In the Trenches: Overwork and lack of clear sick day plans brews trouble

In this installment of In the Trenches, Acme finds that its doctors can't patch up a bad staffing situation.

It was 10 years ago that Maye Tennins applied for work at the Acme plant in the far south suburbs of Acmetown. Fortunately, the economy was good back then. After only one interview and a round of skill testing, she was hired as a maintenance technician, just one of about a dozen the nonunion plant hired that year. During the intervening years, Maye watched the Acme culture evolve in response to the economy. Now, with a focus on cost containment, the plant has been understaffed for several years and there’s no backup for anyone on the plant floor, including the hourly maintenance staff.

As a result, the environment was chaotic. Planning, scheduling and, consequently, efficiency left something to be desired. The technicians were constantly on the go, seeming never to have sufficient time to close out a job order completely before being called to respond to someone’s “more urgent” problem elsewhere in the plant. Technicians who were unable to deal with these stressful conditions no longer work there. The rest coped as best they could. In Maye’s case, this included seeing a therapist weekly and periodically relying on pharmaceuticals to help her keep things in perspective.

Acme’s main production line was in the middle of its most recent planned shutdown. The maintenance department, as usual, scrambled, sometimes quite ineptly, to complete repairs and upgrades during the 36-hour window the operations department allocated before production was scheduled to restart. The pressure was on, the work was hot and sweaty, and the clock kept ticking.

With her shift finally over at 4 p.m., Maye started for the locker room. The foreman, Wyatt Hertz, called her name and told her she had to work the next shift because one of the technicians had called in sick. Maye protested about being physically exhausted. She argued that she didn’t have the stamina to go for 16 straight hours at this pace. Besides, she was to be at the premiere of the high-school play in which her daughter had the lead role.

Wyatt insisted she remain on duty to ensure the maintenance work for which he’s responsible would be completed ahead of schedule. Maye asked how long ago the other technician called in sick. Wyatt replied that he knew four hours ago that Maye would need to work a double shift.

Maye called home to let her most disappointed daughter know the situation. Then she returned to work in a mood most foul. For the next hour, a grouchy Maye silently fumed about Wyatt springing his last-minute surprise that unilaterally altered the evening she had planned, assuming she could stay awake through the performance.

About an hour into the shift, Maye reached a tipping point. She picked up her tools, stowed them in her locker and hurriedly washed up. She drove home and called her therapist for an impromptu phone consultation. The therapist ultimately recommended that she take one of those green-and-yellow pills and get some sleep.

When Maye returned to the plant the next morning, Wyatt scolded and threatened her about her unauthorized departure the previous night. Maye replied that she had to leave because of a work-related injury. Wyatt immediately demanded that she go to the clinic Acme uses so that a doctor could evaluate her fitness for returning to work.

Just before lunch, the doctor reported that Maye was perfectly fit to work, but he prescribed several months of weekly psychological therapy as a condition of continued employment. Afterward, he would evaluate her again. Wyatt accepted the recommendations and ordered Maye to go to the psychology clinic that Acme uses. He added that she was to visit the clinic on her own time. Maye argued that she was already seeing her own therapist, but Wyatt insisted that she use the Acme practitioner.

During the next few months, Maye went to more than 15 one-hour weekly sessions with the Acme psychologist. Each visit required her to drive one hour each way. Although these sessions involved no out-of-pocket expense, she began to believe that this arrangement was intended to be punishment for refusing to work back-to-back shifts. It was a short hop to resenting an Acme that obligated her to waste three uncompensated hours out of her private life each week to visit a therapist with whom she felt no sense of rapport.

Maye finally got fed up with her situation. At the end of her shift the following day, she packed her personal belongings and tossed them into her car. She then walked back into the plant and told Wyatt that she was quitting, as of right now. With that, she walked out and never looked back. A few weeks later, she sued Acme, claiming that the company should have paid her time-and-a-half for the three hours involved with the 15 therapy sessions because they represented an addition to her normal 40-hour work week.

How could this situation have been avoided? Can a company dictate which practitioners an employee should be using? How much advance notice should be given if employees are needed to work beyond their normal quitting time? When is the off-work time required to fulfill a company mandate compensable? Was Maye truly obligated to work the extra shift? Can psychological stress be a work-related injury?

An academician says:

There are a couple of ways to view this problem. One is from the legal perspective. Could Acme have asked Maye to work overtime on short notice? Probably yes. Was Maye wrong in walking out? Probably yes. Did Acme have the right to determine what therapist Maye went to? Probably yes, as they were paying the freight. Should she have been compensated for her therapist visits? Probably not. And so on.

However, I don’t think any of the above will help Acme’s bottom line, nor Maye. Instead of looking at this as a legal question, we should view the problem as part of a high-performance work system. The question here is how to complete the repairs and upgrades in the shortest amount of time and quickly get the line running again (and making money for Acme). Wyatt should have had an overall plan in place that should have included a contingency plan for people calling in sick. He should have cleared the plan with the employees involved, including Maye, to make sure that there were no glitches.

If Maye said she could not be part of the contingency plan, then Wyatt would have had a couple of choices to make. He has to put someone else on the “to-call list” in case a worker isn’t available. He also has to decide whether Maye fits on the tech team. If long hours are required, as they often are on retooling projects, and Maye can’t work those hours, maybe Maye needs to be transferred to another job. Maye seems to be having some stress problems, so moving Maye to a less critical and less stressful position might benefit both Acme and Maye.

Wyatt’s overall goal should be to cut the downtime on the line to a minimum - Acme can’t make any money if it isn’t producing any product. Get it down from 36 hours to 24 hours, then 18, then 12, etc. That requires a well-designed work system that Acme has yet to figure out.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
hjohnso@luc.edu

An attorney says:

This scenario makes me wonder whether both employees and management at Acme leave their common sense at home when they come to work in the morning.

An employer can make overtime work mandatory, but at least when there’s no union collective bargaining agreement with a contrary provision, employers need to use some common sense in selecting workers to work overtime. Wyatt surely should have observed that Maye was exhausted and selected someone else to work. He also could have exercised some human compassion and given Maye a pass so she could attend her daughter’s play. Doesn’t he have kids of his own, for heaven’s sake?

Alternatively, he could have suggested that she find another worker to substitute for her on the following shift. Finally, he should have had the common courtesy to search for an employee to stand in for the absent worker when he first knew that employee would not report to work. What happened to the Golden Rule on Acme’s shop floor?

Other than at the time of a pre-employment physical, an employer has no legal right to mandate which health care provider an employee uses. Even in that situation, the employee always can refuse and walk away from the potential employment. Under some state workers’ compensation laws, however, an employer might not be obligated to pay for treatment by a health care provider the employee selected.

Even if an employee accedes to an employer’s request to consult a particular health care provider, the time spent driving to appointments and receiving treatment isn’t working time for which an employee must be paid. Working time is that time an employee expends in producing goods or delivering services on the company’s behalf.

Psychological stress can be a work-related condition, but many states’ workers’ compensation laws are extremely restrictive in recognizing psychological stress as a work-related injury.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C
(312) 499-1418
jbadel@ebglaw.com

A corporate consultant says:

There seems never to be enough resources to complete tasks and someone draws, or is handed, the short straw. The project manager is under pressure. Even so, a skilled supervisor or manager understands the balance between efficient project management and long-term team performance. People have limits in physical and psychological endurance. There are two reasons a supervisor must be mindful of the need for people to recharge their batteries.

First, people don’t leave their jobs because of compensation and work hours; people leave most often because of poor supervisor behaviors and because they don’t feel valued. The second reason is that team members’ overall wellbeing needs decompression from stressful on-the-job issues. Without time to decompress, people become fatigued, less productive and more prone to accidents and conflicts with others; all of which leads to poor long-term team performance.

I’m a big advocate of communication and trust. Supervisors should become expert communicators and their actions should be based on building trust. Acme’s supervisor had the opportunity to seek alternatives four hours earlier. Communicating the need when it became known and developing alternatives about how the work might be accomplished would have increased the trust level. If we disrespect team members by not managing the situation appropriately, we get to a critical point where the stress always is higher.

We don’t know what solutions might have been found because Wyatt didn’t anticipate the situation well. Four hours earlier, he might have found a volunteer to work the extra shift. If the overtime work was on a critical path, other less-critical work could have been delayed. Multiple people could have worked part of the extra shift. Perhaps Maye could have worked a couple of extra hours and still attended her daughter’s event.

The stated reason Wyatt needed the overtime labor was to “stay ahead of schedule.” If you’re trying to build trust, mandating overtime to “stay ahead” is a sure way to look self-centered and uncaring. Ambition can be positive when organizational objectives are the intention and negative when objective is individual performance. The inference is that Wyatt wanted to look good by staying ahead. Remember those two main reasons why people leave their jobs.

If Acme mandates medical treatment as a condition of employment, it should be compensated time. When an employee seeks treatment without an employer mandate, it should be considered either sick time or on the employee’s own time, depending on the nature of the injury or illness. Maye was already getting therapy on her own nickel because of the stress at work.

It’s tough to say whether Maye was truly obligated to work the extra shift. We’d need to know if there was a written corporate policy, collective bargaining agreement or state regulation in play. Supervisors and employees ought to know the rules and review them periodically.

An experienced, resilient employee who has survived the decline in staffing and company performance is probably more valuable to Acme than Acme is to her. If corporate culture doesn’t foster loyalty and provide satisfying work, people look for reasons to leave. Maye was an experienced and dependable person who reached her limit. Her departure will further stress the organization, which will find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain qualified workers.

Psychological stress can be work-related. It happens all the time. Think of the stress that law enforcement, medical professionals, military combat veterans and air traffic controllers experience. Work stress often is amplified by non-work stressors. Wyatt should have looked for signs of stress and for signs that people are having difficulty dealing with it. Changes in work quality or quantity are clues, as is a sustained change in demeanor. Everyone has bad days from time to time, but a noticeable, sustained change in how people deal with others or with unplanned situations can be indicators of much bigger issues.

Leaders should develop their leadership and management skills to understand and anticipate potential problems. They should anticipate and reduce stressors wherever and whenever possible. Leaders should care about getting the job done well, but also be concerned with the wellbeing of team members and overall objectives.

Learn what your organization offers in terms of resources and training to develop leadership and management skills. Avoid being the source of stressors by being more proactive in communicating, building trust and anticipating problems. Stay informed about resources available to your team members. Deal with stress issues and encourage those who need help to take advantage of available resources.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP
Organizational Reliability Professional Services Consultant
(321) 773-3356
tjmpe@alidade-mer.com

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