Mental Health on Teams
Did you know that “burnout” is coming to the ICD-11 (due to be released in June 2022)? It’s true. Burnout will be recognized as an occupational syndrome resulting from work-related stress.
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.(World Health Organization 2019)
Lots of people talk about being “burnt out” when it comes to working, but few people understand the stresses that come with enforcing policies. Many of the day-to-day tasks which are assigned to policy enforcement professionals center around trying to get adequate, actionable information from people who are reluctant (but sometimes very angry) conversationalists, convincing customers to respond to inquiries, answering queries around policies, and telling customers that they must make changes in order to comply with policies.
No one ever wants to be told “no.” Especially when money is on the line, having to stop what you are doing and change to doing something else is a sure-fire recipe for the generation of excited emotional states. No one understands that better than the policy enforcement professional who has to engage in those discussions several times per day with several different customers.
People who enforce policies must endure people who call them names (“anti-commerce net-cop” and “Gestapo” are perennial favorites), tell them that the policies which they must enforce (but only rarely get to write) are “stupid,” “dumb,” or “just don’t work for me,” and go so far as to direct actual abuse at the agent in either written or verbal form. And, unfortunately, this abuse does not always originate from customers who are being told that they must make changes in order to comply with a policy. Almost as often, the abuse comes in almost exactly the same forms from people who are sending in complaints which they are hoping the agents will act upon — which is not really a great way to win friends or influence the people that you are hoping will do something for you.
Whether we recognize it or not, many policy enforcement professionals must deal with mental health issues on a daily basis. Going to work for these people often means that from the moment that they clock in until they clock out they are subject to being mentally or emotionally abused. (And, make no mistake, there are things that I have seen which definitely cross the line from “impassioned advocacy” and into verbal abuse.) Unfortunately, there is no light that begins to flash when an email arrives or the phone rings which warns them that “the abuse will start now.” They merely have to wait until it begins and deal with it as it happens.
That’s a pretty dire picture to paint, isn’t it? Thankfully, the vast majority of interactions that policy enforcement professionals have with both complainants and with customers are full of courtesy and understanding from all sides. While I cannot say that abuse is rare, I can say that it is not so pervasive as to make the job unbearable.
If they are lucky, they work for a company that provides them not just with adequate wages, but with adequate time off, a boss who understands the rigors of the job, and health benefits which will put them in touch with professionals who can help keep things together. But, not everyone is so lucky. This means that we have work to do as an industry.
As an industry, we must be able to come together and start talking about mental health issues. That means that we need to believe people when they tell us about abuses that they have suffered. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in positions of authority and influence need to be willing to stand up, support our employees, and be their advocates.
Believe it or not, the very best thing that we can do is just start the conversation. I’m very proud of the emphasis that the M3AAWG Abuse Desk committee has placed on mental health issues over the past year. (Full disclosure: I am one of the committee chairs and had some say in that direction.) One thing that I have noticed in our conversations is how much people want to discuss these issues, and how relieved they are when things come out into the light.
Industry associations are a good place to spread the word about issues and to find support and ideas on how to handle things, but if we really want to change things, we must start with our own teams. It means that you might have to be willing to be the first person to speak up and say something to destigmatize mental health issues on your team. It means seriously asking people how they are doing. It means taking the time to get to know the entire team well enough to know when something is actually “off.” And while we all love to push ourselves and others to do more and do it faster, maintaining the mental health of our teams might just mean taking the time to pull someone to the side and say “you know, it’s enough. Your job isn’t worth your health.”
So, will you be the person who takes a moment and says, “We’re changing this for the better, and it starts with me”?
- World Health Organization. 2019. “Burn-out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases.” World Health Organization. May 28, 2019. https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/.