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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Political Burnout and the Presenteeism Policy Hurdle

Here's a conundrum for you:
What happens when the Policy Makers in Chief (Legislators) and their core teams are victims of the same occupational mental health stresses/presenteeism issues that they are being pushed to solve?
Being a politician (or a political staffer) is a lot like parenting - the job doesn't come with a how-to manual.  Political people are largely left to sort out the day-to-day functioning of their work - what they're supposed to do, how to organize, best practices on questions to ask to solicit the answers required, filing, etc.  Those who could train them (other people in politics) can't, because they're too busy doing the job that would have been more structured and therefore, more efficient if they'd received training when they first started.
The best politicians work enormously hard at an unwieldy number of tasks; they drink from the fire hose every day, meaning they are constantly inundated with issues.  When any given day could include meetings with a sick constituent unable to care for a dying parent, a stakeholder talking about the need for increased funding for researching cures for cancer or cystic fibrosis, calls to and from the media about some local crisis, a chat with a fellow Member about a crisis they want your help in addressing, on and on, there's no possible way to stay on top of everything; it's almost inevitable that those files deemed as non-immediate crisis get left on the backburner, until they become full-blown crises of their own.  This is all before looking at the Member's family and their well-being, the isolation Members who spend their week far from home often feel and all the political commitments that come with the job of Legislator. 
The same holds true for staff - receiving often semi-clear or totally opaque direction, learning on the job, but on issues for which policy that impacts millions of lives are being written at the same time, managing stakeholders, being there for the boss as they rush between meetings, meeting stakeholders, doing research, etc., etc. - and all without training - can be, to say the least, a challenge.
There are lots of great political people out there, some (but not all) with previous experience that informs the work they do.  There are also lots of those with zero experience on the files that absorb their time, nor spare seconds to get anything other than a cursory briefing about.
In short, all the things that are identified as causal factors in presenteeism and burnout are present in politics.  Given the competitive and frequently adversarial nature of the field, though, there is an even greater stigma in politics around suggesting supports are required or maybe a break is needed.
It's great that so many Private Sector, Not-For-Profit sector and Advocacy groups are embracing the concept of occupational mental health and the need to properly support cognitive labour, but at the end of the day it will take significant policy changes at the government level for the big changes to occur across the board. 
This is why it's so important the Sun Life Financials, the Bell Canadas and the Mental Health agencies of the world collaborate and bring one powerful, shared message to government about why occupational mental health is such a critical issue for the social and economic well-being of our communities, provinces and country.
Let's work together to ensure everyone has the support they need before we all burn out.

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