Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Subtle Oppressions (I): Role Overload

Originally posted on January 31, 2008

There’s a rather unpleasant yet widespread story that if a frog is put into hot water it will jump out, but if put into cold water and the water is very gradually heated, the frog won’t notice until it dies of hyperthermia (i.e., too high temperature for life). I don’t know that this is even true, but it does speak to a parallel problem in life: Many people move very gradually into a state of role overload, thinking that they should be able to handle it. Many managers and administrators ask of their subordinates just a bit more paperwork, an extra component to their expected job. The underlying myth / expectation is that if one is efficient, well-organized, and competent, this extra duty won’t be too much of a burden.

In fact, it is too much. Those extra requirements for “documentation” can be killers. There are only so many components a role can contain before it becomes overloading to most people’s ability. You can stretch it a bit with coffee or other stimulants, with the fear of being fired, becoming jobless. (In the olden olden days some people were pushed beyond their comfort zone by fear of the whip.) What makes it oppression is that most often even the managers don’t realize that there are limits, or what is actually involved in implementing some seemingly benign ruling.

National and state legislatures and other governmental councils typically throw out some new “mandated” requirement without providing compensatory funds for staffing, overtime, or other ways: The implication is that good administrators can manage to integrate such new role demands—or they wouldn’t be very good, would they? And middle managers respond to this myth and demand by squeezing the sweat from the stones of their subordinates. I’m reminded of a cartoon titled “The Dark Side of the Lone Ranger”: He’s in an office on the phone, saying, “I don’t care how you get those silver bullets, Tonto, just get them.”

I fear that there are many governmental agencies that play this way, unconsciously asking their subordinates to fulfill the requirements of the higher-ups, and denying the reality that to do so would require cutting corners, often reducing quality. Often what tends to get sacrificed first in this form of systems-oppression is the time it takes for really listening and making contact with customers, patients, the people who are supposed to be served.

That many folks at all levels in the system can sustain the denial is due to the unwillingness of anyone to say that, in effect, the emperor has no clothes. The more literal translation is that moderately competent people can not and should not be invited to become overloaded in their role demands, lest they be pushed to compromise their work and/or burn out. What is sad is that this madness is sustained by the way no one wants to speak up, protest, lest they be singled out as a complainer, thus revealing their own personal weakness or incompetence.

A complicating problem is that there are those few slackers who complain at even modest role demands.  (Remember when you were eleven? Even being asked to do chores felt like an imposition by tyrannical authorities. This is because for that pre-teen era there is really a resurgence of an unwillingness to engage in the increased responsibility and discipline that goes with the increased prerogatives and status of being “older.” Unless this is made explicit, kids want to be able to hold on to the benefits of being a relatively carefree kid while still having access to what the other older kids get.)  Good workers don’t want to be lumped in with the slackers, so that inhibits their more realistic complaints.

The problem is really part of the so-called “squeeze” on the middle class, not only economically, but also in terms of role demands. Part of this has to do with unrealistic expectations: On television situation comedies  people are shown playing out their lives with a minimal of real work and a maximum of free time. Just as Hollywood made movies with stories set in the tropics, yet there was no trouble from insects and malaria, so too does the mass media underplay the actual amounts of required work, home maintenance in life; it also over-estimates the kinds of apartments that are affordable with an average salary.  It drives greed and going into debt.

The oppression is that people are led to think they could do it, and they should be satisfied with nothing less—this is part of the actual pervasive but denied “religion” of consumerism—, and that it is reasonable to drive themselves to fulfill these role demands. They don’t seem unrealistic, but in fact they are.

People work out a fragile balance, comparing their work load and life with others. A slight shift can throw the system out of whack: One extra demand for documentation, or for assessment of work—and these can be remarkable ambiguous, so the truth is that most people don’t know how to do this extra role component—, and an eight-hour work day becomes a ten- or twelve-hour work day. Middle-class folks often take their work home with them or work overtime, often in jobs in which overtime is not compensated.

People who have a family can find a certain stable life-style, but an illness of any kind can de-stabilize it. Doctor’s visits, extra time taken in dealing with the kids, and a thousand other unexpected chores can throw a family into overload.  For example, I read a letter-to-an-advice-columnist in which a man complained that his wife is “too busy” and therefore too tired for sex. There are many approaches to this complex problem, and, while not arguing with the columnist’s answer, I did think of the possibility that the wife may have found herself in some kind of role overload situation. Even if the husband did more chores—one of the suggestions given in the reply—that might not effectively address the root. The wife might have found herself in one of those “straw that breaks the camel’s back” situations. The clue was that in the letter the man said his wife was averaging only five hours of sleep a night. I wondered about other people whose lives are pushed to the point of sleep deprivation. Are they able to resist the pressures of family and wider networks and admit they can not afford not only money, but also time, for a new pet, an extra kind of lessons for the kids, etc.?

In summary, I want to raise our consciousness to another subtle and pervasive type of oppression: Role overload. We should not be too quick to accept “the myth of efficiency,” the idea that if we could only get more organized that we could handle all the components of a given role (e.g., at work, on a committee, at home). The role needs to be analyzed in light of the present moment, the actual abilities, competing priorities, and so forth.

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