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January 31, 2005
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The H.R. Doctor Is In

We’re On Diversion!

Busy hospital emergency rooms or trauma centers occasionally declare themselves "on diversion." This means the organization has reached or exceeded its capacity to take on new patients in emergency situations.

ImageA hospital on diversion signals to police, paramedics and ambulance companies that emergency transport of patients should be diverted to other facilities. In most cases, other facilities are available for limited periods of time to accept patients diverted from over-packed or over-stressed organizations. The diversion does not last long, as other patients are discharged and additional capacity becomes available.

Unfortunately, public administrators and business leaders also reach or exceed individual capacities to manage under the pressures of the continuing bombardment of issues, liabilities and glitches. They may not feel they have the option to declare themselves "on diversion" and send all the other problems elsewhere to be managed even temporarily.

The same is true of organizations. Local government is especially burdened by caseload-driven and mandated programs, such as the management of jails and welfare case loads. It is true that, occasionally, a county sheriff or a federal judge will declare a jail to be at or over capacity in order that one or several limited and difficult solutions be implemented. However, in general, organizations and individuals are expected to absorb the added piles of issues and figure out ways to "just deal with them!"

When you combine this difficult workload with the fact that many managers and supervisors are not trained in handling the added stress of more cases and tighter deadlines, the result can be harmful to the health of the individual and to the success of the agency.

The continued piling on of work increases the risk of failure and lowers the morale of the employees. In turn, lower morale means higher turnover and increases in absenteeism, opportunities for union organizers, grievance filings or just poor performance and behavior.

The increased workloads mean less ability to do quality work in favor of quantity output. Where the agency is performing high liability work, such as the protection of at-risk children, infirm senior citizens in long-term care facilities or police operations, the risk of catastrophic failure because of tired or depressed employees cutting corners, or release of frustrations on an innocent party can be very great.

What are some of the treatments available, to handle the necessity of diversion? Here are some of the HR Doctor’s prescriptions:

1. The first thought may be to retreat to the obvious and traditional fall back of adding more staff, or a larger office to help meet a growing workload. In some cases, despite applying any other approach described in this article, case load increases do require more staff or a conscious decision to reduce service levels.

Huge population growth will generate many more 911 calls, for example. Some can be handled by lesser-trained and lesser paid civilian police service aides rather than sworn officers. These may include non-injury traffic accident reporting, directing traffic, school crossing guard work or some public relations functions. However, the well-trained and motivated professional police officer is the right employee to handle the majority of 911 calls on behalf of a city or county.

On the other hand, just asking for an increase in the budget, without strong consideration of other options, is not good administration.

2. Another approach is to find less costly alternatives to providing the same or perhaps even greater service. It is difficult in a government agency to use words like outsourcing or privatizing. However, the simple fact is that many government services do not have to be performed by government employees. There may be less costly staffing options available in many cases. Granted, in such situations, the idea, even if it would generate savings, will come crashing into political desires to avoid layoffs, not rock the boat with unions and other change-retarding factors.

It is also true that handing off government services to a private company may come at the price of less responsiveness and first year cost low-balling. Nonetheless, outsourcing of work which really is not a fundamental government core service is something worth increasingly and actively considering.

3. A thorough review of the way business is done should also be a requirement before any more traditional budget increases are made.

Workload complaints may be as much the result of ancient and annoyingly complicated procedures as they may be a factor of population increases. Subsequently, it may be possible, with a process improvement approach, to significantly increase the current organization’s and the current individuals’ ability to meet work requirements without adding new positions. In fact, it may well be possible to please the average citizen trying to do business with the government by simplifying procedures in a surprising and pleasant manner.

4. It is certainly possible to substitute powerful technology for some of the work that is now done manually.

Electronic document management can speed up the flow of information, while saving trees and reducing warehouse and storage needs. Laptop computers in vehicles and wireless personnel digital assistants may allow reports to be completed by field employees such as building inspectors, meter readers and police officers without the employees having to report for duty to handoff paper to some poor, struggling clerical employee. Water system operations can be remotely monitored. So can security procedures.

The HR Doctor has previously written about technology applications in Human Resources, including filing applications and candidate assessment online as well as employee self-service to reduce the time and energy involved in maintaining accurate personnel information.

When it comes to the impact technology will continue to have on our way of working, we "ain’t seen nothing yet." More employee telecommuting and 24/7 citizen service will become not only normal but the expected way of practicing public administration.

5. There is another radical concept in service delivery - collaboration, alliances and consolidated services. Yes, it may be revolutionary to talk about why an area needs to have one or two dozen separate fire departments, or even HR Departments, but increasingly the silliness, waste and inefficiency of service duplication in dueling government agencies will become more evident and give way to the logic and necessity of collaboration.

At some point, the opportunities and pressures to streamline and improve service will even override the "silos," which continue to be built between individual organizations unwilling to work together or be part of one organization, except in periods of mutual aid emergencies.

All of the diversion therapies described above apply to organizations under pressure. However, there is an equally important dimension involving the personal resilience and capacity of individuals to manage in overload circumstances. Many employees, no matter how thoughtful, educated and experienced they may be, reach a point in their work when "something’s got to give." Hopefully, what gives is not the person’s health or family life.

Clearly, work affects the success of marriage, parenting and psychological well-being as well as personal health. Just ask any Employee Assistance Program (EAP) professional. Managers need to be particularly aware of the value of being resilient in the face of high-pressure jobs. One of the keys to resilience is to maintain a broad perspective on the work and on the world.

Resilience relates to keeping a sense of humor. It also relates to being a person of diverse interests and outlooks. It is perhaps non-scientific to say that there is a correlation between how important the concept of fun is in a person’s life and how resilient they may be in the face of difficulty. However, the HR Doctor believes there is a correlation, and a strong one at that. The same is true of having a network of friends and people who are supporters and care about you.

An organization will be very well-served indeed by making employee capacity building an important organizational goal. The better, more diverse and more resilient the workforce is, the more an organization, as well as an individual, can succeed in managing new or increased challenges. Creating employee development academies, internship programs, support for continuing education, and providing developmental job assignments are all part of the success recipe!

A person can stay off diversion programs by increasing personal capacity as a human being just as we can do the same thing for a county, city or business!



Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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