Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Terminal Optimist Meets Her Match

This weekend I was reminded of the importance of grief, not just at home but at work as well. We all recognize the necessity of grief when someone we love dies, but the truth is in order to have an authentic sense of peace after any loss, you have to acknowledge it and the feelings it brings. I used to be one of those always positive all the time people. I had a friend who half jokingly said I wasn’t Eternally Optimistic; I was Terminally Optimistic. She’s right I was. Today, after nearly 16 years of living with the daily challenges of life with a brain injury and with the help of a Rehabilitation Psychologist who, in spite of my very best efforts, refuses to allow me to B.S. myself, while I am still a glass half full gal, I understand what my friend was trying to tell me when she dubbed me Terminally Optimistic. I now understand that when one door closes and another opens, while it is wonderful to be excited and hopeful about the opportunities and possibilities that await, it is equally important to acknowledge the loss of what lies behind the closed door and to deal with the stress that accompanies the transition. This weekend I was reminded of what can happen to a work place when there is too much change with too little support and no recognition of the losses the staff has endured. I was talking with a friend about a job I had, geez what feels like a million year ago. I was the Director of Mental Health Case Management at a large Community Mental Health Center. On my first day I went off to work eager and excited. I loved new challenges. I came home at the end of the first day shell shocked and told my husband, and remember this was during the Terminally Optimistic phase of my life, “My staff are HORRIBLE human beings. They hate their clients. They’re horrendous.” At the end of the first week I came home and said “My staff are all burned out. Understandably so.” In the previous 2 – 3 years, they had endured organizational restructuring, changes in management and management style, ongoing rumors of financial instability and potential layoffs and a series of changes in funding regulations each of which mandated changes in documentation, Continuing Education and most devastatingly, changes in how they were and were not able to help their clients. No one gave them support for the anxiety and stress this cascade of changes created. No one even acknowledged how hard it might be. As a result, the staff got bitchy, bitter and burned out. I had my work cut out for me. My vision – I wanted us to provide great services AND for this to be a great place to work. I knew it would be a long road ahead AND I absolutely believed we could get there. I began by acknowledging the turmoil they’d been through and by giving them permission to grieve all they had lost, when work felt simpler, less stressful and more stable. We talked about how it used to be and what they missed about it. THEN we talked about the new reality and, together, we figured out the ways we were going to adapt and adjust to live within it. I created an atmosphere in which it became more socially rewarding to be positive than be the constant critic or the perpetual Yes-But’er. (Yeah but that won’t work because…) When a staff member said something positive s/he got positive feedback from me. (I remember joking with a colleague that in my Department if you said something positive about a client, balloons and streamers fell from the ceiling.) On the wall in the staff meeting room was a sign with a big red circle with a slash through it. In the middle of the circle were the words “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Slowly, steadily and surely our services improved as did staff morale. It all started, it all needed to start, with allowing them to openly grieve the long list of losses they’d endured. What was true for this group of human service professionals is equally true for each of us as individuals. When we sweep under the rug, life’s little losses, they each take a toll. When all we allow ourselves to feel is the excitement about what lies on the other side of the open door and deny the sense of loss that comes from the door that’s closing, we pay a price. Denial is hard and exhausting work. It’s the emotions we deny that control us. Unless and until we admit we have them, they will affect us. They will affect our relationships, our happiness, our health and yes, our work.