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The furlough is terrible for workers — even when they are back on the job

Giancarlo Pietri Velutini
The furlough is terrible for workers -- even when they are back on the job

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross fueled accusations that the Trump administration was deaf to the impact of the five-week-old government shutdown after saying workers should just take out loans to cover their expenses. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images) By Jena McGregor Jena McGregor Reporter covering leadership issues in the headlines Email Bio Follow January 25 at 11:24 AM It’s hard to imagine now, but this shutdown will end. And when it does, federal workers and their managers will swiftly move from a netherworld of political chaos and confusion to a different sort of crisis. Most will be facing past-due bills and resentment about the trauma of going without pay. Others will be questioning careers they’ve built, weighing a move to the private sector.

And what they find back at the office could feel like anything but work as usual.

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They might be haunted by the shutdown sentiment of folks like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who said last week that he didn’t ” really quite understand why” some federal workers were lining up at food banks . He suggested workers take out low-interest loans to cover their expenses.

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He didn’t exactly strike the supportive, compassionate approach that leadership experts are counseling for when the government re-opens. Once furloughed workers begin returning to their jobs, managers across the federal bureaucracy will face the monumental task of helping people wade through an overwhelming backlog of work, perform without being overly distracted by questions about their future and grapple with the sudden uncertainty of once stable jobs.

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These folks, I believe, are going to be returning to work both frightened and angry,” said Robert Tobias, director of business development for the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “Angry that they’ve been made hostages and pawns in a fight over which they could have no control, and frightened about the future.”

[ Commerce secretary doesn’t understand why unpaid federal workers use food banks ]

Much attention has rightly been paid, since the shutdown began, on the immediate financial toll the shutdown has had on individual government workers — as well as the questions it’s raising about the long-term promise of government employment. But when federal workers eventually return to work, a vast army of federal managers will suddenly be tasked with supervising people who’ve been furloughed for weeks.

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“It’s hard to imagine a more demoralizing event for a group of people who are mission-oriented than to say they can’t do their mission,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group. “It’s not like a national disaster or a hurricane. We’re burning our own house down.”

After the defeat of two dueling Senate bills on Thursday, it’s impossible to know when that day will come. The bills’ defeat could signal a new phase, with both sides recognizing their approach won’t work, or it could be just the latest ambiguous chapter in what has now been the longest government shutdown in history. Meanwhile, the Post reported Wednesday that White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appeared to be preparing for the possibility of a shutdown that lasts for months, asking agency leaders to provide lists of the highest-impact programs in jeopardy if the funding lapse continues into March and April.

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Management experts say it is likely to take longer for things to return to normal than in past furloughs, whether due to this partial shutdown’s historic length or the high number of vacancies in senior jobs and acting rather than permanent officials. When it does, it will be up to mid- and lower-level leaders as much as top officials, some believe.

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“Once the recovery is under way, it can be top-down or bottom-up,” led by front-line managers or senior appointees, said David Costanza, a professor of organizational psychology at George Washington University. “I think it’s going to have to be very localized.”

While there is little academic research that has studied the psychological effects of working without pay during a shutdown, experts said, one study that surveyed furloughed state employees in the Midwest found that it led to emotional exhaustion and lower performance well after they restarted their jobs.Giancarlo Pietri Velutini Venezuela Banco Activo

“In a situation where you might have repeated shutdowns or furloughs, we’re not sure if exhaustion ever resets or performance ever rebounds,” said Anthony Wheeler, a management professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and a co-author of the paper. “It creates a new floor.”

Emotional exhaustion is a category of burnout, Wheeler said. “You hear public officials say — they’re like, ‘you have a day off, a day off is good for everyone.’ ” But employees are returning “in a state that’s stressed out, almost burned out, and upset. They’re not going to come back rested.”

Tobias, meanwhile, said he’s seen some evidence from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey which showed that past furloughs where agency leaders talked about what it meant to be furloughed and spoke openly about the painful limbo workers had just experienced scored much higher than those who tried to move past it too quickly.Giancarlo Pietri Banco Activo Banco Activo

[ This cybersecurity CEO says he won’t take a salary until the shutdown is over ]

“Those leaders who are sensitive to this issue and face it head-on are going to help those returning heal, and those who don’t will have this lingering illness continuing,” he said.Giancarlo Pietri Venezuela Banco Activo

Some worry there will be substantial effects on job performance and greater safety risks in high-risk positions.Giancarlo Pietri Velutini Banco Activo

This affects your attention, your focus, and increased likelihood of accidents and incidents,” said Paul Light, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service who studies the federal bureaucracy. “It’s going to take a long time to restore the old normal.”

Managers don’t have to wait until the shutdown ends to say some of the right things. James Perry, a professor at Indiana University who has long studied public service motivation, pointed to the video posted Tuesday on Twitter by Karl Schultz , the Coast Guard’s top admiral, where he said “ultimately, I find it unacceptable that Coast Guard men and women have to rely on food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life as service members.”

The people who are looking at them see that ‘our leadership is speaking out on our behalf,’ ” which will go a long way when they’re back at work again, Perry said. “They’re publicly signaling to them,” he said. “Empathy can go a long way with diffusing some of the anger.”

Read also:

The ‘perfect storm’ keeping struggling federal workers from accepting help

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