Do No Harm
How we treat our employees reflects who we are.
The most dangerous client I’d ever worked with was an eleven year old boy who was facing charges after writing a letter to a girl in his class. He threatened to rape and kill her. The school contacted authorities and when the sheriff attempted to speak with the boy, he stabbed him in the leg with a pencil.
What makes this boy so dangerous are the monster like characteristics trapped inside a child’s body. Although he was receiving wrap around services from our organization, was a ward of the court and appropriately medicated his mother was scared to go to sleep at night, rightfully so.
The not for profit organization I was employed with had a delusional expectation of a workload. I oversaw a team of seven. We carried a caseload of over 600 at all times. I was the on call for crisis 24/7/365.
I was woken during the night more often than not. Homicides, drug overdoses resulting in death, an abuser running through half inch thick glass to attack his victim and that one guy who killed his wife but swears she pushed him to do it so he shouldn’t be penalized, and the guy we’d been trying to pick up on a court ordered treatment warrant every day for a week was found dead underneath a bush in the park by local police.
I could have done this job 24 hours a day and never been done. My queue was never empty, and I did it for an annual salary of $48,270. This was the highest pay grade for team supervisors. If I wanted to have the opportunity to earn more money within the agency I would have to apply to be promoted to administration regardless of whether or not I belong sitting behind a desk.
I was admired by administration and co-workers for my ability to not react. I would instantaneously take charge of a crisis situation, delegate and in seconds coordinate a plan that would keep all parties involved safe. A significant part of my responsibility was to be prepared long before there were crisis situations to be prepared for.
I could have made more money working for a government or profit organization. At the time I took the job because I believed I was doing a good thing, the right thing. It was my first not for profit position and I was eager to dive deep into the positive we would create in the community.
I refused to submit my team to office politics, nor would I treat them how my superiors treated me, like a generalization instead of a person. At an annual salary of $29,000, I wanted to protect them so they could do their jobs. They worked for me and I built up an invisible barrier and blocked administration out. I became the go between with a finely tuned filter.
I was aware of the hard work and commitment my team had. I made it a point to acknowledge them and be hands on. I sought them out on an individual basis each morning to check in and be sure they had what they needed for a successful day. While the organization’s measurement of success was how many crisis scenes we could turn in a day, my measurement was based on how my staff felt about themselves when they went to sleep at night.
Wednesday afternoons were blocked off for a team meeting. We ate pizza and danced. We meditated and watched YouTube videos. We went on walks to the donut shop down the street. We didn’t discuss anything work related. We didn’t answer phones or respond to emails with the exception of myself responding to crisis calls if one came in.
I didn’t disguise it as a team building scheme. It was our time, the time my staff desperately needed to release the stress they endured from their workload, escape the trauma and crisis we faced on a day to day basis and to take time for themselves because work- life balance is the only way to survive the demands of any job. Employers will suck the life out of us if we allow them to. I wouldn’t.
I set the expectation from day one they were to leave their agency cellphones on their desk when they clocked out. I’m confident that 11:00 PM email can wait. For me, I viewed my team’s ‘off time’ as in no work at all.
My superiors didn’t approve of this. “You could be productive during this time,’ they complained. I disagreed. I believed we were more productive because of this time.
In Richard Brouillette’s article, “Why Therapists Should Talk Politics,” he discusses the increase in workforce pressure and the emotional impact it has on employees. “Work longer hours, uncompensated, or we will push you out.”
This is the reality and has become even more so of a standard norm since the article was published. Why are we working employees into the ground? They’re not disposable. I could weed out the weak but I’d much prefer to have staff who care about and feel good about the work they do opposed to a high turn over rate of genuinely miserable people. It’s my responsibility in a leadership position, after all.
As time went on my superiors continued to cross my boundaries. My team’s workload increased without compensation increasing. In the years I worked there I had never seen a budget for my program. As a not for profit all of our funding came from government grants and donations from private parties. I was asked to sign my name to funding reports I either never saw the money for, or was clueless on what it had been allocated to.
I felt uncomfortable and I wouldn’t do it. They thought they could push me out because of it. Instead, each time I was questioned about money I spent my response was the same. “If you can’t tell me what money there is then you can’t tell me what money there isn’t.” Programs don’t just run because someone tells you to run it. There’s so many more things required in the process, funding included.
I was woken by a phone call at 4:00 AM. It was security calling to notify me that my office was the target of a gang related drive by shooting and to inform me the police were waiting to speak with me. I spent the next five hours assisting officers with the investigation.
For my team this was one of the most unthinkable things that could happen as it was way too close to home. For my supervisors, this occurrence made me late for our morning leadership meeting and to them, was more life shattering than bullets through my office. I could have been in at the time, had I been called in for a crisis or assist during the night, and then required to waste hours filling out paperwork.
The next day I resigned, giving the organization four week notice to replace me. A part of me felt I was abandoning my team but I knew I wasn’t. In order to be respected as a good leader and a team player I have to lead by example. If I would never allow my staff to be treated in this manner, why would I allow myself to?
I stuck it out as long as I did because I believed in my team and our goal. I knew if I left the barrier would come down and they would now carry the undeserving burdens of the administrators. They eventually moved on too.