How can the organization best build capacity and develop tools to avoid burnout and respond with confidence to a variety of contemporary professional circumstances, especially repeated on-the-job stabbings? This four-part series of weekly 90-minute professional development sessions will answer this question and more. Together, we will introduce numerous instructive scenarios, explore and rehearse a variety of innovative strategies, and provide ample time for the application of new ideas and fresh bandages, so that all staff members are able to confidently navigate difficult workplace circumstances, such as constantly being stabbed, over and over, or sometimes even crushed, by rocks and heavy machinery or colleagues, without sacrificing morale or productivity or precious human fluid.
To launch our series, we begin with a familiar scenario. The facilitator asks, Has this ever happened to you? You’re doing x, y, z, your usual routine, you’re really in the zone, it’s a beautiful day, life isn’t so bad, when out of nowhere a sharp object punctures your body causing precious human fluid to leak onto the floor. It happens to the best of us, the facilitator notes. Not literally, but in spirit. Some get stabbed mentally, by a tough day, the facilitator elaborates, and some of us get stabbed physically, by a long pole or blade or broken stick. Half a dozen of one, etc. That is, half a dozen broken sticks is a pretty common amount by which a person is stabbed physically on the job in this organization. However, we all know that the mind is just as important if not more important than the body, and so we have a lot of respect for those who only get stabbed mentally, like our bosses or management team, and we fully understand that repeated emotional stabbings might cause people in these positions to stab others physically, including ourselves. It makes sense. We’ll take a short pause in the session here to acknowledge and thank those who get stabbed in the mind rather than the body by repeating the mantra “the mind is real and the body is not, especially mine.” Short toasts will be encouraged.
Luckily, our first strategy is applicable across the entire spectrum of experience, with one exception. The one exception is people getting crushed on the job (even if being “crushed” is just another word for getting stabbed, albeit slowly with a very large object), which may present a hurdle, since our first strategy is a breathing exercise. The breathing exercise is a simple, in-and-out method for absorbing and expelling air that proves useful in most situations, but to ensure everyone can benefit and learn, we will provide assistance to those being crushed. The assistance will be a video of another person breathing deeply and comfortably, rather than shallowly or painfully, that people can watch and imagine themselves in. The video will be placed as close to the employee’s face as possible without disturbing the structure, process, or person currently crushing them, or stabbing them slowly with a big object, since we have been informed that these structures, processes, and persons are pivotally important, or at least expensive.
Next, participants will try the breathing exercise themselves in a safe, low-stakes environment. We ask that participants locate themselves in space. Where are you? Good. What time is it? Great. The first step in the breathing exercise is to inhale air. The facilitator shares why this commonly overlooked step is so vital. The second phase in the breathing exercise is: exhale the very same air previously absorbed. The facilitator again provides industry learnings about the key role that exhalation plays on the job, especially in response to stabbings. The body needs oxygen to heal, for example, and that’s true self-care. Participants are encouraged to try both steps in succession multiple times, to build their confidence in this new strategy, and to consider how much worse it would be if, in addition to being stabbed, they were also not breathing. “At least we have this,” the facilitator intones, taking a deep breath and stabbing someone. Participants are asked to focus on their gratitude.
The facilitator asks: Remember the scenario we opened the session with? Where you recalled a time and place where you were doing work and then got stabbed? At this point in the session, we ask that everyone literally return to the place where it happened and methodically repeat the specific moves and actions that originally engendered the stabbing. But this time, do so with confidence. Because now you can breathe.
In our next session, which aims for concreteness and practicality, we open by ruthlessly stabbing everyone as soon as they walk through the door. This ambush not only gets everyone’s energy up, it connects our session to prior experience, creating a familiar entry point for all participants, and establishes the foundation for experiential learning, as we will make these fresh wounds the focus of our session. Participants are requested not to respond to the openings in their bodies as they usually would, with worry about the future, and are instead asked to be in the moment. To scaffold this request, the facilitator guides participants through a grounding exercise that pulls on everything we learned in the previous session. Close your eyes, the facilitator says, feel yourself in space and time, be here in the now, notice your breathing, in and out, and really feel the precious human fluid accumulating on and around you. What does it remind you of? What connections can you make? What resonates with you? In a turn-and-talk activity, participants share these reflections with a partner.
Next, the facilitator leads a whole group discussion on the prompt: what could make this situation better? The participants brainstorm ideas and then categorize them into buckets like, “High Impact, Low Effort” and “Low Impact, High Effort.” As a model, the facilitator moves the example “stop stabbing us” into the “Ridiculous On Its Face” bucket and tells everyone that laughter is a form of self-care. The facilitator informs participants that all of their ideas are valid, of course, except for the one about not getting stabbed, obviously, but also that we unfortunately cannot explore them all, and so our focus for the remainder of the session will be “smaller rivers of precious human fluid” and “more joy.” The facilitator then demonstrates 1) how to bandage and close a wound with one hand while continuing to work with the other, 2) how to mop with a foot-rag without interrupting the flow of productivity, and 2) the angle at which to lean so that, in a pinch, our clothes function as an impromptu sponge. Next, the facilitator shares a powerful strategy called “look for the good” and asks everyone to write down their ten favorite things about being stabbed repeatedly at work.
The participants are put into groups where they write a short skit that includes all of the ideas from this session. The group that spills the least amount of human fluid and has the fewest performers pass out all while expressing the greatest degree of joy is declared the winner.
The remaining conscious participants sit in a circle and share their major takeaways and personal next steps. Unconscious participants are repeatedly woken up and encouraged, just absolutely encouraged, again and again and again.
The next session begins with a prompt: what are you now unable to do in life as a result of being stabbed repeatedly at work? Participants are placed into small groups where they brainstorm a list of activities that now seem impossible because of pain, injury, and fatigue. Each group shares out, and all of the ideas are collected on a poster. If they do not arise organically, the facilitator adds that common answers include: intimacy, sports, massages, hobbies, sleep, and most activities that people love. Speaking these ideas aloud validates participant experience. Next, the facilitator asks if anyone thinks the constant stabbing and crushing is ever going to stop—and whether their answer means they will never do any of these things they love again. After ample wait time, the facilitator shares that “I have some good news!” before revealing a series of slide deck images depicting people with fresh, open stab wounds engaged in rowing, badminton, cuddling, dreaming, and relaxing at the spa, etc.
The facilitator explains that we are going to explore the primary difference between the people in the pictures and the participants in the room: mindset. The facilitator explains that our ambition is to move our perception about what is responsible for our inability to do the things we love away from stabbing and toward ourselves. This is empowering because it puts us back in control. In small groups, participants visit multiple “stations” where they learn about numerous thought distortions that contribute to their limited mindset. Participants log what they are learning on a small bookmark which can be worn around the neck and serve as a constant reminder that ultimately they are responsible for their own happiness, rather than external circumstances such as repeatedly being punctured by foreign objects. As an example, one of the stations asks participants to inspect a sharp object commonly used for stabbing and to try and locate the specific part of it that is capable of stealing happiness from a human body. The learning log bookmark where they note the foolishness of this idea comes with a free lanyard and is a handy tool they can turn to in moments of need.
Participants are broken into two large groups. One group chooses a fun or relaxing activity that they love, taken from the poster made during the opening, and attempts to enjoy it. If the groups are having trouble choosing, the facilitator may suggest a short nap with soothing music. The other group’s job is to stab the members of the first group using a shared set of sticks. Then they switch. Everyone is asked to self-reflect on their own ability to rise above the fray and prioritize their happiness using the new strategy, mindset.
The session ends with all participants making commitments to do at least one thing they love and to not allow themselves to become an obstacle in the path of their own wellbeing.
Our final session begins with a “gallery walk.” Participants walk around the room looking at images and artifacts hung on the wall, each depicting common stressors such as partners, children, homes, hobbies, and dreams. Participants are encouraged to note what they “see, think, and wonder” about each representation. Next, participants are asked to reflect silently on what in their own life makes them react so stressfully to being stabbed. Which of the images most contributes to their response? Family? Friends? Hopes? Participants work in groups using a consensus protocol to rank these stressors, thus preparing everyone to use our next strategy: simplification.
Via a short video, participants are introduced to the idea of simplification: identifying and then removing unnecessary stressors from our lives so that we are better equipped to deal with those stressors that cannot be removed, such as being stabbed at work. Participants are again empowered by the knowledge of 1) what is within their locus of control (friends, family, dreams) and 2) what is not (constant stabbing). As a fun object lesson, participants play a game of whack-a-mole that gets progressively easier: in the first round, there are a lot of things popping up, each of which needs to be bopped with the foam hammer. This version produces anxiety in the player and feels terrible to participate in because it is just not possible to bop everything in time. In a second round, there are fewer things to bop, which is less stressful, and almost feels good. Finally, there is only one thing to bop, which feels great. The facilitator explains that, in this scenario, the one remaining thing is constant stabbing. Participants consider which whack-a-mole game they want their life to most resemble.
In order to practice, participants use the hierarchy generated during the opening activities and provide advice to a hypothetical employee about which stressful elements of life the hypothetical employee should consider simplifying, i.e. removing, so that their “personal whack-a-mole game” is easier to handle. The facilitator notes that there are no wrong answers—shrinking the number of stressors the hypothetical employee has to deal with will always reduce the cognitive burden, regardless of whether we begin by removing friends or family—but the facilitator also notes that an easy starting point would be dreams or ambitions. Fantasies about the future are easy to excise from our daily routine because all we have to do is not think about them anymore and/or experience firsthand their repeated failure to materialize; plus, we can all admit they were pretty pointless to begin with. The rehearsal section concludes with everyone admitting that fact in unison.
In response to the prompt, “the future is a trap but I can escape by fleeing into the present,” each participant writes one hope they will no longer allow to shackle or control them. Together, we throw these notes out the window and watch them fly away. Typically at this point in the session, we cry with relief while pure joy wracks our glorious perforated bodies with sobs. As the session and whole series concludes, everyone is given a ceremonial birth certificate that doubles as a powerfully absorbent, reusable bandage, and, in a final gesture of self-care, the whole group sings happy birthday to their new, stronger, unburdened selves.
Dolan Morgan lives and writes in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.