With the partial federal government shutdown over and employees back at work, workforce consultant John Kolm says, supervisors' first responsibility shouldn't be assigning employees shovels to dig out from under a huge work backlog.
Their first obligation, he says, should be to ask co-workers: "How are you doing? How are you feeling? How tough has the shutdown been on you?"
Kolm, CEO of Potomac-based Team Results USA, has worked with agencies including the Defense Department, the Commerce Department, the Labor Department and the National Park Service to help improve team dynamics, leadership and morale.
As federal employees returned to work last week, Kolm discussed the stress they are under and what supervisors can do to help them ease back into their jobs.
How are federal workers doing after a year of that has included furloughs and the shutdown?
The biggest change you're going to see is anger. Because there is no forgiveness in expressing that anger in a workplace, that anger is going to be suppressed. They're going to be carrying a big burden of unexpressed anger. It's going to be evident in how they interact with others. And it's going to be evident in their health.
In a few cases, that could possibly affect people in terms of them doing something unfortunately newsworthy. What every supervisor and manager should expect right now is some immature behavior here or there, some acting out, some extreme viewpoints such as "I'm not going to give a rat's you-know-what about this job ever again."
In most people that anger is going to dissipate in two to four weeks. But that's not true for everybody.
How can you detect whether employees are suffering from something serious?
Three things people should be on the lookout for if they're supervisors or managers: No. 1, a sense of being powerless over events. No. 2, a sense of low self-worth. Employees think they're worth nothing or act as if they're worth nothing. No. 3, the feeling of impending doom — or, in other words, a person feels as if something awful is about to happen.
When you see those things happen, that's depression. That's nothing to mess with and that requires clinical help. If you're a manager or supervisor and see those things, that's nothing to ignore. Have those people seek help and don't be afraid to ask for help.
How does a workplace deal with a toxic atmosphere stemming from the shutdown?
The most common response of any workplace is to do nothing and hope for the best. It's very easy for most workplaces to do nothing because most workplaces are under a lot of pressure from the tasks of the day-to-day. But they should be treating the welfare of returning employees as the most critical, urgent five-alarm fire that they have.
It really takes strong leadership. Good leaders should be doing triage right now. They should be looking at things on their desk that need to be done immediately and they should say it may have to wait. Because they should be focusing on team health. By far that's the most important thing.
There are some things that will get you fired if you don't do them but, anything else, clear the decks and focus on team health. Your team has taken a huge hit. There's nothing worse that could have been done to them but to have put them out of work. So you need to address their concerns.
How should bosses conduct themselves?
The first thing bosses should be doing is being a lot more forgiving about extreme viewpoints. Cut people some slack. If people come to work saying they're done caring and you can take this job and shove it — cut them some slack. Let people vent. It's really very healthy.
Share your own feelings about the shutdown, as well, if your a boss. "I missed my mortgage payment too." If you as a leader have the courage to talk about it, others will feel OK, too.
How are people supposed to catch up at work if they return to a huge workload?
People are going to have to lean on each other and look out for each other's welfare. Bosses need to be realistic.