out.

How many decisions do you make in a day? Now how many of those decisions impact directly on someone whose situation is so fragile that holding their assistance or releasing it means the difference between being housed or on the street? We know only a fraction of how stressful it must surely be to constantly live fraught with the worry of whether or not the cheque will arrive in time to pay the rent.

You do tremendously important work and are in a noble profession. You are simultaneously a source of finance, a figure of authority, role model, teacher, mentor, advisor, guide and helper. And sometimes – in the moments when you’ve got a pile of work on your desk and numerous phone calls to return, there you are just listening on your end of the phone to someone who just needs your ear. Frustrating at times? Absolutely when there’s so much to do and a computer system that demands your attention. But you do it nonetheless.

You and I, we’re pretty fortunate to be in such a position. Were it you and I on the other side of the table needing help and being ignorant of all the help available, we’d be so grateful to have an empathetic and caring person to help us.

A humble and sincere thank you wherever you work on this globe of ours when you toil on behalf of those who often don’t have a voice of their own; or rather their voices speak but are not heard. You are doing great work and the impact you’re having is cumulative; you may not see the progress at first, but its building. Think of how many lives you make better every day!

“I Could Help, But I Choose Not To”

At what point do you tell yourself, “I could help out, but I choose not to”? While it may be presumptuous of me, I imagine that we all pick and choose to help out other people and sometimes we make conscious decisions to pass on the opportunity. Does that make us bad people? I think not.

When we find ourselves avoiding offering help, it can be for many different reasons. Many years ago now I was on a break in a mall where I worked in a retail store. I heard a woman scream and saw a guy running to towards to door behind me with her purse. I tackled him and wrestled with him while a crowd gathered about us. Nobody actually got involved to help me until one woman called the police. We wrestled for a good five minutes. I think the others were afraid to get involved out of fear of what might happen to them.

Sometimes it may be that we are just mentally exhausted too. We come out emotionally drained from a long session in which someone opens up to us, and by reaching back and becoming so engaged in the pain of what we’ve heard, we need time to debrief and recover our balance in order to be useful to others. So when someone say, “Do you have a minute”?, we might just say, “Not right now” and to them perhaps even appear abrupt.

And I’m willing to bet you’ve had the situation where the workload is substantial; breaks are ignored, and you finally get a chance to hydrate, use the washroom and grab a quick bite. The phone rings and the display tells you it’s a person who regularly will consume 20 precious minutes of your time, so you let the phone take a message. Or it’s the person at the counter who doesn’t know you asking for you by name as you’re leaving the building and whisk right past them at quitting time.

These are the situations in which, while we would normally consider ourselves to be helpers, have great patience and be client-centered, we pass on opportunities to help – and we have to allow ourselves this without guilt or beating ourselves up all day.

The thing about passing up chances to help others is that while almost all the time there will be a chance to make it up to that person, or address the situation at a later time, every so often that chance will be lost and the consequences for someone extreme. So perhaps this is where a personal philosophy fits in, or self-preservation. Someone who gives unselfishly of themselves with no regard to maintaining their own balance and recharging their emotional and physical stability eventually won’t be of much use to the very people they feel so empowered to help.

There is a reason workers have breaks, be they 15 minutes, half an hour or one hour. There’s a reason our work days are fixed so we don’t overwork ourselves and become exhausted. Simply put, enough people have gone before us and shown that the optimal amount of energy expended has a limit, and after that limit, most people in our job (whatever it is) become less effective, less productive.

Would you want to be on a travel coach where the driver has exceeded their 10 hour maximum time behind the wheel? Probably not as the level of alertness is diminished severely, and a new driver who is fully rested is the better option. Likewise some Doctor whose about to perform surgery on a loved one had better be well-rested and be able to concentrate fully on the job at hand. But that Doctor, and others like him, has worries and personal issues they are dealing with like anyone else.

So in YOUR daily work, when you pass on the opportunity to rush around helping absolutely everyone that asks for your time, give yourself permission to avoid the guilt in your decision. It is critical to remember that your valuable skills that have escalated you to the position you are in, can best be provided to others when you are at the top of your game. If you’ve just come out of a draining conversation, an intense counselling session, or any situation where you’ve entirely invested yourself, it is not only okay to recharge, it’s imperative.

Of course this is sometimes called, “Compassion Fatigue”; where you give and give and drain your emotional tank and have nothing left, but all born out of your desire to help everyone. Sometimes it takes a walk around the exterior of the building, a de-briefing with another employee, 15 minutes with a book you are really into, some soothing music with your eyes closed, a yoga break at noon, and there are other outlets.

Think of this like a steam whistle. The pressure builds and builds until the water boils in a kettle and the steam whistle blows. The the kettle, letting off some steam through exercise or relaxation can and does avoid a boiling over. Young people and those new to a job often look at seasoned staff who appear to be indifferent at times to clients needs by making them wait or asking them to make an appointment instead of seeing them when they show up. While it can be insensitivity, it can also be a wily veteran knowing that to pace themselves is the best way to ensure that when seeing clients, they give 100%

Today I Decided To Be Selfish And Guess What Happened?

I don’t know what happened to me this morning, but right from the moment I was getting dressed, I just felt like this was going to be a fantastic day. Now, I had no plans, no big presentations, no award gala to attend in my honour; it just felt great. So I made a decision right then and there, standing naked in my closet, to be selfish.

Yessiree, I decided that I was going to put my needs above everybody else’s. I started with a guy in a car who was moving up quickly on my right, and I knew he was trying to get ahead of me just before our lanes merged. I had the right of way but he wanted desperately to get by. So what did I do? I reminded myself that I had made a decision to be selfish, and I slowed down and let him in. Huh? Yes I let him in. He was happy, and I got happy too.

When I got to work, I was the first to arrive as I am most days. One of the Administrative Support staff who always comes in shortly after me and chats, came in and I was busy doing something else. So I had a choice to either curtly nod and keep focused on what I was doing because it was important, or I could stop, turn around, smile and chat and say something to get her to laugh…and she has a great laugh. Well, I thought again that I had decided to be selfish, so it became obvious to me what I should do. I turned around, stopped working and gave her my full attention. We talked for 4 or 5 minutes and she laughed and laughed which of course made me smile and laugh too. Geez I was being selfish!

Not too soon after this, my Supervisor came and told me that one of my colleagues would not be in today. That would mean we were one person down, and she was asking me to help her figure things out. I could have said that I had things I had to work on, (which I really do) or I could have volunteered to pick up the slack and work at doing my job and a bit more in order to make things run smoother. You guessed it; I told myself right there and then that it was National Selfish Day as far as I was concerned; all about me day. So I did the logical thing and adapted, covering for my colleague and putting aside the things I had planned on working on. Man this selfish thing is really catching on!

I was selfish several other times in the day too. I found all kinds of ways to put my needs ahead of my clients, my co-workers, my Supervisor and well, just about anybody. I even told the woman who made me a Western Sandwich this morning at the deli counter that I really appreciated her service and wished her a good day. All that did of course was make me feel real good inside! It is sooooo all about me!

You see, if you think about it, many motivational speakers and leaders tell us to put the needs of others before our own needs. That is something I did for years and years because it just made sense to me, and I bought in. Ah, but where is the profit in that for me personally if I’m doing everything for everybody else? If I give and give and give, my ability to give will eventually dry up unless it gets replenished. Hey – that’s compassion fatigue! However, if I put the needs of others first because ultimately I feel good doing it, and it puts a spring in my step, a smile on my face and people are coming up sayng, “You sure are in a good mood today, what’s up?”….hmmm…..something must be working well.

When we put the needs of our clients first, serve our customers with enthusiasm and care, actively listening to Them express Their needs and Their frustrations and then ACT to help them out – ultimately because They appreciate the help They receive, we help ourselves! How self-serving of ourselves. Giving of ourselves is the most precious thing we can do in our daily work. Sure we can relay information we have and do it in such a way that it is almost disconnected from us as people, but we can also choose to give that same information in a manner that shows interest, real concern, and real caring. All that seems to do is make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

So what happens when we feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Well terrible things, like sleeping soundly at night, awful things like be thanked for ‘doing our job’, and nasty things like getting a ‘job well done’ from our superiors. Who wants that? Then we go home and our spouses and kids benefit too because we’re in a great mood, and the drivers on the road benefit from our good moods where on another day we were road rage in action.

Just imagine if two people decided to be selfish together…it would be the start of something. What if three or four, maybe five people all made up their minds to be selfish – why it would be an uprising. Imagine if, I said imagine if an entire office or company just flat out decided to make being selfish their number one priority? Why it’d be a movement!

I don’t know if food tastes better when we are doing good things or not, I guess I’ll find out tonight when I make supper for my wife – I’m just so entirely selfish!