“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” When former President Ronald Reagan called these the “nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he may not have been thinking of the firefighters, nurses, counselors or FEMA staff, right down to the clerk at the county courthouse — most of whom work as tirelessly as they can to make a positive difference for the public.
A job in government indeed provides a chance to work toward a greater common good, but this can come at a cost. You may find yourself drowning in a sea of rules and regulations — and may not always see the immediate results of your work, according to Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization focused on helping improve government. Add to this a constant dose of public scrutiny and the stress of a government shutdown or furlough, and each day can begin to feel like a struggle.
Lura Adena Winn knows a few of these challenges from her work at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Seattle, where she has been a vocational counselor for the past 10 years. Yet she loves her job and has found strategies to combat an enormous workload and constant change.
Winn says she has survived by making sure she tries her best every day, and always leaves on time no matter how many files are teetering on the desk. This is often easier said than done. Off the job, she maintains hobbies that are interesting and fulfilling. “The better your life is outside of work, the better you can handle that 40 hours,” Winn says.
And when times get tough inside the office? “Roll with the changes and remind yourself of the mission, which is helping people,” says Winn. “I have to remember that I might be the only person that a veteran ends up talking to.”
She also avoids office politics, often excusing herself with a joke to avoid any workplace drama.
What keeps things so chaotic, or interesting depending on your perspective, can be a government reporting structure that often includes more than one supervisor. Or as Scott Eblin, a Los Angeles-based executive career coach and author of “The Next Level,” a leadership book, puts it: a “mixture of dotted lines, solid lines and no lines at all in the org chart.”
There can be an overabundance of bosses, often creating confusion, and at the same time not enough resources to get the job done effectively. So employees who are good at navigating bureaucratic red tape may become the “go to” people who take on way too many projects. They can quickly go into overload, sometimes sacrificing their health due to work demands.
Whether in management or working directly with the public, Eblin recommends creating a strategy to “manage yourself first” when you are faced with a job that can seem overwhelming. “Many working in government are in a chronic state of ‘fight or flight’ and their sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive,” he says. This doesn’t make for good decisions.
It can help to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts as the brakes for a revved up nervous system. “Once per hour get up and walk away from the computer and get the body moving to lower stress and blood pressure,” says Eblin. After a few deep breaths, everything starts moving in the right direction again.
You may also need to redefine success, suggests Eblin. Take a minute and look at the next thing on the calendar and ask yourself, if I am successful, what does that look like?” For those in government, success probably means they made things a little better — even if it takes a while to see those results.