December 18, 2006

Workshop developed to manage job stress SIUC students help the helpers in Maytag closing

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- As operations at the Herrin Maytag plant wind down, stress ratchets up — and not just for workers who are losing their jobs.

"Everyone here is 100 percent committed to helping these workers," says Kathleen "Kathy" Lively, executive director of Man-Tra-Con Corp., a workforce education and training company in Marion that is providing free job search assistance to Maytag's displaced employees. Nearly 1,000 people work at the plant, which will close on Friday, Dec. 22.

"This is a huge responsibility, and that's bringing stress more quickly than it would if they thought about what they do as just a job."

Luckily for the 69 Man-Tra-Con staff members, Lively anticipated the strain an extra thousand or so clients would place on her people. She arranged for the mental health equivalent of a flu shot before flu season strikes.

"Kathy Lively asked if I could put on a workshop on job stress management," said C. Keith Waugh, who heads the workforce education and development department in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Education and Human Services.

"I thought, 'Wow! What a great opportunity for our (graduate) students to be involved doing the real kind of work professionals would do.'"

Waugh and his students already had helped another regional firm, Technicolor-Universal Media Services in Pinckneyville, with a comprehensive needs assessment, done as part of a "special investigations" graduate-level course.

"The students did an outstanding job," Waugh said.

"We provided the top management at Technicolor an executive summary of activities and findings and delivered a presentation. The management group was thoroughly impressed."

Waugh had no trouble finding students to sign up for the new project. Among the 10 who answered the call was Stephen J. McCaskey, a first-year doctoral student who as a master's student the year before had worked on the Technicolor project.

The 45-year-old McCaskey, who is retired from the Navy, described both projects as "just awesome" and said applying what they'd learned in class in an actual work setting had been "excellent experience."

"I'm taking 14 hours next semester (a heavy course load; graduate students typically carry 12-hour loads), and if Dr. Waugh came up with another project, I'd sign up for it again — I really would," he said.

Working in small teams, the students searched out, presented and discussed journal articles dealing with the latest in research on job-related stress. They came up with strategies for coping with stress and the accompanying burnout it causes and used all this knowledge in developing their workshop.

They first proposed a daylong format, but Lively nixed that.

"With the extra workload (the Maytag workers bring each counselor's total client list to between 80 and 100 people), I said I thought it would add more stress to go to the stress workshop!" she said with a laugh.

The students went back and whittled it down to an hour-and-a-half session. On Nov. 17, they went to the Man-Tra-Con office and presented it twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Doing it twice had an advantage, McCaskey said.

"After the first session, Dr. Waugh gave us a little 'input' — he said, 'Gather round, young-uns!'" recounted McCaskey, chuckling.

"I do believe the second one went better."

Said Waugh, "Could improvements be made in the delivery? You bet. But this was the first time our students had done this, and they were nervous — they're not seasoned professionals, and there always has to be a first time. But I was pleased. The message got out and across."

Getting that message across felt like the biggest reward to McCaskey.

"At Technicolor, we didn't actually tell people anything they really didn't know, whereas at Man-Tra-Con, I think we really educated them, told them some things that could really help them," he said.

"I got stopped in the parking lot afterwards — people were thanking us."

Lively said she thought the staff appreciated being asked about how they were doing, and she's noticed that some are using terms they learned in the workshops. But the best gauge of any business is the repeat customer.

"Someone just last week asked me if they would have the opportunity to meet with them again," she said.

Achieving excellence in graduate and professional programs is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.