Today’s blog goes out to all those men and women who are educators in the state of Wisconsin, and specifically to all my friends who are on the faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh and the Oshkosh Area School District. All of these talented and hard-working men and women are suffering under the effects of recent legislative decisions, including a $250 million cut to the UW system. (Read the details HERE: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/07/13/gov-scott-walker-savages-wisconsin-public-education-in-new-budget/). Many will lose their jobs. Those who are chosen to remain will still have a job, but likely with a lower rate of pay, significantly reduced benefits and an ever-increasing workload. Schools will have to do more with a LOT less and everyone is afraid.
I’m writing on this topic because I have been a part of several major institutions that have experienced similar traumas and I have seen the effects these kinds of losses have on an institution, most importantly, on its employees. While the administration may be skilled at making the difficult decisions about which programs need to go, where expenses can be reduced and where benefits can be shaved, they typically have no experience in addressing the “soft” issues of grief, anxiety and fear. This was recently confirmed for me when I offered my services as a grief and transitions expert to a local institution and was told (in so many words), “Thanks, we got this!” Based on the conversations I have had with various faculty and staff who related to me the deep grief they are feeling, the chaos that is unfolding, and the fear and anxiety that have now become part of the academic culture; No, you don’t “got this.” The administration does not “got this” because, as is common in our culture, they have no knowledge of, or experience in dealing with grief or anxiety. Instead, they take the typical attitude of “get over it and move on.” This is NOT a helpful response to grief and anxiety especially when you desire productivity and effectiveness in your employees.
The analogy I like to use when addressing budget cuts such as those currently facing Wisconsin schools is that these cuts are akin to receiving a cancer diagnosis. For those who will be impacted by these cuts (not likely to be the person in charge), the greatest and unspoken fear is that of death. In this case, that they will be without a job or that the salary for the job they retain will be greatly reduced forcing them into financial hardship. The second fear is that they will not be valued for the work they are doing. When professors have to fundraise for their own programs and research, or do the work of three professors, this greatly devalues their gifts, along with the experience and passion they once brought to the job. When these fears and their resulting grief are not acknowledged and tended to, the anxiety, fear and grief begin to come out sideways. Morale decreases. Apathy sets in. Productivity decreases and company loyalty is all-but eliminated. Soon the institution suffers a mass exodus of its greatest assets – its teaching staff.
Perhaps this is what the academic institutions want – a mass exodus of their greatest assets so as to make their job easier. If people leave (in droves) of their own volition, the institution doesn’t have to make the difficult decisions of who or what to cut. I must believe, however, that this is not what our academic institutions want. I want to give educational institutions the benefit of the doubt in believing they do want to retain their quality staff and provide a supportive environment, in a difficult time, for those who choose to remain. If, this is true, then educational institutions need to be providing sound grief and transition support for their employees, faculty and staff; including training on how to manage the inherent anxiety of these kinds of transitions.
Grief support provides effective tools for moving through the faces of grief including: denial, bargaining, depression/apathy, anger and sorrow and provides resources in helping the grieving manage their anxiety. Grief support gives individuals the tools for identifying grief when it shows up and effective means for dealing with that grief. Supporting the grieving process and giving people tools for managing anxiety clears the ground for the new life that is waiting to emerge on the other side of the loss. In the case of education the new life that will emerge will be more creative, efficient and cost-effective ways of providing a quality education for people of all ages. The question facing Wisconsin schools is, do they want to arrive at this new life the hard way by denying and ignoring the grief, anxiety and fear; or through the easier path by tending to their grief? Only time will tell.