A Bellow from the Bowels: Workplace Stress©
One of Corrine's rituals was to review The Wall Street Journal each morning. She liked to see how the company's stock fared and to get the scoop on the company's competitors. Corrine learned early in her career that the Journal was her barometer for predicting executive pressure and stress. This tool and her professional savvy helped catapult her to director of human resources more quickly than any of her predecessors.
As she scanned the headlines, she spotted her company's name. "Oh, no!" she gasped aloud. "It's going to be hell around here for the next few weeks!" The organization had been listed as one of the country's top 10 most stressful companies to work for. "Just what I need. More stress to add to my stress," she obsessed, sipping her coffee and inhaling deeply on her cigarette. Moments later her thoughts were jarred when her secretary burst into her office.
"Corrine, Corrine! Come quick!" her secretary screamed in terror. "There's someone in the ladies' rest room and I think she's gone nuts! She's in there screaming and hollering that she can't take it any more."
"Oh my God, the papers are right," Corrine thought. "The stress here is making our employees crazy. I'm going to have a suicide right here. There goes my promotion!" Corrine worried, as she saw her career fly out the window.
"Quick, call the company doctor," she directed her secretary. "I'll run to the ladies' room."
Corrine sped down the hall. As she entered the ladies' room she heard howling and moaning at deafening levels from behind a stall door. "I can't stand another minute! This is too much! I've suffered too long!" a voice shrieked.
Corrine gently tapped on the door and spoke in a reassuring tone. "Try to stay calm. We're here. We're with you and we're going to help you."
"No one can help me," she wailed. "It's my own doing!"
To Corrine's relief, Dr. Claussan arrived as the distraught woman let out another anguished scream that echoed throughout the corridors.
"Now, dear," he said calmly, "I'm Dr. Claussan. Why don't you try to tell us what's bothering you. I'm sure we can help."
"No one can help," she repeated between sobs. "The pressure is too great. I can't live with this agony any longer," she lamented. "I've been constipated for three days, and I feel like I'm going to explode!"
"Well, I can give you something that can help. I'll send a nurse right up to assist," Dr. Claussen assured the woman.
He turned to Corrine, whose cheeks burned with embarrassment. She whispered, "You think I overreacted, perhaps?"
"Overreacted? I'd say overreacted is an understatement," he remarked condescendingly. "Do me a favor. Next time, ask a few more questions before you have me hauled out of a meeting for a problem that a nurse can handle."
"Sorry, sir," she responded sheepishly. "Can . . . can we keep this just between the two of us?"
"Of course," he winked. "After all, I'm a doctor, aren't I?"
We couldn't agree on this one. Half of us think Corrine overreacted. Perhaps she should lay off the cigarettes and switch to decaf coffee. A human resources director should remain calm even when the walls are falling in. Not only did Corrine overreact, she allowed her own anxiety and stress levels to turn a fairly minor situation into a melodrama. While Corrine may possess some "savvy," she certainly didn't show it in this set of circumstances. She should have had another employee accompany her to the rest room, assessed the situation, and then sought the appropriate resources.
We also think her actions provide insight about her personality and leadership traits. Her immediate assumption that this was a potential suicide and the sheepish way in which she addressed the doctor after discovering her mistake reflects a lack of judgment and poor self-image. There was no need to address the doctor sheepishly. Corrine made a mistake. We suspect that the source of her embarrassment stemmed from how she thought others would perceive her. She appeared to be more self-absorbed than genuinely concerned about inconveniencing the doctor. If Corrine's actions in this case demonstrate her standard operating practices, it is unlikely that she will make a good executive. Being unduly worried about the perceptions of others will detract from her ability to provide effective advice and counsel.
The other half of us think Corrine reacted properly in this situation. Having her company listed as one of the top 10 most stressful companies in the country is, indeed, pertinent here. Given all the incidents of workplace violence and other stress-related actions these days, it makes much more sense to respond quickly and affirmatively than to ignore and underreact. While it turned out to be a relatively minor medical problem, it could very well have been something more serious, such as an attempted suicide. Corrine should continue to be cognizant of warning signs that might indicate problems that are stress related. Human resources managers must take such incidents very seriously even if they later turn out to be mildly amusing, such as this one. Corrine may be a bit embarrassed by this incident, but she would be a whole lot more embarrassed if she underreacted to a real crisis.
While Corrine may have overreacted to the bellows in the ladies' room, she was correct in being concerned about stress in the company. Stress in the workplace is increasingly being blamed as the source for workers' compensation claims in cases from California to New York. Many employers, often in consultation with their workers' compensation carriers, are developing risk management programs aimed at controlling this burgeoning area.
Excerpted from Sex, Laws & Stereotypes by N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D