December 6, 2013
What makes postal workers go astray?
- Fishbowl Pressure . To ensure the protection and privacy of the mail, many postal employees are frequently being watched through above-the-work-floor viewing stations, two-way mirrors, etc. Not surprisingly, this kind of surveillance can induce its own brand of suspiciousness. Initially, in my rounds as a stress consultant, people were reluctant to talk with me. They assumed I was a postal inspector or a narcotics agent.
- Mail Mania . You have to be in "the belly of the beast"—that is, on the work floor of a huge postal processing and distribution plant—to appreciate the fact that the mail and handling the mail never stops! It's a 24-7 operation and the time- and task-driven nature of the business inevitably creates stress. Not surprisingly, for some folks, including yours truly, the midnight shift is a never-ending nightmare.
- Overtime . A related pressure in light of cost-cutting and price-stabilization goals is running a lean-and-mean postal ship. A consequence is less hiring of new, full-time employees and more overtime for existing workers. Overtime is definitely a double-edged sword. The pay is very good. Yet sometimes too much of a good thing may create real problems. While it's usually voluntary, too many become dependent on constant overtime just to keep up with their monthly payments and charges. So overtime becomes a necessity.
- High Pay and Nontransferable Skills . Ironically, one of the factors that may contribute to a volatile job/career situation is that many postal employees receive high wages for basically blue-collar skills. For this, they have strong union representation to thank. However, such a scenario can create stress in a couple of ways. First, for some, their skills are very postalized and do not readily transfer to other industries. Second, many blue-collar folks would not easily replicate their earning power outside the postal service if they did find an equivalent position.
- Protective Unions and Management Networks . Postal unions are often in a double-edged position. In addition to advocating for wages and benefits, they rightfully need to challenge abusive, incompetent, or unprofessional management that threatens an employees' fair wage, rights or their ability to perform safely and effectively. The dark side of this advocacy role is covering for union members who have serious work performance and/or behavioral problems (the "as-long-as-you-show-up-you're-safe" standard).
- Employee-Manager Personality Profile . Again, one keeps coming back to the double-edged nature of the Postal Service. It has a reputation of providing employment opportunities for minorities and for folks on the psychosocial margins. The USPS has also always welcomed ex-military personnel, giving them extra points on the job application/exam process. Sometimes this influx makes a volatile mix. My speculation is that you have a convergence of folks: from the Marine Corps to the inner-city hard core (and plenty of country boys, as well). One group often reveres authority, the other groups mistrust it. And numbers within all segments come from cultures in which weapons use and violence are not foreign to their social world.
- Destabilizing Effects of Downsizing . In addition to a "do more with less" environment, the postal restructuring in the '90s created stress in two fundamental ways. In the short-term, job/career transition centers that were supposed to provide positive motivation for employees, supervisors and managers without a position often had the opposite effect. These folks needed less corporate cheerleading/positive motivation and more venting, grieving and healing. As one up-and-coming employee derailed from her management fast track cried: "I once had a career path. Then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it." As with every reorganization process for which I've consulted—not just the USPS—the uncertainty, the rumor mill, the misinformation only fuels fear and resentment.
- Reliance on Temps . Another structural change in the spirit of cost-cutting was the dependence on temporary workers. Invariably, in a strong union shop, there will be tension generated between regulars and part-timers or temps. First, there's the sense of being treated like a second-class citizen. Next, regulars objected when they felt temps were taking away their overtime hours. At the same time, regulars also believed temps were excused from taking on some onerous tasks. Clearly, this primes a sibling-stepchild rivalry scenario. Is big authority playing one group against the other to divert each from focusing on a common antagonist, that is, upper management?
- Partially Disabled/Chronically Injured Employees . For a significant number of employees, repetitive motion injuries—such as back problems from chronic lifting to carpal tunnel from constant data processing—was as predictable as black lung disease for coal miners. Relatively few employees seemed to gain disability discharge. Many of these working wounded were assigned to bookshelf-like work stations where they would repair damaged letters or hand-file mail not suitable for mass sorting or posting. Often these folks with straining pain thresholds complained about the productivity expectations, limited rest breaks, etc., that management imposed. The formula seemed to be no pain, no gainful employment.
- Us vs. Them . The obvious divisions at the Processing & Distribution Plant were architectural, hierarchical and racial in nature. In the tower were air-conditioned modern offices for managers and high-tech workers, along with more white than black employees. (Fortunately, the demographics were diversifying.) The work floor was sweaty, dusty, noisy; a darkly cavernous, beware-of-being-run-over-by-a-whizzing-cart-or-truck world. The three huge, much larger than a football field, work floors, were overwhelmingly staffed by minorities. The plant was not called "The Postal Plantation" for nothing.
Believe me, holding testy 3:00 a.m. management-supervisor meetings, dealing with racial tension or helping defuse a volatile manager, supervisor or employee took a toll. I developed high blood pressure. Perhaps one night a week from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. precluded ever adapting. But I think some people are just biorythmically out of kilter working when the sun don't shine. And I believe the data overall indicates greater numbers of medical problems and even somewhat shorter life spans from years of toiling on the "graveyard shift." Is there a message here?
I witnessed overstressed employees because of insufficient sleep and prolonged work hours. And I won't even bring up "Christmas Rush," when you have to have a dire emergency to be excused from overtime.
So people experiencing some boredom or job dissatisfaction may be averse to making a career change. They don't fireproof their life with variety. It's a formula for burning out or burning up! And combined with the aforementioned indebtedness, one can imagine such an individual psychologically "losing it" if their uncommon bread-winning postal position, for whatever reason, was in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, I've also seen management play into this dysfunctional scenario. For example, one station manager overlooked or minimized the incessant, if not intimidating, razzing of two colleagues by a hard-working ex-Green Beret employer along with a cohort. I suspect the postal manager allowed this disturbed postal worker to act out some of his (the manager's) anger toward "the slackers." The manager justified his not referring "the slackers" to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) because of a previous unsatisfactory EAP experience. This EAP encounter had occurred years earlier and was not even in the same state.
In addition to an unprofessional or an inadequate manager, akin to union protection excess, there is the destructive "good ol' boy" management network. This system continues to promote, rotate (to another plant or station) and/or give second chances to individuals who should not be in management slots.
This combustible ground is not confined to supervisor-employee relations. I'll never forget the time a plant manager, a fairly charismatic leader who was building more open, trusting relations with the union and employees, called me (the stress consultant) into his office. This man, a former submarine commander, not able to sit, on the verge of tears, verbally replayed an absolutely outrageous, screamingly abusive telephone attack he had been subjected to by a higher-up executive at L'Enfant Plaza, Postal Headquarters. This plant manager's numbers weren't "good enough." This was verbal and emotional battering of the most despicable kind. A culture that still tolerates or is infected by such toxicity at the upper levels is a danger to all concerned. Toxins flow downward and invariably poison the organizational ambiance. The Postal Service, to its credit, continues trying to eradicate such destructive postal "stress carriers." Alas, it's a long, hard fight.
Another consequence of the restructuring (the workforce was reduced by 50,000, but it was not called a downsizing; this voodoo semantics also grates on people) was the removal of numbers, if not layers, of supervisors and managers. The positive aspect of such a step is a more direct chain of command and, hopefully, a more efficient two-way information flow and collaborative problem-solving. Also, some that needed to cease and desist as managers did so. The downside, of course, is the critical loss of senior people with invaluable hands-on experience and a sense of corporate history. The latter, for example, may help an organization avoid always having to reinvent the wheel. Too often, inexperienced or dysfunctional supervisors would replace effective veteran supervisors before the team had a chance to digest the change. Clearly, this is a formula for tension and conflict right out of the starting gate for a work group. And this destabilizing supervisory merry-go-round appeared to be a chronic issue, not just a glitch in response to major restructuring.
Finally, the uncertainty for temps was chronic: Would they ever become regulars? The time process was often strung out; people felt they were twisting in the wind.
In turn, management often felt there were plenty of slackers amongst these employees. (And truth be told, some were.) To prevent wandering and inappropriate socializing, these folks were also confined to a bounded area. Again, at times, I sensed some managers almost encouraged regular employees to scapegoat these "protected" workers who weren't really earning their salaries. The disabled were also a chronic mirror for "what could happen to you," the currently non-debilitated employee. I encountered several workers who played down and worked with serious pain rather than risk the stigma of even temporary banishment to the colony for the "damaged goods." This was a festering sore on the work floor.
In a racially diverse climate that involves people working in close quarters and that tolerates a high degree of razzing to break up workplace monotony, it takes an aware and skillful management to prevent these discordant elements from becoming frighteningly fractious. In one station, scratched car windows and hoods was wisely seen as a harbinger of even more hostile postal tidings. Professional conflict intervention short-circuited accelerating racial tension.