Harder than it looks is a beautiful thing

I’ve wasted a lot of beach holidays stressing over the state of my employment relationship. Psychically speaking, I’m a Goth on a beach. Black rimmed eyes staring out under a crimped fringe, my Cassandra complex diametrically opposed to having any actual fun. 


In my defense, for those of us working in public service some summers present us with a real existential crisis. Traditionally summers are a time reserved for public sector restructuring and workforce planning.  A familiar routine of 4pm Friday redundancy emails peppered with neurolinguistic programming. The witching hour is upon us.


I realise this is not a good look to say this but Surviving Work started in 2011 when I was put in a compulsory redundancy pool and really got stuck into deep feelings of redundancy. It triggered a period of profound disorientation and disillusionment in me that you might find helpful.


Having worked for many years in international aid for trade unions, I’d for a long time held to the specter-at-the-feast school of workplace dynamics. When friends asked me to tell them about my heroic work saving lives and livelihoods on a good day I just about managed to choke out an it’s-complex-and-imperfect and at worst I’d rock slowly and admit that I’d witnessed sadism and cruelty from the very people tasked with care. Having had a decade away from the aid world I can now phrase this calmly by saying that you can never predict what people’s reactions to vulnerability will be. As this weekend’s front pages graphically and relentlessly pointed out, just because someone says they’re doing good, doesn’t mean they actually are. The world of work can absolutely turn out to be 180 degrees away from its stated aim, including those who claim something of solidarity.


I’m not saying this to annoy anyone I’m just going to tell you a fact. That every single one of my colleagues who claimed an expertise in the solidarity business didn’t lift a finger to help me. Not one. At the time this blindsided me, comrades.


The people at work who actually helped me were a motley crew made up of a Turkish teacher, a Scottish communist economist and someone I shared an office with who I always thought hated me. This was so unpredictably random that it caused a profound shift in the way that I think and work. To understand that saying is not doing, and nothing is a substitute for actual experience. That to have experienced the cold chill of redundancy and the prospect of losing your home leaves a mark. It raises your chances of seeing what’s on the horizon before some others and at best it allows you to step in to support colleagues. But I wouldn’t say in my case I experienced a full recovery and it has let me with a legacy of 4am panic attacks and a deep cynicism regarding political showmanship. 


This is not a piece about bad unions. Almost without exception globally, if you have a union in your workplace you should join it. But a huge generalisation now follows. After working in adult education for 20 years I’m pretty sure that the most self-confident and articulate are often the least capable of action. One of the occupational hazards of being politically active is that its a small step from being right to being self-righteous. What always gets under articulated in our political culture is the quiet steady developmental work that many of us do to build solidarity at work. I’m eternally grateful that I did get the help I needed but none of it came through the self-appointed voices of my workplace. Uncomfortable eh.


This experience taught me something that the universe was literally begging me to understand. That for all of us, we can’t delegate building our relationships with other people or with ourselves. Solidarity is less an ideological construct and more an everyday practice, something that those of us with an intellectual persuasion often fail to understand. It is through our relationships that the real work is done and one of the advantages of actually practicing solidarity is that our relationships just get better. As a result of being forced through the mill I have powerful, loving and genuine relationships with the people I work with and deeper relationships with my family and friends. I feel more secure and cared for than ever before which is ironic given my actual vulnerability in the workplace.


In the always wise words of Public Enemy, harder than it looks is a beautiful thing.


Over the last seven years Surviving Work has been a project essentially asking people how they do it. For many years I’ve interviewed and recorded people’s experiences of work. All of them were smart and funny, some felt like taking a bullet and you can read and listen to them at the Surviving Work Library. 


This is what I’ve learned so far. This is going to smart a bit but might be worth packing in your beach bag.


Don’t blame yourself: Do not internalise the downgrade that is taking place in our profession. It’s neither our fault, nor is it true that we are redundant. We just might be facing redundancy and there’s the profound difference.


Don’t keep calm and carry on: Probably the most consistent piece of advice I received while in the seventh circle of a compulsory redundancy pool was ‘don’t get angry’. Well, that’s a lot less useful than it sounds. Given that I was working in a progressive business school environment, surrounded by expertise in mentoring and people development, I found this really disappointing. My response to my sudden vulnerability was to design an App called No Punching or Spitting which kind of tells you where my leadership skills were at the time. In the current climate, it’s very important that we accept that we will feel things about what’s happening and that we don’t roll out the NLPs every time something important needs to be looked at. We have to learn to tolerate each other’s anger and distress and create a space where that can be expressed without losing our jobs. So when you see someone you work with cry or channel Genghis Khan walk towards them rather than away. Seriously, accept that we’re all a bit more red-sweaty-faced than we were. The only footnote is don’t swear because then the HRM will have the perfect excuse to come for you. 


Don’t be brilliant: We are all subject to the downgrading underway in public services where potentially no-one is special. If its true that many working people are not recognised or progressing because of the impossible targets that are being set for us, we are all failures. Even the ‘successful’ are working under a system that is ultimately un-winnable. Can’t have it both ways and the sooner we understand that the sooner we can get on with treating each other as equals, including in the face of redundancy. Once our professional egos have worked through the implications of that, the up side is that no longer do we have to respond to systemic failure by just working harder and more. Actual weekends and summer breaks are returned to us. 


Don’t go it alone: In the public sector we are entering a situation of professional cannibalism where we could end up eating each other just out of fear. Noa’s-arkism runs deep, dividing the workforce between people who think they’ve got a place on the boat and those of us who know we don’t. If the entire history of workplace organising tells us anything, it’s that we can all be split and divided unless we work at the everyday of our relationships. A part of going through a redundancy is the realisation that you never know who is going to help you. There are inevitable mistakes and betrayals in our working lives but the key is not to let this force you to give up on humanity. Forget those who talk but don’t walk. There are some very helpful people out there with experience of surviving work. Find them. Hold onto them. If you’re worried about colleagues don’t wait until you find their desk cleared in October, stay in touch. And since you may be wondering if your work email is being monitored, remember to get colleagues’ personal emails and phone numbers now before the summer break. 


Create Safe Spaces: We all have to get creative about where we look for solidarity. A book club could do more actual solidaristic work than a branch executive. It depends on finding the people who you can depend on and protecting those spaces where people can say what is really happening to them. Invite colleagues for coffee, set up a women’s group, anything that opens up a space. This is the real organising work ahead. 


Take a pregnant pause: There is a profound moment of pause that is required to realign to this reality. We’re all vulnerable to the fear of being redundant. It is precisely at this point we need to re-engage our self-confidence and our confidence in other working people. Rage and campaigns alone won’t answer this because survival requires an internal reorganisation about what can sustain us. A pregnant pause is required for digesting and creating a sense of what’s next. To locate an idea of a labour that feeds rather than leaves us feeling that we’ve failed at life. To nurture something that brings life and love and a promise of being worth it. 


Surviving Work will be back in the Autumn with a practical series about the methods of solidarity.


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