Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Responsibilities of Office Workers

My last post was on the rights of office workers, but along with rights go responsibilities to the people we work for as well as to each other. Thus, I’ve put together a second list of the responsibilities of office workers. As with rights, I welcome other people’s ideas about what should be changed.

As office workers, we have a responsibility . . . 
  1. To perform the tasks for which we were hired to the best of our ability.
  2. To work the agreed upon hours whenever possible, clear all schedule adjustments with our supervisors, and refrain from abusing flex-time.
  3. To take care of our own physical and mental health.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Rights of Office Workers

At the risk of being labeled a troublemaker, I believe it’s time we office workers started thinking about our rights. Some people – especially some bosses -- might find this scary. The assumption is that if office workers become aware of their rights, they’ll soon start blowing up filing cabinets and dancing naked around the water cooler. Who can say where it might end?

Rest assured, I’m not advocating revolution, at least not anytime soon. But it seems to me that historically we office workers have not done nearly so good a job as our blue collar brothers and sisters at standing up for ourselves, and that this has led to many of us feeling – and even coming to believe – that we have no rights at all when we’re at work, especially in recent decades. Too often, employers have dealt with economic challenges at the expense of quality of life for their office workers, forcing people to work longer and
faster and in progressively less comfortable conditions. As I said, I believe it’s time we started thinking about our rights.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Artist in the Office

Karen is working on her fourth novel. Although her first three novels were published and received good reviews, none of them sold enough copies to allow her to quit her day job. Jack is a fine actor who has played lead roles in community theater productions, but he’s never managed to break into the professional scene. Sam would love to create sculptures for a living, but he has a family to support. All of these people are artists who hold nine-to-five office jobs.

People talented in the arts often end up in office jobs for several reasons. First, the arts are extremely competitive, and while opportunities to earn extra pocket money doing temporary work in the arts are fairly plentiful, those that provide the artist with a decent salary and benefits are rare. Also, achieving excellence in the arts takes lots of time and energy, and office jobs with regular hours and reasonable workloads may leave the worker with more of these than all-consuming professions such as teaching, law, or medicine. And artists, like everyone, need to support themselves and their families.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Delicious Traps: Food in the Office

I still remember the day I discovered the Ice Cream Machine. It was summer, a few weeks after I was hired for my current job. For my first few days, I’d been more-or-less oblivious to my surroundings, but then one afternoon on my way to the bathroom, I happened to glance down towards the end of the long hallway and there it was, all stainless steel and colorful decals, gleaming and beckoning: the Machine. Falling into a hypnotic state, I glided towards it, money in hand. After flattening a dollar-bill, forcing it into a metal slit, and pressing a button, I watched with amazement as the little vacuum-cleaner gizmo reached out to suck up the Eskimo pie, moved it clumsily forward, then released it down into the grab-bin, from which I eagerly snatched it up. As soon as the last, delicious mouthful of creamy chocolate had slid down my throat, however, I was overwhelmed by guilt and anxiety. How was I, a treatment-resistant compulsive overeater, ever going to resist the temptation of making this a daily habit?

Each of us has different dietary needs, and to those of us whose bodies crave sugar and fat, the typical office workday often consists of encounters with one food-trap after another. If this one doesn’t get you, the next one will. You go to a meeting, and spend the whole hour inwardly arguing with yourself about the plate of doughnuts in the center of the table. A coworker invites you out for lunch, and everything on the menu looks great and has a zillion calories. You go into the kitchen for some coffee and someone has left a plate of homemade cookies. You go down to the business office and there’s a candy dish on the counter. You take a break and somehow wind up at the candy machine – again. To the non-food-addicted worker, all of these potential treats are just a way of making work fun; to the food addict, their constant presence is a major stressor.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Working in an Office Good or Bad for You? Part II. The Benefits

If you’re an office misfit like me, it may be hard for you to believe this, but hand-in-hand with the challenges that the typical office job poses to the worker’s health and well-being go aspects of the situation that can actually enhance them. Here are some of the benefits of having a job like yours:
Security: True, in today’s economy nobody’s job is completely secure. Nevertheless, having at least some degree of confidence that a given amount of money will arrive in the mail or appear on your bank statement at regular intervals can be beneficial, for however long it lasts. And having health insurance is a huge plus, not only because it reduces worry about what will happen if you get sick, but also because of the regular checkups it may pay for, not to mention appointments with a therapist or psychiatrist if you need them. Finally, as you head towards the retirement years, it’s good to know that the dollars are piling up in your pension fund. While the stresses and deprivations of office employment may be formidable, those of having no paycheck or benefits are likely to be even greater.

If you’ve ever been self-employed or worked as a homemaker, you know how difficult it can be to structure your own time. Although at the office, you may still have to prioritize tasks on your own, chances are other people may sometimes help you with this, if only by giving you deadlines. Knowing what you're to do when frees you from the stress of deciding on your own. And if nothing else, an office job with regular hours gives you a reason to get up in the morning, which is good for all of us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is Working in an Office Good or Bad for You? Part I. The Challenges

As a mental health professional doing office work, I've been in a good position to assess the ways in which having an office job can be good for your health and well being and the ways it put them at risk. This post is to share my conclusions. It's actually one of two that go together. Here I’ll talk about the challenges, and in the next post, the benefits (yes, all you office misfits, there really ARE some!). So, without further ado, let me give you my list of all the challenges I can think of that the typical office job – especially at the bottom of the pyramid – poses to mind, body and soul (you may be able to think of others and, if so, please comment):

Confinement: Being shut up in a building, often a single room or, worse yet, the infamous cubicle is, I believe, for many workers, one of the most depression-inducing aspects of the office situation. For one thing, it puts you more at risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder due to lack of sunlight; for another, if you have a certain type of brain-wiring it can make you feel claustrophobic and restless; finally, “cabin fever,” similar to what happens to families when they’re boxed up during a snowstorm, may put a strain on all office interactions. Thus, is it any wonder that so many workers compare their office jobs to doing time in a penitentiary? 

Inactivity:  Not getting enough exercise is hazardous to your life and also to your mood, not to mention your ability to concentrate. Sitting in the same position all day while typing things into a computer can damage your neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, or eyes -- though it helps to have good, ergonomic equipment -- and dealing with pain day after day gets old -- and stressful -- very fast.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Music in the Office

“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,” writes Walt Whitman, whose mechanics and carpenters, shoemakers and housewives all sing as they work.Yet Whitman fails to mention the clerks, bookkeepers, or secretaries who occupied the offices of his day. Even then, apparently, music was taboo in the office.

I’m a person who loves to sing. I take voice lessons and sing in various choral groups. At home or in the car or even walking down the street I’m always singing -- everywhere except in the office. Sometimes I even warble out a few soprano bars from an oratorio in the parking structure on my way into work. Yet the minute I pass through the glass doors of our building, it’s as if someone clamped a hand over my mouth. I’m not exactly sure what would happen if I stood in the hallway and sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” at the top of my lungs, but something tells me it wouldn’t be good. Singing in the office world is a thing one simply doesn’t do.

While singing or playing an instrument may be taboo, probably for good reason, listening has often – though not always – been considered more acceptable. In the 1980’s, my teenage son showed up at my office one day with a small “FM radio” in a wooden cabinet – one of the originals from the 1960s -- that we'd brought back when my mother moved into a retirement place. From then on, my job was a whole new ballgame. Instead of working in silence, I typed and filed to Brahms quartets and Stravinsky tone poems, listening to Detroit’s classical music station, DQRS. This was fine. I had a private office, the walls were reasonably thick, and no one ever complained. Sometimes people who came in to ask me for a research report would stop and try to guess what piece was being played, which would act as a conversation-starter.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Is Your Boss a Bully? How to Know and How to Survive

One of the blessings of my current office job is a non-bully boss with a heart as big as China. Alas, I have not always been so lucky: personally, I have known what it means to feel bullied at work, and from clients and friends I have also heard stories of outrageous abuses of managerial power.

I define “bullying” as any behavior that is meant to hurt, frighten, or humiliate someone who’s in a weaker position than one’s own. While schoolyard bullies typically use physical strength to bully weaker children, in the office, only the crassest bullies are likely to use muscle-power to terrorize their employees. Instead, their weapons are likely to consist of high voice volume, rapier-like wit, devious strategizing skills, or simply the authority to hire, fire, and promote.