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Coffee to Go

People fascinate me.

I love to observe candid snapshots of their lives. Whether I am sitting on a park bench watching children play tag, or walking in the mall observing how couples express their feelings through their body language. I guess that makes me sort of a peeping tom....but I just find people so interesting.

And, It never fails to amaze me how in the most ordinary of situations, I can receive a life lesson or even a life lesson refresher.

This past weekend, I spent in rural Georgia for Mother's Day. Taking a respite in caring for my husband (arranged for someone to stay with him), I focused on sharing quality time with my mother (who has pre-frontal dementia). My sister and her family joined me as we delivered mom's wish to attend a local crafts festival. After spending a delightful (although very hot) day with wheeling mom through each little booth, sampling the local food truck cuisine and laughing (a lot), I returned to my hotel and fell into bed, tired but satisfied. I witnessed such joy on my mother's face as she chose trinkets from several booths that she wanted for her Mother's Day gift. But I knew the joy really wasn't for the earrings or the potholders, but for the time that her two daughters were devoting and for all of the attention and love directed on her.

The next morning, the plan was to bring mom's favorite food (Popeyes Fried Chicken with red beans and rice) to her home and wait for my daughter to drive up from Birmingham to spend Mother's Day with me and her grandmother.

I woke up to my usual addiction Let me preface this story with the fact that I know I have a very strong addiction to coffee. My lying brain tells me I cannot function independently without the drug in my system. However, when I approached the hotel restaurant, I realized that everything was closed for the holiday.

No cafe.

No coffee shop.

No in-room coffee


As with any addict, just knowing I could not put my hands on coffee, made the monster cry out even more. I finally threw on some shorts and drove to the nearest waffle house. (Which, I have no doubt, will be open even during the apocalypse).

I was seated immediately, but no one came to take my order. I watched as the waitress ran back and forth between tables in front and behind me, occasionally giving me a tired look and a quiet, "I'll be with you in just a minute." But minutes kept passing. I saw someone cleaning tables next to me, and politely asked her if she could just get me a cup of coffee while I waited. She looked confused, uncertain of what to do. I kept my gaze on her and eventually she brought me some hot coffee. I thanked her profusely as she apologized for the other waitress being so busy. I assured her that now, with coffee in hand, I will drink in the patience of JOB.

Mainlining the drug of my choice, my whole body started to relax. As I sipped, I gazed around the restaurant. It surprised me to realize that apparently, I was seated in the most popular area. Our waitress, who was very attentive at the tables to which she was assigned, seemed to be running on empty. However, there were at least three other waitresses, with much less busy stations who just leaned against a counter watching. And one person just wiped off tables. "How odd", I thought. "And how inefficient".

When the waitress finally had time for me, I put in my order and enjoyed my breakfast. She was kind, attentive and apologetic. I had to ask her if the other waitress helped each other out when they had down time. She smiled and said, they typically don't leave their stations. Without further editorial, I just thanked her again for the service.

On the 20-minute drive to my mom's house, the scenario stuck in my head. I wondered if the waitress had asked for help (like I asked someone else for coffee) if she might have gotten it. I also wondered if the other waitresses had been conditioned not to see the need of others, while putting their attention on "their lane". And then, of course, I translated the question to those in the helping professions.

Burn out, unlike secondary trauma, comes from being overwhelmed in a career, and feeling unsupported. How many social workers, teachers, therapists, and such can attest to that feeling? How individual workers handle the overwhelming stress of the constant demands actually depends upon the agency culture. In other words, does the culture of the agency encourage teaming or partnering, or does it weigh individual accomplishments so heavily that it become an "every man for himself" culture? And who decides?

Agency culture is often developed over time and trickles from the top down. Much like displacement, if the agency director leads through intimidation or consequences, the manager will also lead the supervisors similarly and the supervisors will pass that culture on to the workers. Negative or punitive agency culture can turn a once productive, enjoyable office environment to one that exudes toxicity. It is in those settings that you will find the most burn out and turnover.

What can you do in an agency whose culture does not encourage teaming? Well, you might not be able to change the entire agency, but you can begin to make a difference in your "section". I wonder what would have happened if one of the other waitresses had noticed mine struggling and just went around refilling people's coffee? I mean, that would take little effort, but would go a LONG way in customer satisfaction and result in better tips for the original waitress. It's a little thing that can produce a big result. In your office, if you see a worker struggling and you find yourself with a little time on your hands, offer to make a call, fill out a form, just a little thing. You might think it would not make a difference given the amount of work left to do. But, the difference you are making is in the agency culture. Demonstrating that you are willing to be part of a team and not just look out for number one. I promise you that like a tiny rock thrown into a pond makes a small splash, the ripples continue forever.

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