Punk Rock HR Question: The Walking Wounded

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From a reader who is tired and weary.

I don’t blame her.

Hi Laurie — this came across the legal newswires today.

Suit by Fired Legal Secretary Says Overwork After Layoffs Caused Panic Attacks

I would love the insight on this from you and your readers. I work in a law firm on the staff side. The increased workload has pushed me to the breaking point on more than one occasion in the past 18 months. I cry, drink heavily, and come back to work the next day. It didn’t occur to me that this wasn’t what pretty much any layoff survivor in any industry is going through right now — put up, shut up, and be grateful to have a job that beats you like a dog, it’s better than the dole, right?

So, here’s someone who broke and didn’t take it lying down. There were alternate paths available to me that I hadn’t even considered. Asking for help. Standing up for oneself.

Or maybe not.

What are the chances that she was an unpopular assistant to begin with? Maybe she’s know as a complainer or as unadaptable. Maybe they the firm would have loved to have down-sized her and kept on a more capable assistant, but this one had tenure.

Generally, there are more than two sides to every story … especially in HR.

This story brought up some really thought-provoking ideas for me and I would be very interested indeed in the thoughts of your readers.

This letter just breaks my heart.

I remember coworkers and friends in the insurance industry who experienced the horror of 9/11 firsthand and came back to work in the weeks and months after the attack. At the time of the attack, I worked in Chicago at Kemper Insurance as both a National Staffing Manager and HR Business Leader for the Mergers & Acquisitions division. Two big jobs. In fact, I had just returned from NYC. I was twenty-six and reported to the SVP of HR and the CFO. We had hundreds of employees in the World Trade Center. Some in New Jersey, too, who witnessed the attack from their offices across the river. No one at Kemper died, but we had a segment of our employee population who suffered from PTSD. Employees who had a strange & sad look in their eyes that never really went away.

After 9/11, I did what I could — just like every other employee at Kemper whose heart was broken by what our friends experienced. I partnered with other HR professionals and brought in the services of EAP professionals. I spent time with my colleagues in NYC at our new offices at 30 Rock — where we went through an anthrax attack on the NBC news offices. It was a long fall and winter. Sometimes we worked. Sometimes we just sat around & talked. We laughed. We ate pizza. I went ice skating in the afternoon for a mental break with one employee who was feeling pretty low.

I’m in HR. I’m not a social worker. But I don’t mind ice skating.

Sometimes the company efforts and personal efforts weren’t enough. I learned what happens when employees suffer from depression, anxiety, and get arrested for DUIs and domestic violence. Some lives were falling apart in big & robust ways. Others were suffering in silence and doing what they could to survive the day. Lots of drinking. Lots of drug use.

Just when it couldn’t get any worse in the insurance industry, it did. The company wasn’t doing well for various reasons, and I started laying off employees affected by 9/11 — and many of the remaining employees looked like zombies. More DUIs. More depression. Aggression. Anger. A heart attack. Extended absences. Random resignations from employees who just couldn’t take it anymore.

When I left the insurance business in 2003, I was relieved. It was a nightmare.

I took a new job in a completely different industry — but I didn’t stop laying off workers. In fact, I was laying off employees until the day I walked out the door in June 2007 with my own planned severance package. I learned that the modern HR Generalist is a woman who partners with her business leaders and makes strategic recommendations. I met the employees & leaders. Assessed productivity, workforce strategies, and business practices. I proposed restructuring efforts to leaders. I implemented changes. Eliminated roles. Transitioned employees out of the workforce. Moved remaining employees into different, new, and expanded roles.

The change curve is tough, my HR VPs would say. Act like a strategic HR Leader, Laurie. You are not an employee advocate.

I learned that HR in 2007 was no different than HR in 2001. It was déjà vu all over again. Severance packages. Change management training. Assistance from the EAP. Wellness & health fairs. Chair massages.

So here’s the point, dear reader.

  • I have no idea if this legal secretary is a pain-in-the-ass employee.
  • I have no idea if she is a troublemaker.
  • Is she lazy? A whiner? Making things up? Trying to scam the company? Who knows.

I am here to tell you that PTSD and exhaustion in the workforce is real. The only way I knew how to avoid the ‘contagion’ of anxiety & depression was to separate myself from the process, take control of my career, and make better choices about money.

That’s how Punk Rock HR got started. It was a simple choice to stop doing something easy (and financially profitable) and start challenging myself to do something more helpful. I think I made the right decision. I hope others find the opportunity to make different choices. Until then, please take it easy on yourself. It’s just a job.

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