As we had our all agency meeting at work the other day, involving mental health employees from all three of our sites and from all types of job descriptions, I was struck by something that came up as we discussed issues of cultural diversity. We had had a good presentation on diversity and how it was germane to the people that we serve everyday. Then, a few folks made observations that made me understand immediately that they felt misunderstood, unappreciated, and unacknowledged in the positive ways that they obviously felt were important.
How could that be, I thought? I started working for the local mental health center in Aiken part-time in 1991 and came on full time in 1993 for the specific reasons that I loved the patients, the clinical environment, and most of all, the people that I worked with. I have stayed at the center for almost twenty-nine years for those same reasons. Now, I know that we are not perfect, but I do get the sense that the folks I see and work with every day are basically good people, caring people, and people who care about my wellbeing as well as their own. For the most part, we cooperate, we commiserate, we collaborate, and we celebrate, all important parts of being on a team that pulls in the same direction for positive changes and outcomes. I was a bit saddened to hear that some of my coworkers do not seem to feel respected, genuinely valued, or appropriately acknowledged.
How did we get from 1991 to 2020 and this angst? I have a few ideas about what might have changed.
We work in a culture of fear-driven productivity at the expense of much else. Being a part of the management team as medical director, I understand this from a purely operational viewpoint, in that we must do a certain amount of business, bill a certain amount, collect a certain amount of money and constantly push for the provision of appropriate services to keep our doors open. Otherwise, we would not be much good or be able to provide services to anyone at all. I get that. But it does seem to me that a lot of our staff feel pressured by the numbers, the spreadsheets, and the bottom line, regardless of the emotional toll that this pressure takes on them daily. In this twenty-first century world, we have perfected the art of cranking out widgets, but we have sometimes lost our drive to connect in meaningful ways with each other in the bargain.
As a corollary to that, the time that we spend with each other, WITH each other, is minimal. I have noted, as have others, that sometimes we can pass each other in the hallways and not even acknowledge the other with a smile or a kind word of greeting. Now, there are some of us who are excellent at that kind of connection, bright rays of sunshine in an otherwise clinical gray haze, but I’m afraid many of us, myself included, can easily fall short at times. We need to connect emotionally and model that behavior that we often try to teach our patients about.
I began to think, we have lots of folks working here, lots of people like me and not like me, with different values and priorities and hopes and dreams and ways to act and dress and walk and talk and interact with others. We preach acknowledging these differences, even elevating and celebrating them in our patients, but are we failing to do the same with those who work in the offices next to us? Based on what I heard at our meeting, I’m afraid that might be the case.
Are we fostering a workplace culture of exclusion? A milieu of unfriendliness?
There is enough stress in the world right now to go around, and then some. There are social, cultural, political, and class stresses that make us wonder how we will ever get through some days. In spite of those stresses, we do get through each day.
We need to be consciously aware at home, at work, at play, wherever we are, that there are those who feel marginalized, unappreciated, unloved, unseen, and disconnected.
We must start somewhere.
Smile. Acknowledge. Say hello. Check in. Look up. Make eye contact. Tear down the wall that surrounds the milieu of unfriendliness and build your own bridge to a culture of appreciation and hope.
It starts with me, and with you.