|October 29, 1999||Volume 7, Number 5|
EAP staffer still championing worker rights
By Sigrid Klaus
Jan Niekamp, program assistant in the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), says she thinks she has finally found a balance between work and her "real life."
Niekamp enjoys her work in EAP and believes the office has a major role to play in easing stress levels and improving morale on campus.
"We have to try to erase the stigma that its somehow demeaning to have personal or work-related difficulties. Our office [1018 Education Building] is there to lend a helping hand, to help individuals across the campus find appropriate counselling. If youre going to talk about helping people fulfil their potential, then this office has an invaluable role to play."
Niekamps position in the 10-year-old program is mostly administrative. She books clients, makes the initial contacts with them, and does follow-ups. Norm Biram, EAPs director, does the assessments but, in his absence, Niekamp makes assessment referrals.
The work is similar to what she did as CUPE 1975 vice-president and as a member of CUPEs peer advisors. For 10 years of a 16-year stint as a secretary in Horticulture, she was very active in the union an involvement she says she gave up with some regret when she took the EAP post four years ago as ASPA equivalent.
"As V-P of the union, a union counsellor, and for three years as chair of the EAP board, I dealt with employees work-related and personal problems. In so doing, I felt I could make a difference. People seemed to trust me, whether it was interpreting the collective agreement, acting as mediator, or just being there to listen."
Over the years, she says she has seen substantial improvements in the workplace.
"I remember one case when I was active in CUPE where a secretary received in her in-basket empty coffee cups to be washed, filled, and served. I dont think that happens any more."
If theres any one person responsible for these improvements, particularly for CUPE members, Niekamp says its the late Glen Makahonuk, who died in 1997 at the age of 46 and whose memorial stands near the Arts Building.
"His commitment was an inspiration to us all. He put in endless hours, often working on briefs, reports, and grievances into the wee hours."
But, she adds, Makahonuks death also caused her to reassess her own work habits and to realize that ones prime identity doesnt come through ones job.
"In CUPE, I often worked through the lunch hour and into the evening, a habit I carried over when I went to EAP. But I finally realized how stressed I was becoming and how I was taking clients problems home with me. The stress resulted in a condition called alopecia, in which my hair began falling out.
"So I made a deal with myself. I realized that I was entitled to go for lunch. I began taking golf lessons, a hobby that has developed into a passion. I swim and I make time for family and friends. In fact, Ive begun to take on a persona not solely based on what I do."
After all, she adds, the institution doesnt benefit from employees who become workaholics.
"Usually, the most dedicated employees burn out faster than they need to, often with little thanks for the work theyve put in."
Niekamp thinks that doing more with less a phrase she says she hates has been responsible for lower employee morale.
"Everyone is stressed these days. And because people have seen the effects of downsizing, theyre glad to be left standing and are thus hesitant about complaining.
"Moreover, downsizing came when many employees were entering the so-called sandwich generation, caring for both children and aging parents. For women in particular there remains that gender-specific drive to put in long hours at work, maintain a perfect house, and be gourmet cooks and super-moms."
Over her 20 years on campus, she has maintained a high profile, particularly through regular opinion pieces she wrote for On Campus News in 1994-95 a high profile that has sometimes worked to her detriment.
"Last years editor of OCN wondered why people on campus dont debate issues more. I think I can answer that. People are afraid, and they often have reason to be. For example, when I applied for my position at EAP, a group tried to block my appointment, citing my columns as the reason.
"I dont know if most people remember them, but I can say that they werent over-the-top radical. I once recommended that we respect each other on campus more, and in another I suggested that if a group of secretaries were put together in a room, they could make some excellent, down-to-earth suggestions on how to save money. Yet these innocuous views were enough to raise peoples ire."
However, as someone who says she has "the ideals of a social activist," its hard not to speak out.
"Open debate changes things. Otherwise, how would we evolve as a society? I believe in workers rights, in the rights of the little guy, and there have to be people who can champion those rights.
"Take parking as an example. That was always an issue people on campus were concerned about and couldnt debate. And look where we are now. We have people coming into EAP who are very concerned about how theyre going to pay the back-taxes. If youre on a small salary and a tight budget, the fear of what the final amount might be can affect your ability to work effectively."
So what are some changes she would like to see on campus?
"Perhaps its a pipe dream, but I hope we can work towards a campus where each group respects the others here; where there are the same privileges and policies for everyone, unionized or not; where all groups have the freedom to speak out on matters that affect them."
Niekamp is active on a number of campus committees, such as the Presidents Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Safety Audit Committee, a sub-committee of the former; and the Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Committee.
Ultimately, shes optimistic about intra-University relations. After all, she says most of the people shes personally worked with have been very willing to participate in dialogue. That includes her present boss as well as former head of Horticulture Bryan Harvey and former dean of Agriculture John Stewart.
Moreover, she says she was pleased to speak at former Pres. George Ivanys farewell picnic in June.
"When the picnic was first held three years ago, many CUPE and ASPA members werent even allowed to go. Now I dont know of anyone who cannot. Getting together as a campus even for those few hours has helped to improve morale. And with financial constraints easing somewhat, I believe that Pres. MacKinnon can build on those improvements to create an even better rapport."
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