ITSD: In-house Traumatic Stress Disorder

Concept of a stressed businessman at work

Have you ever had a problem where you had to call an insurance company, cable TV provider or bank? The experience is usually frustrating, disorienting, maddening and depressing. You have to endure endless questions, call transfers, conflicting direction and feedback, waits, pushback, incompetence and a general and persistent lack of concern, empathy and accountability. By the end of the call, which if you’re lucky results in some resolution to your problem; you’re exhausted, pissed off and in need of a beer, wine or liquor of choice.

Fortunately those calls only last 30 to 60 minutes though they may feel like they go on for hours. As creatives shoehorned into a corporate bureaucratic environment with layers of staff hierarchies, policies, compliance mandates and inane legacy rules coupled with the ubiquitous “we’ve always done it this way” culture, in-house staff deal with similar challenges every hour of every day they spend at work.

It can be difficult enough at times meeting unrealistic client expectations and dealing with ordinary but frustrating client behaviors, but add to this mix having to operate in an environment not exactly set up to accommodate the unique way creative teams need to operate and we end up with a challenging work environment we have no choice but to adapt to and operate within.

It may seem like I’m just attempting to be clever or funny by coining the unique descriptor, “In-house Traumatic Stress Disorder” to label the painful condition that is an understandable reaction to typical corporate culture, but I’m not joking – I’m dead serious. The ill effects of having to not only survive, but also achieve and grow in this dysfunctional organizational environment can manifest in creatives as physical, emotional and spiritual breakdowns. It’s our jobs as leaders and members of creative teams to actively put in place practices that will minimize and counter the negative impacts we all suffer as a result of working in a toxic or rigid counterproductive workplace.

Insulate (team members from the craziness) Leadership should, as much as possible, act as the liaison between their teams and other departments and upper management so individual creatives can remain blissfully ignorant of most of the corporate political and bureaucratic shenanigans that are going on behind the scenes.

Innoculate (prep your team for challenges and acknowledge the realities – don’t sugarcoat) There are times when leadership can’t insulate the group from corporate craziness. Pretending bad stuff isn’t happening or spinning circumstances into stories disconnected from reality only increases anxiety because folks only get partial information leaving them room to imagine the worst as well as making you look incompetent and untrustworthy in their eyes. Stay calm and deliver the facts and what the potential impact for the group may be. Sometimes it may even be beneficial to proactively communicate potential bad news so when the poop hits the fan, the team is emotionally prepared for it.

Create (a culture, a tribe an oasis) There are many opportunities to establish unique rituals, creative cubicles, team talisman and mascots and inside jokes that establish a fun and safe social, physical and virtual space. I’ve seen team members stock their cube shelves with their Star Wars figurines or model car collections, plaster their walls with beautiful letterpress posters and recover their chairs with 50’s patterned fabrics. Some teams have established designer black dress-down Fridays, while others have adopted craftily adorned stuffed animals as their team totems. The goal is to have everyone breathe a sigh of relief when returning back to the group studio from forays into corporate-land.

Satiate (the desire to be creative and contribute) We’re called creatives because we’re driven to create. It’s an instinctive almost obsessive need. Look for opportunities to do that as a team. One group that I led would sign up for team creative competitions outside of work. Another volunteered their creative talents as a group to non-profits. The sense of camaraderie generated by these shared experiences not only provided creative outlets for the team they couldn’t find at work, they built and reinforced strong bonds among them.

Advocate (for policies that set your team up for success) A common painpoint for in-house groups is having to follow standardized corporate interview and performance review policies and procedures that are completely irrelevant to the creative process and associated required skills and aptitudes. There are internal creative teams who, believe it or not, successfully partnered with their HR departments to either completely modify or add to company mandated programs to design documents, forms and guidelines that are actually relevant to their teams.

Mediate (as in bring about an effect) In this case lower stress through kindness, empathy and especially humor. Nothing diffuses tension and stress more powerfully than a sympathetic comment, shared war stories over a beer and snarky gallows humor. At one engagement, we would take dopey directives and concoct mock memos taking the policies to ridiculous extremes. Our team once received a 3-page set of guidelines from Security on how to use the new entry turnstiles. We had a field day writing up long memorandums on how to close a door, turn on a light and flush a toilet.

Everyone wants to want to go to work and certainly, at a bare minimum, not be traumatized, alienated or disheartened by it. Creatives are a sensitive tribe who are particularly susceptible to corporate dysfunction. They’re also resilient, adaptable and capable of play and adopting and sustaining a healthy internal culture. Engaging in practices, both big and small every day, can have a tremendously positive impact on their bodies,  minds and spirits.

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