Tag Archives: workplace stress

Compromising care: An occupational hazard for counseling leaders

By Lindsay Johnson and Ane Turner Johnson August 10, 2022

When we sought to interview women directors of counseling centers about their experiences, we weren’t exactly sure what we’d discover. All we knew was that we were interested in their unique leadership experience given the conflicting values between care work and higher education today.

Higher education is not that different from many other large organizations. According to Bernie Grummell and colleagues’ article published in the journal Gender and Education in 2009, institutions are influenced by capitalism and therefore are more focused on the bottom line and on employees working solely for the benefit of the organization (even if it is to the detriment of their personal lives), resulting in what is considered to be a “care-less” organization. In a 2010 article for Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Kathleen Lynch notes that this care-lessness manifests in leaders and workers becoming cutthroat, ruthless and selfish in order to excel within the organization.

As women working in a university setting for, cumulatively, over 20 years, we have become well attuned to the differing values between care divisions and the larger institution. And we have noticed that trying to lead divisions centered on providing care, such as a counseling center, within this care-less organization of higher education is fraught with tensions and contradictions.

Additionally, gender inequities inherent to higher education produces a gendered organization with its own set of challenges. As theorized by Joan Acker, gendered organizations create and maintain overt and covert practices, cultural dynamics and social norms based on gender that hinder women, especially their movement into leadership positions. Understanding how women directors navigate leading a care work division while also negotiating their role as a “care-less leader” within a gendered organization is essential to uncovering the interaction between gender, leadership and care work within the care-less landscape of higher education.

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Our curiosity in this topic spurred us to interview 13 women directors of college and university counseling centers from across the country. We wanted to know what it was like for them as leaders and how they experienced their dichotomous work environment. Using heuristic inquiry, we uncovered a culture clash between contemporary higher education and counseling that further marginalizes women leaders, particularly leaders of care work, by forcing them to compromise their care values and identities. These compromises are inevitable; to embody the role of a leader within the care-less organization of higher education, counseling leaders need to trade off some of their care roles, values and practices for those of the care-less culture. Without these compromises, counseling leaders risk their leadership status and effectiveness in the organization.

You may be reading this and thinking, “Yikes, this seems pretty bleak as a leader in the counseling profession.” Although that was our initial reaction, it also spurred us to consider how this knowledge could be useful. To us, these insights help professional counselors and counseling leaders within care-less settings prepare themselves for the internal (and sometimes external) assault on their values and identities. Also, this knowledge can help start a larger conversation within and outside the counseling field about care-less organizations and how care-lessness influences care work. In the following sections, we describe three ways in which the directors expressed they had to compromise care as a leader within a care-less context and three takeaways for counseling leaders.

Compromising care 

As mentioned previously, care-less work is born from our capitalist society that focuses mainly on profits and productivity rather than emotional connection. Bernie Grummell and colleagues in a 2009 article in Gender and Education and Henry Giroux in 2002 article in Harvard Educational Review explain that care-less organizations reward, value and idealize workers who can fully commit themselves to the job, put aside personal time and be unencumbered by any other type of duty. According to Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie in a 2001 article in Organization, higher education has become one such care-less organization, and therefore the presumption is that university faculty and staff, especially the leaders, will embody this ideal care-less worker. But these care-less values are in direct contrast to those of a division focused on care, such as a counseling center. As a result, leaders in these divisions must at times reprioritize their care to better align with the care-less institution. From our interviews, we found that counseling leaders often have to compromise care in the following three areas: care identities, leadership styles and practices, and care values.

1) Compromising care identities. The counseling leaders we interviewed said that compromises to care arose from the competing needs and values of their identities as a director, woman (for some this also included being a mother) and care worker (as professionals in the counseling field). As a result, they were forced to make sacrifices in their care roles given that it was impossible to effectively perform such roles while being the director of a counseling center. For example, one woman shared about her identity as a mother and how the director position affected the time spent with her children. She explained, “I get a call two weeks ago to do a suicide assessment with my kid in the bathtub, and I’m like, ‘I have to call you back, I have my kid in the tub,’ so I need to get my kid to my husband to be able to call back.” Another director echoed similar sentiments in regard to time spent with her father: “The hardest thing is I’ve been on call for so many years. … I can’t just go home and spend time with my father uninterrupted. … It can be a serious lifestyle inhibitor.” 

These examples exemplify the ways in which the care-less culture of higher education, and subsequent expectations of its leaders, infiltrate the personal lives of counseling leaders. The care-less culture contrasts with their care role as mothers and family caregivers and at times it was impossible to effectively perform both roles at the same time. Making personal sacrifices in their external care roles could risk their status as leaders within a care-less organization.

Counselors will also need to make professional care compromises when leading in a care-less organization. All the directors we spoke to still maintained involvement in clinical work; however, it was significantly minimized in order to manage their administrative position. One director with many years in her role explained why holding both identities (as care worker and leader) concurrently was nearly impossible. She said, “I started my role as director with a large caseload, but then I was trying to figure out how to be director and I was mediocre at both things — mediocre in the therapy room, mediocre as a director. … I can’t be doing good therapy and be thinking, ‘I forgot to approve someone’s vacation time.’ … I learned that I really needed to be more of an administrator.”

It’s challenging enough to sustain the engagement level involved in doing care work while also juggling administrative duties and expectations. Now add to that the complications that arise when working in an environment where the values of the care-less organization clash with the values of the care work being done. Therefore, being an effective administrator requires counseling leaders to make compromises to their care worker identity in some way.

2) Compromising leadership styles and practices. Another area where counseling leaders will most likely have to make compromises is in their leadership styles and practices. The directors we interviewed expressed that their leadership style is servant or feminist based, both of which are driven by care-oriented values such as collaboration, transparency and support. But at times they had to compromise those values and adapt a style that was more authoritative, political and guarded to navigate the murky waters of the greater care-less organization. One director explained why these changes needed to happen in her position: “I’m more guarded outside our office, in part because … I think there’s competition among departments. … There’s a bit of gamesmanship, so I need to be more strategic.” This statement reflects how our values as counseling leaders are compromised at times in a care-less organization to effectively do the job, such as obtaining appropriate resources.

3) Compromising care values. Counseling leaders may also have to make compromises to their care values in care-less settings. These compromises come as a result of the care-less cultural norms inherent to care-less environments. For example, students and their guardians may make demands of the university that are not necessarily in the best interest of the student’s mental health. But because the student (and whomever is financially supporting their college endeavors) are the “consumer,” the university is likely to appease these individuals. Middle managers of the institution, such as counseling center directors, are then subjected to following these decisions made by university leadership, without regard to care values. These compromises can range from keeping a student at the university when it may not be in their best interest to shrinking individual services or expanding group treatment in order to treat more students. Therefore, counseling leaders are forced to let the consumer dictate what is the care plan versus what they, as professionals, know would be most beneficial.

Lessons for caring care-lessly 

Learning how care-less contexts affect care leaders helps demonstrate the conflicts and unique challenges that arise for counseling leaders within higher education. These findings from our interviews with directors of counseling centers provides three important takeaways for other professional counselors who are already leading or will be leading counseling centers within care-less settings.

Lesson 1: Expect to feel conflicted. It was evident from our interviews with these directors that counseling leaders should expect to feel conflicted regularly when working in care-less settings. That is because care work leaders must reconcile their personal, and perhaps divisional/departmental, roles and values with those of the organization when they are in direct conflict to those of the organization. Research such as Simon Black’s 2015 article in Open Journal of Leadership supports this finding that care work leaders in care-less settings have internal conflict because of contradictory values. These leaders should also expect to feel conflicted because sometimes they will need to make sacrifices that come at the expense of their care identities. While counseling leaders may expect, and prepare for, ethical or legal challenges in their positions, the clash of personal and professional values may be less expected. By understanding this before entering the field, counseling leaders can reflect upon these compromises and prepare by doing things such as creating a plan as to when and how they may want to make such sacrifices.

Lesson 2: Expect to become flexible. As noted previously, we discovered that counseling leaders in care-less contexts often had to alter their leadership style when navigating spaces outside of their care division. Therefore, counseling leaders should expect to be flexible in their leadership approaches if they are going to get their care divisional needs met in a care-less organization. Although servant leadership can help individuals manage very challenging work obligations, as explained by Emin Babakus and colleagues in a 2010 article in Services Marketing Quarterly, it has been shown to be less effective in organizations that have more masculine-oriented values, such as care-less organizations, as described by the findings of Yucheng Zhang and others in an article published in Asia Pacific Journal of Management in 2021. When counselors in higher education lead a care division within a care-less organization, they must be ready to shift leadership styles based on what’s needed in the moment. Therefore, counseling leaders should be knowledgeable of multiple leadership styles, recognize when it is best to use practices associated with each style and be prepared to apply these different techniques. 

Lesson 3: Expect to be held accountable. The last takeaway for counseling leaders in care-less contexts is that compromising care can come at the expense of client’s or patient’s well-being and the care leader is most likely going to be held accountable. To us, this compromise is the hardest to stomach, and greatest call to action, as a care worker. We described earlier in this article how care-less organizational leaders may at times make decisions that affect care divisions and go against the values and professional judgment of counseling leaders. As a result, the clients or patients may suffer and view the care division as the culprit, and the organization is not likely to take the blame given its care-less values. This sabotages the leadership of care leaders. Counseling leaders should be aware of this when entering into care-less contexts and have a plan for how to manage conversations with leadership when such issues arise. This grim reality should also initiate conversations and more research around care-less cultures, including how they impact quality care and who accepts responsibility for such compromises to care.

In summary, it is important for professional counselors to understand that it is impossible for them to embody the values of their care worker identity while simultaneously working as a leader within a care-less organization. The inability to maintain both identities concurrently results in compromises made to one in order to embody the other. Therefore, counseling leaders in care-less settings should understand that compromises to their care identity must come in order for them to maintain their leadership role. As counseling leaders, this brings us to a crossroads. As we continue to expand our leadership into other industries, especially those that are care-less organizations, we must choose a path. We can either prepare ourselves to compromise our values and identities to fit into the care-less culture, or we can choose to confront the culture of care-less organizations. The latter choice raises several questions: Can care workers truly change the culture of a care-less organization? Do the care-less leaders need to be the ones to start a culture shift? Could counseling leaders be the catalyst for care-less culture changes? There’s only one way for us to find out.

 

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Lindsay Johnson is a licensed professional counselor and outreach coordinator at Rowan University’s Counseling and Psychological Services in Glassboro, New Jersey. She specializes in the treatment of disorders of over-control and is the team leader for the Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy consultation team at Rowan’s Wellness Center. She recently completed her doctorate in educational leadership at Rowan University. Contact her at johnsonln@rowan.edu.

Ane Turner Johnson is a professor of educational leadership at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. She teaches research methods and conducts research on issues related to higher education governance and policy making.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling girls and women in the current cultural climate

By Tracy Peed, Crissa Allen, Mary A. Hermann, J. Richelle Joe and Anna M. Viviani May 5, 2022

This piece is the second of a three-part series for CT Online. It is the result of the work of ACA President S. Kent Butler’s Gender Equity Task Force. The first article, “Breaking the binary: Transgender and gender expansive equality,” was published on April 4 and the third article “The effects of gender socialization on boys and men,” was published on June 15.

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In this article, we highlight gender equity issues that impact girls and women and provide recommendations for counselors who work with this population.

Complex realities of girls and women

Girls and women experience complex realities. Despite their increased opportunities in the past several decades, they face pervasive limiting gender norms. For example, girls and women are still dissuaded from entering STEM fields and encounter a “chilly climate” in STEM classrooms, resulting in significant underrepresentation in STEM fields. Furthermore, girls and women with additional marginalized identities experience heightened challenges.

The supergirl and superwoman ideals permeate popular culture and media. Selective, digitally altered social media posts send the message that the superwoman ideal is achievable, and even easily accessible. The narrow construct of feminine beauty further complicates these messages. Girls’ and women’s socialization to “have it all” has become more difficult, with work hours continuing to increase in many professions as technology creates new norms related to worker availability.

In addition, women engage in the invisible work of navigating the gender bias that remains prevalent in the workplace. Women still earn significantly less than men for the same work, and this reality is compounded by racism. For example, white, non-Hispanic women who work full time earn 79% of what white, non-Hispanic men earn, whereas African American women earn approximately 64% and Hispanic women earn 57% of what white, non-Hispanic men earn. Adding to this challenge, negotiating a higher salary is more complicated for women because it defies social stereotypes.

Women who are mothers have experienced heightened parenting expectations in recent decades. They engage in more child-centered activities than mothers did in the 1960s, a time when most mothers of young children did not work outside of the home. Yet, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 75% of mothers of young children worked outside of the home.

Working mothers in the United States attempt to meet societal motherhood expectations while maintaining employment without the supportive infrastructure found in almost all other industrialized countries. The cost of child care often exceeds the cost of rent. Paid family leave is not available in many work settings, driving 25% of mothers back on the job within two weeks of giving birth. And despite the lack of paid family leave, the promotion of breastfeeding as imperative is a message new mothers receive from almost everyone today, including medical professionals — a puzzling phenomenon in light of contradictory studies on the benefits of breastfeeding. Even women who adopt their babies experience pressure to breastfeed. Women experience judgment and shame if they are not in a position or choose not to breastfeed, which can lead to negative mental health outcomes.

Why now: Refocusing on the needs of girls and women

Although men have increased their participation in household activities in the past few generations, the second shift still falls primarily on women. Furthermore, expectations related to second-shift activities have continued to rise in what Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels call the “Martha Stewartization of America,” where women are judged on their parenting and the appearance of their homes under these elevated standards while men are not. In fact, men are often glorified for participating in basic parenting activities, which Anne-Marie Slaughter called the “halo dad syndrome.”

Intersectional identities add new layers to these challenges. For example, girls and women who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ communities are vulnerable to increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide as a result of discrimination. Although the need for mental health services is high, members of these communities often experience a disproportionate lack of access to these resources.

According to the cultural narrative, women are expected to navigate discrimination, harassment, rising work hours, increased motherhood expectations, heightened second-shift cultural standards and current unattainable beauty ideals without ever asking for help. Many women blame themselves when they believe they are failing to meet societal standards, but in reality, the cultural system is failing them.

Similarly, girls and women encounter sexism, bullying, sexual harassment and toxic body image messages. They are encouraged to take advantage of all opportunities and to strive to be perfect at everything. Thus, they are socialized to reach for impossible standards of success. Social media often intensifies these messages.

Yet benefits of social media exist as well. Some girls and women have found supportive communities through social media, which have provided them new channels toward justice and change. Since its inception in 2006 by Tarana Burke, the #MeToo movement has promoted empowerment and support for girls and women who have experienced sexual violence. The social media hashtag has evolved into real-world measures of accountability for aggressors, notably in the entertainment industry. Use of social media for revealing information on sexual abuse does, however, have repercussions. Girls and women have cited instances of harassment, stalking and bullying on the web after posting the hashtag, leading to increased isolation, grief and retraumatization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the challenges girls and women encounter. Gender inequities in the United States are further exposed during the crisis. For example, mothers experience a higher burden in managing family life during the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, most working mothers lost their access to child care and other support systems. Even two years into the pandemic, isolation and quarantine mandates continue to disrupt the availability of child care on a regular basis, including the child supervision provided by schools.

The pandemic-related challenges have lingered far longer than expected, often resulting in significant mental, physical and emotional fatigue. Not surprisingly, the pandemic negatively affected women’s workforce participation. In 2019, women accounted for approximately 50% of the U.S. labor force; by the end of 2020, there were 2.1 million fewer women working.

As women were leaving the workforce at alarming rates, men’s workforce participation increased. Systemic racism exacerbated these gender inequities. African American women experienced an unemployment rate of approximately 41%, and Latinx women experienced an unemployment rate of over 38%. While the economy improved in 2021, less than 50% of these women returned to the workforce. For many workers who remained employed, on-the-job hours increased as staffing shortages grew.

Culturally responsive counseling with girls and women

Although it is important to understand the various challenges that girls and women may experience, it is also critical to avoid assumptions and stereotypes related to gender when counseling girls and women.

Identifying as a girl or woman is just one aspect of an individual’s multifaceted identity. The combination of various intersectional identities coupled with one’s environment ensures that individuals have vastly different life experiences. Furthermore, one’s identities may result in more collective privileges, compounded marginalization or a mix of both.

Therefore, it is important to understand not only a client’s gender identity but also their other social and ethnic group identities and how these various identities intersect and influence aspects of a client’s life. It would be unjust to assume that a white, upper-class, heterosexual, cisgender woman has had the same lived experiences as a Latinx, working-class, pansexual, transgender woman. As counselors, we need to be mindful of and provide an accepting space for women to explore the development of their multiple identities in counseling.

When working with girls and women, counselors need to consider several salient concerns regarding career interests, such as career choice alignment with familial and cultural expectations, traditional versus nontraditional career choice, as well as navigating harassment, bias, the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap. Tread carefully in this work, and remember that people put limits on themselves in the career domain based on their self-concept and their belief that they are a fit for or could do a particular job.

Girls and women are likely to engage in circumscription, eliminating careers that appear too masculine in the eyes of society or seem unsuitable or out of reach of their capabilities. Or girls and women compromise, selecting or short-listing careers that they see women within their social environment pursuing. Counselors must strive to monitor girls’ and women’s reactions and responses to and support of career-related endeavors, recognizing that they may be trimming their options based on the counselor’s response.

It is important to use gender-neutral language and present a wide array of potential options when introducing and exploring jobs/careers. Being a girl or a woman can come with a multitude of career expectations, relationships and society. Counselors provide women with an environment to process their numerous roles, determine if role strain or role conflict exists, and work together to navigate role-related issues based on the client’s authentic choices.

Counselors must consider how to be more gender aware, attuned and affirming in their approaches and interventions. Many postmodern approaches and theories lend themselves to this aim. The following are a few to consider alongside your current approaches. Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive; a search of multicultural and social justice-oriented theories will provide a more extensive list.

  • Multicultural counseling and therapy acknowledges all individuals as cultural beings and, as such, their various cultural identities, values and biases are an important part of the counseling process.
  • The Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies provide additional support for working with a diverse clientele.
  • Feminist therapy allows counselors to view clients and their concerns through a lens that incorporates concepts of gender, power, privilege and oppression.
  • Relational-cultural theory focuses on finding identity through relationships and culture as a powerful influence on these relationships.

By shifting their approach, counselors create culturally responsive ways to meet the growing needs of girls and women.

Advocacy interventions with girls and women

In addition to counseling individuals and groups, advocating for clients is a vital and necessary part of our practice. Advocacy can occur on multiple levels, ranging from micro to macro. A counselor can engage on behalf of the client or with the client/group, with an overall goal of empowerment and eliminating individual and systemic barriers and oppression.

At the individual level (microlevel advocacy), the focus is on empowerment interventions with or on behalf of individual clients. Advocacy might include activities such as negotiating inequitable child care and second-shift expectations in a relationship. Counselors can navigate these actions using theoretical approaches and interventions that allow for identity development, are strength-based and are focused on empowerment.

Counselors may observe girls and women struggling with similar issues. Although counselors will likely work on individual empowerment, larger scale intervention may be needed to address more pervasive systemic issues. In this midlevel advocacy, counselors would advocate for community change with and on behalf of girls and women. Examples of community-level advocacy include advocating in schools against unfair dress code policies that marginalize girls, advocating at the local school board for curriculum to support girls and young women in mathematics and science, and advocating to local employers to support women’s needs from health care to child care in the workforce.

Although not all counselors feel comfortable or ready to advocate on a systems level, they are strongly encouraged to note their clients’ needs and get involved. Even a small advocacy endeavor has a ripple effect.

It is therefore important to know and understand the issues facing girls and women, not only in your community but also at the state, national and international level. We can all advocate for just social policies and strive to dismantle systemic inequities experienced by girls and women, such as lack of affordable access to quality health care and child care, the minimal amount of paid family leave and support for working mothers, pay inequities and work/career barriers.

For more help with advocacy initiatives, consult the ACA Advocacy Competencies for guidance.

 

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Find out more about ACA’s Gender Equity Task Force at acagenderequity.weebly.com

 

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Tracy Peed is a licensed professional school counselor in Illinois and Minnesota, an assistant professor and doctoral coordinator in the Department of Counseling and Student Personnel at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a member of the ACA Gender Equity Task Force. Contact her at tracy.peed@mnsu.edu.

Crissa Allen is a doctoral student at East Carolina University and a licensed clinical addictions specialist associate. Contact her at allenc13@students.ecu.edu.

Mary A. Hermann is a licensed professional counselor, a certified school counselor, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education, and affiliate faculty in the Institute of Women’s Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the co-chair of the ACA Gender Equity Task Force and founder and director of the Women’s Lifespan Development Research Lab. Contact her at mahermann@vcu.edu.

Richelle Joe is an associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology at the University of Central Florida. Contact her at jacqueline.joe@ucf.edu.

Anna M. Viviani is an associate professor at Indiana State University, a licensed professional counselor in Indiana and Illinois, an approved clinical supervisor and a member of the ACA Gender Equity Taskforce. Contact her at Anna.Viviani@indstate.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Hard at work

By Bethany Bray August 30, 2021

No employee clocks in to work each day entirely free from personal issues and struggles. However, individuals with mental illness face an extra layer of adversity in the workplace. Simply showing up and fulfilling job responsibilities can be an uphill battle for employees who are bombarded by intrusive, obsessive or critical thoughts; trauma flashbacks; depressive episodes; anxiety triggers; and other challenges.

Adding to the issue is the friction that can arise in a workplace when a mental illness — either disclosed or not — causes an employee to struggle to keep up with their workload or to take time off frequently to go to counseling appointments or tend to their mental health. Co-workers and supervisors can be unsupportive of a teammate who falls behind, sometimes regardless of whether they’re aware of the mental illness underlying their colleague’s work performance, making the situation worse.

Professional counselors can be key allies for clients whose mental health struggles are affecting — or even derailing — their work life. Being an ally includes providing support at an individual level, such as by equipping clients with coping mechanisms and talking through career-related decisions, and at a systemic level, such as by helping clients seek accommodations from an employer or otherwise advocate for themselves.

In these situations, a supportive counselor can normalize the client’s experience, help with perspective-setting and serve as a sounding board as the client talks through decisions and emotions related to work and career, says Meredith Montgomery, a supervising professional clinical counselor in Ohio and an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Dayton. “It’s also a counselor’s role to know what different [mental health] diagnoses might bring up in a work setting. If a clinician is working with a client who meets the criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you need to really do the research to know what that can potentially mean in the workplace. But at the same time, don’t buy into clichéd old ideas; look for the newest, updated information and laws that can help support them in a work environment,” says Montgomery, a member of the American Counseling Association. “Ultimately, a counselor’s job is one of support and illumination: to illuminate [a client’s] path, not to create the path, or determine the path, or push or pull them on the path, or shove them off of it, but to equip them with all the information you can to help them make their own decisions.”

A daily struggle

Behaviors that can indicate a client’s mental health is leading to problems in the workplace include frequent absences, tardiness, difficulty motivating themselves to perform their job, or job performance issues such as struggling to meet deadlines or other work expectations, says Amanda Hembree, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and certified employee assistance professional with a private practice in New Orleans.

Perfectionism can also be a factor, she adds. For example, a client with OCD may miss deadlines or have trouble contributing to team projects because they need extra time to prepare and complete compulsive rituals or steps until an assignment is just right. This can especially be the case in job roles that involve safety, Hembree points out. Employees with OCD may feel they need to check and recheck their equipment, tools and other safety protocols repeatedly, causing them to be late or struggle to complete other tasks.

At the same time, Hembree acknowledges that many people with mental health challenges find “workarounds” to push through the workday and keep themselves from being noticed by co-workers or supervisors.

A client’s workplace challenges may also fly under the radar in counseling sessions unless the clinician fully explores how the person’s mental illness is manifesting across their life, Hembree stresses. Clients may seek counseling for a different presenting issue, such as parenting struggles or communication problems within a marriage, and fail to recognize or acknowledge that work problems can be a contributing factor to difficulties in their personal life.

“Don’t discount work,” Hembree urges her fellow counselors. “Clients are spending 40-plus hours there each week, and it will affect what they’re bringing into the counseling office. Work plays a big role in our lives, and you [the counselor] have to figure out the intersection of why they’re in your office and what is going on at work and what can be helped in both realms. None of us lives in a vacuum. Mental illness will affect every part of a whole person’s wellness — and especially work.”

Seth Hayden, an associate professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and president of the National Career Development Association, a division of ACA, also emphasizes the importance of listening for and asking clients about job-related challenges, regardless of whether their presenting concern involves work. A comprehensive client assessment should include questions about how their presenting concern manifests throughout their life, including their physical health, relationships, ability to engage in hobbies that interest them, and views on work.

If a client identifies work as a source of stress or discomfort, a counselor should explore that further in session, says Hayden, an ACA member who specializes in career transitions with military and veteran clients. This involves uncovering the thoughts and feelings the client associates with their job and how those things tie into the person’s self-concept and align with their core beliefs.

“If work continually comes up in their conversation, let’s stop there and dive deeper, talking more about the work that they do and how they feel about it,” says Hayden, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in North Carolina and an LPC in Virginia. “Have their feelings [about work] changed over time? Do an extensive examination of aspects of career and work and how [they’re] connected to other areas of life. … If you try to artificially separate them [mental health and career], it could potentially be to the detriment of the client … because they are interconnected.”

Asking the right questions

Avoidance behaviors and other signs of distress and unhappiness at work can result from any number or combination of sources, says Montgomery, who co-presented the session “Enhance Counseling Services by Integrating Clinical and Career Counseling Strategies” at ACA’s Virtual Conference Experience in April. She emphasizes the need for clinicians to fully unpack clients’ feelings and emotions about their work situation during counseling sessions.

Montgomery urges clinicians to draw on two foundational counseling skills: asking probing questions and using empathic reflection.

“We [counselors] need to make sure we are asking the right questions. We don’t necessarily want to jump on the ‘you hate your job, let’s get you out of there’ bandwagon. When you pull it apart, it could be a toxic environment, or … a bad fit, or they could make changes to make it a better fit, but often the only option clients see is to leave,” Montgomery says. “We need to explore, explore, explore, explore [the client’s situation] before we jump to any kind of solution formulation.”

When clients talk about how hard work is for them, counselors should use empathic reflection, repeating clients’ statements back to them, to allow them to think through these thoughts, Montgomery says. It may be a knee-jerk response to agree or sympathize with client statements such as “I hate my job” or “Work has been terrible since the COVID-19 pandemic,” but counselors must be careful not to inadvertently reinforce a client’s statement with their reactions, she advises.

Instead, clinicians can probe for details and ask clients to describe the feelings underneath the statements they are making. Montgomery finds that an emotion wheel can be helpful for prompting these conversations, so she suggests counselors keep copies handy in their offices or readily available for screen-sharing during telebehavioral health sessions.

Often, individuals do not fully express their experiences because they do not have the language to do so, Montgomery says. Using tools such as an emotion wheel is a way to increase a person’s ability to better understand and communicate their experience. For example, a client may initially say, “I feel angry at work.” But after looking at the emotions listed on the wheel, they may be able to better articulate their feelings by saying, “I feel underappreciated, exhausted and disrespected at work.” That deeper and clearer understanding is far more beneficial to both the client and the clinician because the solutions to feeling underappreciated are different than the solutions to feeling angry, Montgomery says.

This exploration stage of counseling should also include a focus on identifying clients’ needs and which needs are not being met through work or are being marginalized or curtailed in the workplace, Montgomery adds. For example, a client who is social and benefits from talking through challenges with others may feel isolated and struggle to process things or complete assignments if they’re in a setting where they work alone or are physically separated from colleagues by the office layout. Identifying these needs often provides clarity and helps clients move toward either making changes in their current job situation — such as asking to be moved to a shared workspace or scheduling regular check-ins with their boss — or considering a different position or career, Montgomery explains.

Montgomery first worked in the corporate and nonprofit spheres before switching to a career in counseling. She recalls her own process of adapting to a new role as a counselor educator. After some self-reflection, she realized she craved structure to navigate the varying demands of work as a university professor, and there were some ways she could ask for help and support in this realm from her employer.

Montgomery looked for tools to create structure, such as a whiteboard to make lists and keep notes in her workspace. She also suggested her department streamline processes by creating a master calendar with due dates for evaluations and other important benchmarks. Not only did this modification keep Montgomery from feeling like she was always behind, but several colleagues mentioned that they found it helpful too, she says.

Coping mechanisms

The interconnected nature of career and mental health may cause work-related discomfort to affect clients when they are off the clock. This can manifest in many ways, including sabotaging their ability to get to work on time in the mornings or channeling feelings of frustration or unhappiness toward family members after a frustrating workday.

Amanda Barnett, an LPC who specializes in mental health and work issues with clients at her private practice in Gainesville, Georgia, helps clients who struggle to separate work stressors from their personal lives to build intentionality into their routines. She suggests clients visualize changing “hats” as they transition to and from work. For example, a client may take off their accountant hat and put on their dad hat as they leave the office. For some professions, this transition is literal because employees change into work uniforms or wear a tool belt or other work equipment, notes Barnett, an ACA member. Regardless, she urges clients to take time to center themselves, give themselves a pep talk and be mindful about setting themselves up for the workday or for their return home.

Hembree notes that offering psychoeducation regarding how anxiety manifests in the body and providing tools to lower stress and anxiety in the moment can be particularly helpful with this client population. Breathing techniques can be a useful go-to tool in the workplace, especially because some of these techniques can be used without other people noticing, she says. Hembree, who has extensive experience working with clients through employee assistance programs, often teaches clients “box breathing,” which involves inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts and exhaling for four counts. This technique can be done discretely even when an employee is sitting in a work meeting or preparing for a presentation, she points out.

Another powerful yet simple tool is helping clients realize that they can take a break — even if just for a moment — when things begin to escalate at work. Many clients get so wrapped up in the emotions they feel when they are stressed that their instinct is to dive further into the situation rather than pull back for a moment.

“Unless you’re on a heart-transplant team, you can take five minutes to have a snack, take a break, meditate or do a grounding technique,” Hembree advises. “Even if your boss is breathing down your neck and saying, ‘I need this yesterday,’ you will do a lot better if you take a couple of minutes to ground … and center yourself — and your work will be better because of it.”

Hembree also finds techniques that counter negative self-talk to be helpful with this population. Clients who struggle in the workplace can easily fall into the “comparison trap,” she says. But as is the case when people compare themselves with others based only on what they see on social media, workers see only a portion of others’ lives at work. When a client is bombarded by negative self-talk, a co-worker’s success can send them further down that spiral. It’s easy to compare themselves and catastrophize, thinking that they’ll never be as good as their co-worker, that they are a failure, or that they are about to be fired, Hembree notes.

“Perhaps a co-worker gets praise from the boss. But what [the client] didn’t see is that [the co-worker] stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish [the work assignment], missed their kid’s soccer game, got in a fight with their partner and gave themselves an ulcer to get this modicum of praise from the boss,” she says. “A counselor can offer psychoeducation that others have good and bad days, and you will have a day when you’re the superstar.”

fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Disclosure

The decision to disclose one’s mental illness in a work setting can lead to the good, the bad or the ugly. In a best-case scenario, an employer will respond to disclosure in a supportive and understanding way. Employees whose mental health challenges are affecting their work life can find support in an understanding ally — whether it’s a supervisor or a trusted co-worker — who knows the reason behind their work struggles. However, disclosure in a worst-case scenario can leave an employee open to direct or indirect hostility, misunderstanding, awkwardness, retribution or discrimination from an employer.

“There should be an element of dignity in work and being able to say things without any fear. But [counselors should] recognize that there are precarious elements of work that don’t make it easy for people to do that,” says Hayden, who presented “Career Development and Mental Health in the Context of COVID” at ACA’s Virtual Conference Experience. Hayden and the other counselors interviewed agree that disclosing one’s mental illness at work is a complicated issue that must be considered carefully depending on several factors, including how supportive the overall climate is at the client’s job.

Marina Williams, an LPC in Lexington, Virginia, who specializes in helping clients with work issues, stresses that clients should think carefully about what they have to gain by disclosing a mental illness in the workplace. This issue is even more complicated for clients whose work settings can involve direct or indirect repercussions if a worker is deemed unfit. Those in law enforcement, the military or jobs with a security clearance often feel particularly vulnerable about disclosing any type of mental health issue.

“Discrimination for mental health is very common,” says Williams, who presented on workplace bullying at ACA’s 2018 conference. “I recommend that clients not tell anyone [at work], but the exception to this is if they’re having such difficulty that they need to ask for accommodation in the workplace. But even then, I would limit [disclosure] to human resources.”

Hembree has also worked with clients who were treated differently after disclosing their mental illness in the workplace. She has heard clients talk about being treated like “fragile glass,” being denied job advancement or becoming the target of bullying behaviors such as being called a “snowflake.”

“It would be amazing if we lived in a post-stigma mental health world, but we are not there yet,” Hembree says. “I generally do not suggest that people disclose unless they are in a very supportive or progressive workplace.”

When the question of disclosing comes up in counseling sessions, Barnett encourages clients to think their situation through carefully. She cautions clients about oversharing and making the assumption that co-workers are friends. And she reminds her clients that the human resources department works for their employer, not for the employees. “Everything you say to human resources could go on your permanent record,” she tells clients. “Be aware that they have a duty to the company, not to you.”

Barnett once worked with a client who had mixed results after their boss learned about their mental health struggles. The client was having frequent panic attacks at work. Because the workplace was a closed, secure environment, the client couldn’t step outside easily or bring in personal items to help them cope.

The client’s boss became aware of the situation after a workplace incident triggered a panic attack and the client became visibly upset in front of him during the workday. After that, the client received what they termed “reluctant” support from their boss. The boss wasn’t cruel, but he wasn’t overly understanding either, Barnett recalls. The client’s stress also increased when the supervisor revealed that he was leaving and cautioned the employee that the next boss might not be as understanding to their situation as he had been.

What did help, however, were the coping mechanisms that the client learned and honed in counseling with Barnett, as well as a focus on quelling negative self-talk. Barnett and the client also found small ways that the client could stay mindful and calm during the workday, such as by chewing gum.

Clients who work on-site at a job may need to seek permission to leave for therapy appointments. They may also face questions or comments from co-workers about their frequent absences. If a client feels they need to explain their mental health struggles at work, a counselor can help them figure out a way to ask for leave without fully disclosing. For example, Williams says, the person could tell their boss, “I’m going through something right now, and these appointments are helping me.” It’s also OK to simply say, “I have an appointment” and leave it at that, she asserts.

Hembree agrees that disclosure can involve a range of information and doesn’t necessarily have to include details about a client’s diagnosis. She once counseled a client with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder who had trouble maintaining focus when he had to sit still for long periods of time such as in trainings or meetings. His solution was to stand and move periodically or ask for breaks with the simple explanation that he was feeling “fidgety.”

Counselors can ask clients how they feel about disclosing and how receptive their workplace might be to their mental health issues and to providing potential accommodations. Most of all, clients should disclose at a level that feels safe and comfortable to them, Hembree says.

“Everyone has to advocate for themselves, individually. That’s going to be different for every person,” she says. “For some, they are desperate to remove the stigma of mental health issues and wave that flag for everyone in their office and create a better environment for [all employees]. But that’s not for everyone. You don’t have to pick up that battle. You don’t have to be the spokesperson for depression [or another diagnosis]. You just have to do the best you can on any given day, and that may be disclosing and it might not be, or [it may be] disclosing in different ways.”

Accommodations

Employees may need to disclose a mental illness in the workplace if they are seeking accommodations that would help their situation. Possible work accommodations include being able to leave work regularly for therapy appointments, reducing an employee’s hours or responsibilities, or relocating from a cubicle to an enclosed office for increased privacy and decreased distraction, Williams notes.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) affords protections for workers, the language in the law guarantees “reasonable accommodation,” Williams points out. Counselors and clients should keep in mind that employers can make a counteroffer or refuse an employee’s request based on how reasonable they perceive it to be.

Hembree urges counselors who are unfamiliar with ADA or the protections it affords to seek continuing education on the topic, do research or consult with colleagues (including professionals in related fields such as human resources) to better support their clients. ADA also has an information hotline (ada.gov/infoline.htm) that counselors or clients can call to ask questions, she adds.

Hayden and Montgomery both suggest that counselors whose clients plan to disclose a mental illness or seek accommodations at work role-play in sessions to help clients gather their thoughts and prepare for the conversation. Hayden advises that it can be helpful for counselors and clients to explore the following questions:

What is the client hoping to gain from the conversation?

How might the conversation go? What do they anticipate happening?

What reaction might they receive? How will they respond to it?

Montgomery encourages clinicians not to make assumptions about a client’s comfort level regarding asking for things they need. Just because a client works in management or a position of authority doesn’t mean that they will easily be able to advocate for themselves, she says. Counselors should also never make assumptions based on the client’s level of education, socialization, cultural background or other factors, she adds.

“Assume everyone is terrified about asking for what they need and go from there,” Montgomery advises. “If we assume that no one is comfortable, then we don’t have to worry about offending someone or leaving someone unprepared because they’re uncomfortable asking you [their counselor] for help with learning how to ask.”

Hembree believes accommodations can be helpful for clients whose mental health struggles at work go beyond being a “nuisance” and truly interfere with their daily ability to do their job. As with disclosure, workplace accommodations — and the process to seek them — fall on a spectrum and will vary from client to client. Hembree says the documentation she has written for accommodation requests has ranged from in-depth reports for clients in government positions to a brief letter confirming that a client left work to see her for an appointment on a certain date and time. No matter the circumstance, she always has clients review the document to ensure they are comfortable with it before she submits it to their employer. She tries to focus her documentation on the client’s needs rather than the client’s problems, Hembree says.

Counselors can also work with clients to explore coping strategies that they can use on their own without having to seek an employer’s permission. In Hembree’s experience, clients have found it helpful to have fidget devices, noise-canceling headphones or calm strips (textured stickers a person can touch to soothe or ground themselves) at their desk. Customizing a workspace by adding plants or using a lamp rather than overhead florescent lighting can also be calming, she notes.

In other cases, employees can ask for measures that would help their situation without framing it as a mental health accommodation, Hembree says. For example, a client may notice that a different workspace is available in their office and ask to be moved without giving a reason.

Making work work

What is the tipping point between struggling at a job because of an underlying mental health challenge and foundering in a position that simply is not a good fit for someone with a client’s diagnosis? There’s no easy answer to that question, Williams says, but “keep soldiering through” is not a solution.

The counselors interviewed for this article agree that finding answers to this question should involve exploration of a client’s identity and how the client feels their job aligns with their identity and personal values. It can also be helpful to talk through the timeline of when a client started to struggle at work and whether that coincided with other events in their life, Williams notes.

Barnett suggests that counselors prompt clients to think about how long they’ve pictured themselves in their current role. For example, they could ask, “Have you always wanted to be in this career? Is it your life’s passion? Or is it simply a way to get dollars in your bank account?”

“You have to get to whether [the job] fits with the core of their identity,” Barnett says. Ask the client, “Is this what you really want to do? Is it your passion? Is it meeting your needs? If not, give yourself that freedom to make a choice.”

Counselors can also offer the perspective that clients don’t have to stay in a career simply because it’s what they studied in school or have been doing for years, Barnett notes. Clients can try out other careers by taking on a side job or working part time and slowly transitioning into another position if it is a good fit for them.

Above all, the client should guide the conversation, Montgomery adds. “Work, like relationships, can be a great source of purpose and meaning and can be a place where we can grow and do really exciting things and fulfill our brain’s desire for stimulation. It also can be a place where we get a paycheck, and we go home and we get all those things in other places [outside of work],” Montgomery says. “If getting purpose from work is really important to you and you want to do that, then make the decision that supports that result. But it’s also OK to just get paid and use that money to do fantastic things in other places. … We get all kinds of messaging that you should be saving the world through work. But the reality is that it’s not true for everyone. Everyone has different needs, and we just need to explore how to get those met.”

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Working our way through a pandemic

By Laurie Meyers February 25, 2021

To appropriate a turn of phrase from Queen Elizabeth II, 2020 was our collective annus horribilis (horrible year). The queen was referring to 1992, a year that featured the implosion of three royal marriages, a devastatingly destructive fire at Windsor Castle, and unfortunate headlines involving Sarah Ferguson’s new beau and his, ahem, admiration of the Duchess of York’s feet.

But as the meme goes, 2020 said to 1992, “Hold my beer.”

The year that the queen “shall not look back upon with undiluted pleasure” included family losses, property destruction and embarrassing press. Stressful, to be sure, but ultimately personal and mundane (although, granted, most of us don’t have to face the paparazzi). But 2020 pelted us with events of a virtually seismic nature that have in one way or another affected billions of lives worldwide. The emergence of the novel coronavirus was not the only stressor or calamity the year visited upon us, but it remains arguably the most disruptive. And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in people’s work lives.

When the great shutdown began in the U.S. in March 2020, most of us thought we’d be confined to the house and working virtually for only a few months. But approximately one year later, and with more than 450,000 American deaths attributed to COVID-19 through the first week of February, many people are still hunched over their makeshift office equipment.

In the beginning, some of the work-from-home snafus were funny. Newscasters broadcasting with jackets — but no pants (which seems to be the preferred work-from-home style for a surprising number of people). The boss who accidentally turned herself into a potato on Microsoft Teams and didn’t know how to change back. Amusing, embarrassing and sometimes horrifying comments and conversations caught by accidentally unmuted microphones in video conferences. Other disruptions, such as cats on the keyboard and dogs chiming in during meetings, were a bit chaotic but too cute — at least at first — for their human companions to truly complain about. But other people struggled to carve out a workspace and found themselves joining meetings from underneath the stairs or barricaded behind the bathroom door because it was the only private space in a house full of busy (and noisy) family members. Even people who frequently telecommuted pre-pandemic often found adapting to an all-virtual workplace a challenge.

Balancing work, school and child care

One of the most significant challenges to working — whether virtually or on-site — during the COVID-19 era has been the lack of child care options and the need to assist children with their virtual schooling.

“Coaching folks on how to handle their work life without child care is a big focus of my practice these days,” says Katie Playfair, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and management consultant located in Portland, Oregon.

“I tell clients to be as flexible and creative as they can in figuring out how to get their job done despite these obligations and to consider, when possible, cutting back hours to something more manageable,” she says. “As the mother of children who are 8, 6 and 2 years old, I home-school them during the day and then work from 5 p.m.-10 p.m. every evening after my spouse gets home. It’s a rough schedule.”

Playfair says many parents are having to take breaks to help with schoolwork during the day and then catching up on work themselves at night. Even children who are old enough not to need constant supervision often interrupt the workday to request a snack, to seek permission to take a break or to ask a quick homework question. As a result, parents are continually task-switching, unable to block out time for uninterrupted work, Playfair explains.

“Developing a system to communicate with older kids about when parents are interruptible and when they aren’t is vital,” she stresses. The use of physical or virtual calendars, door signs or predetermined “office hours” when they will be available to their children can help parents protect meeting times and allow for concentrated work during the day, she says.

“Providing kids with a way to table their questions until appropriate times is the other side of this equation,” Playfair continues. “They may need a whiteboard on parents’ doors or some other ways of tracking things so they don’t forget about them and get frustrated. Older kids can also be taught to email or text parents. Nonetheless, parents may still find themselves having to work nights or weekends to make up for the work that isn’t getting done during the school day.”

Even with families in which one spouse was already a stay-at-home parent before the pandemic, the virtual work and school mix can throw a wrench into the routine, says Keri Riggs, a Texas-based LPC whose specialties include relationship stressors, stress management and work-related issues. In one couple with whom Riggs worked, the mother was accustomed to structuring her day around the schedule of their middle school-age children. The family had managed to incorporate virtual school into their routine when, suddenly, the father began working remotely.

The only available workspace was the kitchen table, and the husband frequently needed everyone else to clear out of the room so he could participate in meetings. But he also recognized the need to give his wife a break — and the need to get away from the table himself — so they scheduled in lunches and other times when they would trade responsibility for the children. Because his meeting schedule varied, the couple sat down every night and plotted out the next day’s schedule, blocking off times when the kitchen needed to be in “do not disturb” mode and carving out time for breaks, says Riggs, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Fitting in the demands of work and school is even more difficult for single parents because, absent an available and willing relative or neighbor, there is no one to help shoulder their burden. Uninterrupted blocks of time may be available only when the children are asleep. However, some work-related tasks, such as meetings and phone calls, generally have to take place during the day. To help minimize disruptions, Jessi Eden Brown, an LPC whose specialties include trauma and workplace bullying, suggests parents buy or create “some kind of super-involved art project that they [children] only get to work on during meetings, so it’s kind of like a treat.”

“I don’t love this,” she continues, “but some clients have [also] had success with a television show or movie that can be started or stopped.” Brown, an ACA member, recognizes that isn’t an ideal solution, but it may be the only way that some clients can prevent interruptions in meetings. As she tells parents, with all the stressors they’re coping with, an extra hour or two of television here and there for their children is not the end of the world.

Of course, as Sharon Givens, an LPC who specializes in career development and mental health, points out, “Not everyone was able to just pick up a laptop and go home. If you’re a housekeeper, you can’t work from home.”

This is particularly problematic for single parents, she says. Some of her clients have family members who can assist with child care during the day, but others have had to relinquish their jobs. They are experiencing devastating financial difficulties that were exacerbated by the end of federally supplemented unemployment benefits.

“And, so, we’re working together to create some strategies to pay the rent,” says Givens, president-elect of the National Career Development Association, a division of ACA. Some clients have pulled money from their retirement accounts or tapped family members for financial assistance. Givens has also helped clients find local assistance programs and search for jobs that they can do from home.

The pandemic and resulting recession have demanded that counselors put on their “practical strategy hat” to help clients, Givens says. She has advised clients to speak with their mortgage company or landlord and their utility companies to see what type of deferment or other relief they can offer.

Setting boundaries and navigating distractions

The virtual office poses other challenges, such as the blurring of boundaries between work and home. By getting rid of the daily commute, office workers have gained extra time, but it has also deprived them of a natural boundary that signaled the beginning and end of the workday, Riggs says. The computer is always right there — a siren beckoning workers to check their email one last time or to do just a little more work. Suddenly, it’s midnight, and they’ve spent all day at the computer.

Riggs works with clients to replace the commute with other routines, asking what symbolizes starting and ending the workday for them. Is it taking a shower or changing out of their work clothes at the end of the day? She also suggests engaging in rituals such as hanging a “closed” sign on the computer or home office door or voicing a mantra such as “I did my best today.”

Sometimes, however, it isn’t employees who have trouble setting boundaries. American work culture is often brutal and not supportive of health and well-being, Playfair asserts.

“Unless an organization has set out to really change themselves into a more compassionate and empathetic place to work, they’re going to expect lots of hours, productivity and performance from everyone nearly all the time,” she says. “But even within this culture, there are opportunities for boundaries. First, I encourage people to ask their bosses, ‘Do you want the truth or what I think you want to hear?’ when an employee feels pressured past what they can take. Most people will choose the truth, and that will give the opportunity for healthy disclosure. I also like the phrase, ‘I wish I could do that for you, but I can’t because …’ to introduce a boundary.

“Finally, I think it’s helpful for employees to empathize with their bosses while still demanding support themselves. For example: ‘I understand that you’re short-staffed for this shift and that headquarters is expecting you to figure it out. That’s unfair. If our company would budget and plan sufficiently for contingency staffing, this wouldn’t be a problem for you or me, would it? I know they expect you to be fully staffed today, but they haven’t given you the resources to be successful with that, and I can’t personally make up for their poor planning.”

Brown encourages her clients to look for fellow employees who seem to be able to set boundaries. “Like ‘Bob’ — he always seems to sign off at 5. How does he do it?” she asks.

In other cases, Brown and the client may review their job description or the company’s policies and procedures manual to see if expectations for work hours have been set out.

Home itself can often be a distraction, Riggs notes. It can be difficult for people to focus exclusively on the work they are paid to do when they are surrounded by ever-present reminders of household tasks that also need to be completed, such as doing the laundry or loading the dishwasher. Cell phone pings announcing texts and social media notifications also beckon.

Riggs and her clients try out different solutions to find what works. This might involve setting a timer to complete 30-minute blocks of focused work, giving themselves a healthy reward for completing work, or setting up accountability partners. Riggs also suggests that, if possible, clients leave their cell phones in another room. If that isn’t feasible, she encourages clients to disable their notifications. She also counsels clients to prepare for the unexpected by allowing some margin for “white space” — a block of free, unscheduled time — during the day to attend to urgent requests or time-sensitive tasks.

The mental toll

Working under less than optimal conditions — or not working at all — has created significant challenges among a population that is already struggling with grief, Givens says. “All of us, if we’re being honest, are feeling a sense of loss: loss of activities, loss of career opportunities, loss of income.”

The uncertainty ushered in by the pandemic has challenged many clients’ coping skills, Givens says. She uses a variety of methods to help, including exploring what methods have supported clients’ ability to cope in the past. For some people, that involves more physical activity, whereas for others, it’s about increased (virtual) connection.

Givens also uses cognitive behavior therapy interventions such as having clients keep a thought record. They then look at this together and evaluate what is and what isn’t under the client’s control. “Many of them see the visual: ‘I spent four hours per day worrying about something that I couldn’t control,” she says.

Many of her clients are also engaging in frequent catastrophizing, obsessing about what will happen and whether they’re going to die in the pandemic. These concerns are natural, but some clients are mentally building worst-case scenarios, Givens notes. For these clients, she uses a different kind of thought record known as an evidence record. The concept is the same — clients write down their thoughts and then go over them with Givens — but what they’re looking for is any evidence to support the likelihood of their worst-case scenarios becoming reality.

All of the practitioners Counseling Today spoke to for this article urge clients to be patient with themselves as they navigate the myriad challenges of working during the COVID-19 era. Riggs recommends Kristin Neff’s five-minute self-compassion break (a guided version is available at self-compassion.org/guided-self-compassion-meditations-mp3-2/).

The practice begins by, as Neff puts it, “calling up a little suffering,” or reflecting on something that is currently causing stress or worry. Neff then provides a series of phrases “designed to help us remember the three components of self-compassion when we need it most.”

The first phrase is “This is a moment of suffering.” Or, as Riggs tells her clients, “I’m having a hard time today. I’m struggling.”

The second phrase is “Suffering is a part of life.” Riggs describes this as recognizing one’s connection to all of humanity: Not only am I struggling, other people struggle too. I am not alone.

The third phrase is “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” To support being kind to oneself, Neff suggests that listeners place their hand over their heart or another place on their body that feels soothing, then focus on the warmth of their hand and let that sensation stream through their fingers. She then recommends that listeners direct kind and supportive language toward themselves, such as words they might use with a friend going through a similar situation — e.g., “I’m here for you. It’s going to be OK.”

At the end of the practice or “break,” Neff asks listeners to notice how their bodies feel and to allow themselves to just “be” in the moment with those sensations.      

Riggs also suggests clients ask themselves what would make them feel better at that moment. “That’s really the hardest piece if you don’t know what you need,” she says. “Do I need to move my body? Do I need to journal? Call my best friend? Put on music? Give myself a hug?”

Finally, Riggs tells clients to remind themselves that the stress or anxiety they are currently experiencing will not last forever — that they won’t feel like this forever. Eventually, it will change.

Amid the suffering caused by the pandemic, Brown sees opportunities for personal growth. “Never before have we had … [such a] profound opportunity to slow down and focus on life’s priorities with such intention,” she says. “COVID-19 has affected nearly every person on the planet. Countless people live in fear, and many have lost family, friends, livelihoods and so much more.

“The tragedy is undeniable. That said, I have always believed that low moments like these potentially set the stage for meaningful change as we reflect on what is important and how our decisions either support or impede our progress.”

 

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The pandemic and a frayed political climate have also been at the center of various instances of workplace bullying. Read more in our online exclusive article, “No rest for the bullied.”

 

 

 

 

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

No rest for the bullied

By Laurie Meyers February 1, 2021

The climate of intolerance, anger and, to put it plainly, hate, that was encouraged to bloom during the past four years have kept Jessi Eden Brown busy as the professional coach for the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and in her private psychotherapy practice in Seattle. According to the WBI, targets of workplace bullying consistently reported more frequent and more brazen attacks, crippling sabotage, and mobbing based on known or assumed opposition to the Trump administration. Brown has seen this trend playout in her private practice and in her coaching work at the WBI. In the weeks surrounding the insurgent attack at the U.S. Capitol, two of Brown’s clients reported that workplace harassment had escalated to personal property damage.

“One had, ‘Trump 2020,’ scratched into the hood of his car in the employee parking garage,” says Brown, a licensed professional counselor. “And the other told me his locker was broken into [and] the contents [were] soaked in red paint, one day after the U.S. Capitol riot.”

The division between mask-wearers and anti-maskers during the pandemic has also created a pernicious type of bullying, Brown says. “For example, one client told me that three workplace bullies have ‘fake coughed’ in her direction for months, often followed by snickering and occasional obscene gestures. She said she considered reporting the problem to HR or management, but her last grievance resulted in retaliation, so she has opted to try to ignore it and keep wearing a mask.”

The pandemic has also contributed to an uptick in bullying in other ways, Brown says. “At the beginning of the pandemic, many of my clients reported an overwhelming sense of relief as they transitioned to remote work [and were] no longer required to face their bullies in person,” she explains. “Bullying tactics such as micromanaging, nonverbal intimidation and public humiliation were dampened by distance. However, for some clients, that period of calm was short-lived, as bullies began to weaponize the very technology we rely on to work from home. Clients told me their invitations to essential Zoom meetings were ‘somehow overlooked.’ They talked about the relative ease with which bullies manipulate reports and documents, craftily overinflating their contributions and minimizing the target’s value.”

Brown’s clients have also reported feelings of mounting isolation as they face increasing levels of resource gatekeeping.

The economic collapse brought on by the pandemic is also being wielded as a weapon, according to Brown. One client’s boss regularly makes threats such as “This is not the time to be jobless, so you really don’t want to screw up next week’s presentation.”

Brown says that, understandably, most of her bullied clients fear leaving their jobs during the pandemic, despite the abuse they are subjected to.

“Sometimes there are ways to push back and advocate for yourself; other times that may only make things worse,” she says, noting that the outcome is highly situationally dependent. “I work with my clients to explore their options and refocus whenever possible on addressing their health. Setting boundaries, boosting self-care and seeking outlets for processing pain and frustration — all might help the client survive in the job until the outlook is more positive.”

“A couple of my clients have reached their absolute limits in dealing with workplace aggressors and have opted to resign, transfer or prematurely retire despite the extraordinary uncertainty of a global pandemic,” Brown continues. “One client is taking advantage of the opportunity to return to school and recast her career in a different direction. The other is taking a bit of time off, living on savings and repairing his health — knowing he has a financial cushion of exactly six months. As that deadline draws near, we will plan out the next steps and, ideally, he will reenter the workforce feeling a bit recharged and focused on creating a fresh start.”

These are difficult situations to face in counseling, Brown acknowledges, and she sometimes becomes concerned for the safety of her clients. “First, I listen to their account of the incident, allowing the client to process the fear, anger, confusion and vulnerability that comes with being persecuted,” she says. “From there, we talk about any steps — minor as they may be — to help the client feel safer.”

For example, because his house keys and wallet were in the locker when someone broke into it, Brown’s client decided to change all of his locks at home and add two more security cameras to his home system.

In cases that involve bullying that is potentially criminal, Brown and her clients discuss whether to file a police report or take any other formal action, weighing the costs and benefits of these decisions.

“I also research and pass along any specific resources that might offer additional support for my client, such as hate crime victim support groups, PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] groups … Unfortunately,” she says, “as things continue to deteriorate in our society, it is challenging to help these individuals fully regain a sense of safety, which is something we often recognize and address openly.”

“I have witnessed the combined effects of a divisive Trump administration, a deadly global pandemic and an intense racial reckoning precipitate enduring traumatic injuries on some of my clients. Often,” Brown concludes, “I think the repair and healing work we do in therapy is only just beginning, and even more challenging times lie ahead.”

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COVID-19 has largely redefined where people work, how people work and the workplace challenges that confront employees as they try to make ends meet. Read more in the article “Working our way through the pandemic,” in the March 2021 issue of Counseling Today.

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.