Friday, April 1, 2011

Musings about change and depression

Nearly a year has gone by since I began writing this blog. I began writing it to help me deal with the many changes that were occurring in my workplace, among other things. The changes themselves would have been difficult enough to deal with in my home country (USA), but the fact that they happened here in Norway made them even tougher. That is because it has been nearly impossible to ‘crack the code’ in terms of understanding how my workplace functions, what leaders want (or don’t want), how to get ahead, how to ‘get around’ some of the ancient rules that govern it, and so forth. It has made me feel somewhat better to know that many Norwegians in my workplace haven’t been able to make sense of the changes either. Cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless. Because unless you’ve lived in another country for a number of years, you have no idea of what can happen to you and your sense of judgment in a different culture. No matter what happens, you will always question yourself and your sense of judgment first when things don’t go as planned. Did I interpret this wrong, was I to blame, did I misunderstand the other person or the conclusions from a meeting, and so on. I have spent many years trying to fit in ‘career-wise’, trying to understand the Scandinavian corporate/business/academic mentality, doing my best, giving my all, in the quest to do a great job and to succeed as a research scientist. It has not been easy. It would not have been easy anywhere else either, but it was doubly hard here to succeed in any way because of the extra effort that had to go into trying to figure out the system. I have not been fortunate enough to have had mentors or sponsors. My husband has been a wonderful support system but he has also had difficulties of his own trying to figure out his workplace (we now work for the same hospital conglomerate, just in different locations of the city).

During the past year I have written a lot about my work life in an attempt to understand what happened to my workplace and by extension, to me and my colleagues during that time. The past three to four years have been transition years involving a lot of reorganization and restructuring associated with a huge merger of four major city hospitals, and when the dust settled, it was time to start the process over again since the powers that be who organized the first restructuring were not satisfied. And so it goes. I’ve written about colleagues who have had difficulty adjusting to all the changes; I’ve written about my own struggles adjusting to so many changes. Not all the changes have affected us directly, but even if they have not, they affect workplace morale generally, because budgets have been cut, the quality of patient care is always being questioned, research grant support has been reduced, and there is a lot of talk about the good old days when there was more money available and less bureaucracy and administration. But there is no point in talking about the old days. They are gone. There is much more bureaucratic control now, and a hierarchy of leadership that did not exist before. Is it a better system? Only time will tell. If it works out, it will be because employees made a concerted effort to make it work. There is no guarantee that it will work out, however, and that is the big gamble. The politicians who decided on this huge merger can be voted out, and the new ones who come in can in principle decide to reverse some of what has happened if they don’t like what they see. Plus there is always something new on the horizon, some new social trend or policy that can be implemented so that the legacies of different politicians will be ensured. In the meantime, huge social experiments go unremarked. I wonder if there are sociologists studying the effects of huge mergers on employees. I am waiting for the data from those studies. But so far, I haven’t heard of any such studies.  
 
Massive changes can make workers unhappy and even depressed, especially when they do not really understand what is happening around them. To be fair, despite considerable effort to keep employees informed, it is nearly impossible for a workplace to prepare them for all eventualities. But what employees want to know is not how fantastic everything is going to be once the dust settles; they want to know how the changes are going to affect them personally. They need reassurance that their jobs are not in danger. They need to hear that they are more than just chess pawns who can be pushed around on the chess board, plucked up from one area of the board and set down on another. They want to hear that they are doing a good job; they want to know that their projects can proceed as usual; they want some normalcy and stability in a highly unstable situation. There are always employees who thrive on continual change. The majority of employees thrive on stability, and that has to be recognized and accepted by workplace leaders. You cannot demand loyalty and obedience from your employees while telling them that their jobs might be in danger. You cannot tell them to ‘get out’ if they don’t like what is happening around them. This was essentially the message from one of my workplace leaders in a lecture she gave prior to a Christmas party (of all things) several years ago. Some people may have liked her style. I found it unappealing and rather tactless, because she was stating the obvious and didn’t need to. It’s aggressive and unnecessarily so. It’s not how you win friends and influence people. A better approach might have been to have said that there will be changes and that some of them may be difficult, but that we are a team and that if we all pull together, we can get through the changes and perhaps come out stronger. But she is a pawn herself in a long line of pawns that have to spout the company line. I doubt she felt comfortable spouting the rhetoric. If I am representative of the average worker, all I can say at this point in time is that the vagueness and ambiguity that existed prior to the merger have gotten larger, not smaller. It is not possible to get an overview, no matter how hard one tries. I find it difficult in any case. Do I need the overview? I don’t know. I’ve been told that I do, that it’s important to understand the workplace and management structure. Some people I know wonder who their bosses are, because in some cases, people now have three or more bosses—some who have administrative responsibility for employees, some who have the professional responsibility. But when employees ask who their new boss is, they don’t get an answer. So is it any wonder that employees get depressed?

Depression, according to the psychiatrist and author Rollo May, is the “inability to construct a future”. For some reason this definition resonated with me. I responded to it viscerally and intuitively. Why? Because it felt true. When you are depressed, you are stuck. You don’t know which way to turn, because you don’t have a clue about the future. You cannot envision your future nor can you see how to go about building or creating it. In order to create anything, you must be able to visualize it first. With depression you lose the ability to visualize the future. You are stuck in the now. All your creative and mental energy goes into figuring out the ‘now’.  It’s as though a fog settles over your head, blocking your forward view. You are forced to stop driving and to sit on the side of the road. You become passive, waiting for instructions or a road map for how to proceed further. Your energy flow gets blocked. Or you may drive around the same area over and over, stopping at the same stop sign, and not getting any further, because you have lost your sense of direction. Depression may not be a bad thing if you manage to deal with it eventually, if you get frustrated enough with being stuck. It is harmful when you give up and give in and those approaches become a permanent way of dealing with the trials that life deals out.

The Chinese talk about chi (qi), the energy flow in a person, as being an important aspect of a person’s health and life situation. It makes sense to me. If that energy flow is blocked, it will affect the health and energy level of a person. Again, I respond to this intuitively; it just makes sense. The blockage must be dealt with in order for the energy to flow. The goal is harmony for the mind and body. Sometimes it is enough just to read an inspirational text; the blockage may dissipate once the mind understands the situation in a new way. That is the beauty and the power of the written word. In other situations, a good film or conversation may achieve the same thing. The important thing is to free the energy

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