the story so far

In 2011, I was put into a compulsory redundancy pool for the first time in my life. With a background in labour relations and mental health, my expectation was that I was psychologically equipped to cope. Apparently not.


I was not just scared and ashamed; I was genuinely surprised that despite my experience of defending other people at work,  I could not do it for myself. Working for 15 years in international trade unions, running campaigns from Congo to Colombia and usually sending HRM running for the hills, how did I get  to feel so vulnerable over a job?


Working in a business school, I was also amazed at how limited the tools of our management trade are in dealing with a work crisis. Teaching employment relations and resilience at work, I knew the theory but I still found it almost impossible to wade through the powerful feelings that I had.

Often the first and most consistent piece of advice I received from colleagues was this; ‘do not, whatever you do, get angry.’ Apart from making me more angry, this top tip did not help me in handling my internal script which was dominated by fear, rage and paranoia.
To try and make sense of this, I started to write a blog for the London School of Economics (LSE) British Politics Blog called Surviving Work, which was later published as an ebook Resilience in the  Recession. The series included blogs on how to use anger at work, the employment relations systems in psychotherapy and to how to build better relationships at work from a psychoanalytic perspective.


Looking back at these blogs they are a true reflection of how I was feeling; totally raw. An image that stuck with me during that time, and one that people picked up on, was that I felt as though my insides had been attacked by a cheese-grater. But what surprised me too was the reaction from readers responding to my honesty in the blogs.


Blogging is a powerful tool to convey emotions and in my experience it can also be an important place for learning and development for writers and readers. Even virtually, I think we have a keen sense of when someone is speaking with authenticity and, even when we do not agree with what is being said, we are able to participate in genuine dialogue online. In part this may well be to do with the potential anonymity that the internet offers us and when it comes to mental health, it is often the first place that people will go to seek information and help, precisely for that reason.


This evolved into the Surviving Work Library, a free online resource made up of anonymous podcasts of people’s stories about how they survive work. The founding belief of the library is that listening to people speak with authenticity and honesty has a powerful transformative effect on us. The recordings were made at public events and online with key workers, managers, activists and service users, on topics ranging from how to protect yourself in a target-based workplace to getting on with the people you work with. At no point during these interactions did we shy away from facing up to the deep and complex realities of our working lives.

On a trip to north Wales for Mind Cymru we talked a lot about dealing with the impact of targets on working in mental health – the toxic link between impossible targets, control and command management and bullying. The anonymity of these discussions allowing people to talk about the reality of working in health care. Top Tips included “Don’t go with your gut coping strategies – usually drinking and wallowing in the misery of it all. Take a step back, concentrate on the things you can change…and take the risk of opening up with someone at work…its surprising when you open up, the nurturing side of people comes out.”


As the recordings built up people were more relaxed about talking openly, encouraged by the powerful stuff of listening to ordinary people speaking with real expertise. My experience is that many groups of working people are ready for the important debate about the realities of work; they just want to do it in a way that means they do not lose their jobs.


Listening to people’s stories about their work has taught me a great deal. Prone to existential crisis and despair as I am, the library reminds me of how brilliant other people can be. One of the most striking things about these interviews is that most of us spend long periods at work feeling totally dehumanised and with this comes isolation. Probably the most consistent piece of advice, not exactly rocket science, is to talk to someone. Easily said, hard to do and the Surviving Work Library speaks with moving authenticity about the powerful experience of talking, listening and having a real laugh.


I’ve learnt that people often use the library to remind themselves that they do actually like other humans and to spend just a few minutes at work having a humanising experience.

For the full version of this article go to Counselling at Work Spring 2015.

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