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Putting An End To The Blame Game: From Overworked & Overwhelmed to Balance & Perspective

By Katherine Craig

The pessimist complains about the wind;
the optimist expects it to change;
the realist adjusts the sails.
- William Arthur Ward

With the New Year upon us, professionals in offices across Canada are penning their personal and professional goals for 2012. Achieving a work/life balance will almost certainly be on the list for a great majority of executives, on all levels of the corporate ladder. What isn't certain, however, is the means by which they'll try to strike this balance. The perception that we are overworked is well-entrenched in office culture, however, not always justified. Sometimes our vision is blurred by the "Blame Game" - blaming outside forces for inner shortcomings; when looking for ways to strike your work/life balance, it's important that you take a close look, not just in a magnifying glass, but also in a mirror. It's a fact that our workload has increased over the past 20 years. Budget cuts, downsizing, rightsizing - whatever the label, it's true we have fewer people doing the same amount of work. While you don't always have control over the size of your workload, you most certainly have control over how you perceive and then handle that load. What's at stake if you don't? Quite a bit.

Let's take a look at an investigation conducted in Great Britain - The Whitehall Study. In 1967, researchers examined a male cohort in the highly stratified British Civil Service to establish the health effects of social and economic divisions inherent in their system, the supposition being that poverty and unemployment were determining factors in higher rates of certain types of disease (due to nutritional and material deprivation) and that the stress of greater responsibility resulted in a different set of equally serious maladies (heart disease and ulcers). The Whitehall Study revealed, surprisingly, that men in the lower ranks (janitorial, filing clerks) had a greater incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and greater mortality rates than employees in the higher ranks (senior management) despite the disparity in perceived workplace stress.

Twenty years later researchers revisited the findings, capturing data for both a male and female cohort, and set a course for ongoing measurement of 10,314 employees in the Civil Service. The Whitehall II Study sought to investigate the relationship between work, stress and health in an environment where class divisions were still very much entrenched in office culture. Their findings mirrored and elaborated upon those of the original: following the cohorts in nine 'waves' of data collection over 26 years, researchers confirmed that as they worked their way up the pay-grade ladder, subjects were consistently healthier, both mentally and physically, despite the fact that they carried jobs with greater responsibilities.

Stakeholders in Great Britain used the Whitehall II Study to examine ways physicians could better track, anticipate and prevent health problems in their aging population; the conclusions drawn from their research are contentious, but point to a lesson we can learn here in Canada. In addition to other variables, a common factor among the lower pay grades in the Whitehall sample was a lack of control. The stress-related illnesses that are the trademark of the lower ranks stem, in large part, from a belief that these individuals have no control over their work environment - the conditions, the expectations, and the remuneration. Making changes to that environment will require a significant realignment of a well-entrenched social system with history on its side; however, in Canada, where these social constructs don’t have the same influence, the impact of a lack of control can be managed by the individual.

So let's get the mirror. Are you struggling to find a balance between your work life and your personal life; do you use words like "swamped" and "impossible" to describe your workday; have you become impatient - or impassive - with your co-workers, family or friends; are you experiencing physical symptoms like chronic neck, back and stomach aches; do you feel like your cubicle is holding you hostage? Chances are the perception of your seemingly insurmountable workload has clouded your judgement and hampered your ability to cope in a constructive manner. It's time to take a step back and regroup. Follow these simple steps and regain control of your workload, and your life.

  • Take time to breathe. Find an action that calms you, e.g. a walk around your office building, and allow yourself 5-10 minutes to relax and clear your head.

  • Make a plan. Give yourself 15-20 minutes to objectively assess the tasks on your desk and ask yourself these questions:
      ☑Can I negotiate more time to address the pending issues?
      ☑Can I delegate some of these tasks to someone else in my department?
      ☑Can I partner with someone who will bring strengths and skills to streamline the process?

  • Execute. Take your plan and run with it.

Because you are constantly going to be faced with situations in which you feel overwhelmed, keep a piece of paper nearby with this list, and refer to it often. There's a reason that hotels and office buildings keep their safety procedures posted on the walls: when there's an emergency, the instructions have to be close at hand because people will be in panic-mode. When dealing with a work crisis, remember that you shouldn’t rush headlong into the fray. If your office was engulfed in flames, you wouldn't see firemen leaping off their trucks and charging into the building upon arrival. An effective first response involves calm consideration, an assessment of the situation, and the formulation of a plan. When the plan is executed, you'll also note that it's not the Captain of the fire department who goes into the burning building; the person with the big picture stays on the outside to guide the team and make decisions that ensure the safety of the crew and the assets their protecting.

You can't control the volume of your workload, but you can certainly control the way you respond; our tendency is to play the Blame Game and look for reasons why we can't possibly meet deadlines and expectations. But here's the Catch 22 of the Blame Game: it's great to play the Blame Game because it allows us to blame others for controlling our lives, which relieves us of the responsibility for change; it's horrible to play the Blame Game because it allows us to blame others for controlling our lives, making us feel terrible and preventing us from making the change ourselves. Either way, you aren't in control.

Need a starting point for managing stress and taking control of your workload? Introduce some new patterns into your life that will give you the edge you need, for example:

  • Make time for inner reflection - stay in tune with yourself.
  • Exercise - it's good the mind and the body.
  • Practice deep breathing - it really works.
  • Reward yourself - do something you truly enjoy every day.
  • Look for the upside - have a sense of humour, get a good laugh.
  • Manage your time - the tools are out there, use them.
  • Be more assertive - take control!

There are some highly effective organizational tools that can help put an end to the cycle and put you back in the driver’s seat, both at work and at home. Your challenge in the New Year is to take a good, hard look at those tools and then ask yourself, "Who’s in control here?"

For further reading visit about The Whitehall I & II Studies visit: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1674771; http://www.workhealth.org/projects/pwhitew.html; http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/34/2/251.full

Katherine Craig is the founder & CEO of Spearhead Executive Coaching, a dynamic organization dedicated to helping individuals and companies achieve greater success through the delivery of high-performance coaching programs, workshops and retreats. She welcomes your comments: katherine@spearheadexecutivecoaching.com.