Kolm: With shutdown over, supervisors need to address stresses confronting workers

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.

The ones who work in isolation and feel they cannot communicate or don't want to, those people will drown, and they'll drown silently. You need to be communicating with your bosses and teammates about what's possible to accomplish.

What are ways workplaces can reduce stress?

No. 1, have good team dynamics. Actually care about people. It's not just enough to care, check on people's welfare, balance their workload.

The second thing people should be doing is talking about it. People should be talking about their stress levels. In fact, that's a good way to start every meeting.

Finally, you have to be prepared to make some hard decisions as a leader. You have to be prepared to take some hits. You have to decide what you're team is not going to do, and when higher-ups complain, the wrong answer is to hang your employees out to dry. The correct answer is, "Yes, that was my decision not to do it."

How do workers deal with the financial strain of lost paychecks?

I urge people to pay attention and acknowledge that feeling of failure — though you really are not a failure. Ask yourself: Is it rational? Is it true? I missed a mortgage payment. Does that make me a bad father?

The right answer is: Of course not. You really need to recognize the widespread effect of the shutdown on everyone. But in the short term it's perfectly OK to feel like crap. You're not a failure; you're not weak.

Are there events or exercises to build back camaraderie?

There are a lot of things you can do. Little games, jokes, rewards if they're done in a positive manner. Little things that create laughter. The best antidote to fear is laughter. There are lots of little projects and rewards for your group that can be of tremendous help to lift moods.


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