Stress: The Silent Menace

Original post, December 2, 2016

Any job can have stressful elements, even if you love what you do, in both the private and federal sectors. Stressful working conditions are certainly part and parcel of those who work in U.S. international broadcasting with its deadline pressures, irregular schedules, and occasional frenetic activity. That stress may not compare in intensity with the stress factors of those who work in air traffic control, border protection, the prison system, or the military but they are just as real.

Documentation shows that when workplace stress is chronic and overwhelming, it becomes harmful to both the physical and emotional health and well-being of the employees. Reports from NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath) and the CDC recognize that chronic stress can contribute to such physical ailments as depression, blood pressure elevation and cardiovascular problems, a weakened immune system, and diabetes, among others. Dealing with workplace stress can cause such related coping issues as overeating, smoking or abusing drugs and alcohol.

According to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, the price tag adds up overall to billions a year in lost productivity. If chronic workplace stress is not addressed, it ultimately leads to absenteeism, job resignations, chronic illness, poor quality work, anger, resentment, burnout, disability and worse. NIOSH concurs, adding that stressed-out employees incur healthcare costs that are 46% higher and account for more than 60% of doctor visits. It also figures as a big factor in poor morale, no stranger to the employees in this Agency and well-documented over the years in the OPM Human Capital Survey where the Agency’s low marks have “earned” it the unflattering description of – one the ‘bottom feeder’ agencies and one of the worst places to work in the federal government.

There are many causes of stress in the workplace. Among them: poor management, unclear expectations of employees’ work responsibilities and no say in the decision-making process. This Agency certainly qualifies in all three of those categories.

Chronic under-staffing and increased workload is another and is all too evident in the VOA workforce where many employees must work long hours and overtime without seeing any respite, except empty promises and excuses, down the road. All appeals of the Union to management to correct this situation have been largely ignored which only increases employee frustration. This is exacerbated by the fact that management continues to blithely post more supervisory positions while rank-and-file jobs stay unfilled.

For many years, Agency employees were faced almost annually with threats of a reduction-in-force, the infamous RIF process directed mostly at rank-and-file and not the bloated bureaucracy. This constant feeling of risk of termination had an extremely negative effect on employees and still lingers in the minds of many who survived that time. And the specter of termination appears in many studies as a prime cause of worker stress.

Another factor in inducing stress in the workplace is excessive workload. For the past ten years, our international broadcasters, especially in the language services, have been expected to contribute and create not only products for radio and affiliates but also for TV and social media including videos. There IS a breaking point.

What can be done to reduce workplace stress and contribute to more healthful working conditions and ultimately better morale? That’s a very important issue for Union and Management to discuss and management certainly doesn’t have all the answers as we’ve seen in those silly little ice-cream socials, faux celebrations and hyped-up outings of yesteryear which have had no impact. In a newly renovated workspace a chill-out room was added which shows that management is at least aware that it has a problem with stressed-out employees. What will probably help even more is rewarding employees for their good work, listening to their concerns and treating them as professionals. Allowing more Flextime and working-from-home could also help as it’s been shown to increase the trust factor between Agency management and its employees. To even get that for employees has been a herculean task.

By and large, what has sustained the employees of this Agency has been the unmitigated dedication to the mission of VOA which continues to endure in spite of and not because of its often-uncaring and defective management.

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