Work, Culture and the Tension Headache

The_Head_AcheI recently had a conversation with a friend who, while sharing some updates about his current work environment, summed it up by simply stating “it’s just really tense.” Tense; defined as

  • stretched tight, as a cord, fiber, etc.; drawn taut; rigid.
  • in a state of mental or nervous strain; high-strung; taut: a tense person.
  • characterized by a strain upon the nerves or feelings: a tense moment.

Huh. I do believe I’ve worked there. Perhaps you have too.

My friend elaborated a bit further, His workplace, unfortunately, is characterized by a high degree of cronyism, extremely poor communication, and the fear of taking a misstep lest one piss off the powers-that-be. Any time an employee leaves (hurray!) for another organization a high percentage of co-workers make secret and furtive pleas to the soon-to-be-departed: “hey man…can you pass on my resume? Take me with you!” There is also, apparently, a hostile and defensive HR leader who contributes to the rather dismal situation. Employees expect to find a bit of humanity and care when they bring an issue or pose a query to the staff in the human resources department but, instead of attentiveness and assistance, they encounter dismissiveness.

That, in particular, makes me really sad.

While all of these things are a reflection of the overall organizational culture there are some bright spots; a few positive departmental and work team countercultures are thriving. Smart managers are keeping out the evil forces that threaten to destroy any remnants of good will and good work they’ve built within their functional areas. The fortunate few who work on those teams realize how good they’ve got it; after all they have furtive conversations with their not-so-lucky coworkers in the bathroom.


An employee heading to the office every Monday with a nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach; usually after spending a restless Sunday evening filled with dread. Staff members who paste on fake smiles whenever a member of the executive team walks past their cubicles or deigns to say “hello” in the hallway. Employees suffering with symptoms that aren’t even due to long hours, unreasonable work demands, or mentally taxing and labor-intensive duties.

Those who have endured this sort of debilitating affliction realize that relief is not available over the counter.

If you’re an organizational or HR leader your responsibility is to regularly assess, evaluate, and diagnose. Make sure your employees aren’t in continual discomfort due to the excruciating pain of tension headaches.

Merely passing the aspirin is not enough.



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