Employment (In)security and Shame: Working Hard on Soft Money

For those of you who are familiar with my blog, you would know that I am a long term casual academic, who last year was able to gain fractional employment within the tertiary sector under a short term contract as a professional member of staff. I am very fortunate in that this opportunity has afforded me a modicum of security and financial stability. This set of circumstances occurred at both a good and bad time for me. Last year my Dad became ill with liver cancer and died, while earlier this year my husband had to go undergo spinal surgery and is unable to work full-time while he is in recovery. In my writing I have acknowledged both my extreme privilege in being able to access paid leave concessions during these stressful experiences, while also acknowledging that the precariousness of my working situation has meant that I have never quite felt comfortable enough in my position to take full advantage of them. I am employed year-to-year and it just so happened that I was in the position of having to apply for my own position just a short time after having buried my Dad.

Needless to say, 2014 wasn’t the best year for me.

However due to my hard work, and the successes of my project, I am now acknowledged on my institution’s public webpages as a member of staff. From the outside it may appear that I may have even made it. I am liked and respected, perhaps even valued by my colleagues and peers. However the nature of my employment has meant that I have never felt like I was properly a part of the institution. Still no tinsel for me.

And soon I may not be. I very recently learned that the grant body which funds my position may be withdrawing their support for my project into 2016. Not because of any wrongdoing on my part. Not because of any dissatisfaction from the student participants of the project I am a part of, if anything the opposite is true. Not because of anyone’s individual cruelty, this is the system and the system works in its own obtuse way. Not because of budgetary mishandling or political maneouvreing or any kind of strategic misstep on my part, but simply because the priorities of this group has shifted onto other projects. This is simply the nature of soft funding, one minute you have it and the next you don’t. Now this decision isn’t fait accompli. I was tasked with writing an “impact statement” which would outline the risks to the university if funding was not to continue from this source. I wrote one, a damn good one, which made salient points about the welfare of the students and the need we were addressing. Later in the year I will learn of the outcome of this appeal. Until then I continue to work under the BAU model, making plans for the future and operating under the tenuous assumption that everything will be just fine.

I am in limbo. My position is funded up until 31 December 2015, but after that there is no certainty. If and when funding is secured (either from this original source, or internally sourced) then my job will still not likely be secure as, like last year, I will be put into the position of writing my own position description, and again applying for my own job. Sound familiar?

This is entirely circumstancial, and none of these events are a reflection of my skills, abilities, or dedication to the role that I have. I know this intellectually. I understand that a staggering 8 out of 10 workers employed within higher education in Australia are employed under either casual or short term contracts contracts (boy do I know). Lots of people know about it. The NTEU know about it. Actual Casuals know about. There has been an academic conference dedicated to these issues. I am not unlike so many of my friends and colleagues in the sector, insecure, overworked, and possibly soon even unemployed.

Then why do I feel so fucking ashamed?

Today I was on my phone at work, speaking to a friend on the phone about a conference submission we were working on. She asked me how I was and naturally, this was at the forefront of my mind. I hesitated in telling her, not because I thought she would judge me (quite the opposite in fact) but because I work in an open plan office and didn’t want the people I work with to know my secret. Because they might judge me. Because they might blame me. Because they might think I brought this upon myself with incompetence, or laziness, or stupidity.

I told my friend anyway, playing it off like it wasn’t a big deal, but I could feel my face burning. My dirty secret was out, a secret not mine to keep, a secret not a secret at all.

It has always been important to me that people know how hard I work, how dedicated I am to what I do. I am often the first to arrive in the office and among the last to leave. Now we are in the middle of Australia’s winter I frequently walk to my car in the dark, using my phone’s flashlight function to illuminate the way. I try I try I try so. fucking. hard.

Perhaps the root of my shame: I am a decidedly “working class” girl. My Dad was a hard-working electrician, my Mum “stayed at home”. We lived in a fibro house in what is classified as a Low SES area – my living situation had its own statistical category. We had a nice house and I am proud of how hard my Dad worked to provide for us, but we certainly were not “well off”. I was also the first in my family to attend university. My family was all incredibly proud of me for attending university, even if they didn’t always understand what I did there (my major was Communications, my Nan would tell people I studied primary school teaching, or psychology, or English literature, as the mood struck her). I had their full support to do the thing, even when the benefits of the thing became muddied. Even after I dropped out of my PhD there was still a certain amount of prestige for them associated with me being a “tutor” (now known as casual academic, a term which conveys prestige that tutor never did). But by withdrawing from the PhD, and never extending beyond the role of the casual academic, I feel like I failed my hardworking and principled family. Conversely I also failed the institution by never quite being good enough for them, ultimately failing to get the PhD that meant so much to me. By never properly escaping from the trap of casual academia all I proved (to myself, if no one else) was that I didn’t work hard enough. My academic successes were shared by my family and my institution, my failures were mine alone. Over time I came to reframe my misguided dedication to academia as a noble pursuit, a higher calling, to mask the shame I felt as having failed within a system in which there is little-to-no chance to succeed in the first place.

However a decade later my insistence in remaining loyal to the sector has paid off, in a fashion. I have secured work I enjoy. I am good at it. I am starting to build a profile. And now the chance exists that the rug will be pulled out from under me.

Richard Kuttner (cited in Bertram) notes that the ‘new’ economy has destabilised the central premise of the ‘old work economy’, that being that a worker’s commitment and loyal service to her employer would be rewarded over time with security and advancement opportunities. However, as Eva Bertram argues, with downsizing and deindustrialisation within the new economy, employment now comes with little to no security. As has long been discussed in regards to the increased casualisation and precarity of employment within the tertiary sector in particular, employee loyalty and commitment are a decidedly irrational decision. There is no security in higher education in Australia. While regular employment “provides the anchor for spatial and temporal aspects of daily life” (Wilson in Bertram) Bertram notes that:

Today however, incoherence and unpredictability are not only a hallmark of unemployment, but also are the characteristics of many jobs

Work in the tertiary sector in Australia is indeed both incoherent and unpredictable. It makes no sense for casual and limited term contract employees to be loyal to the tertiary institutions they work for. I know from my own experience that my loyalty, commitment, and dedication are unlikely to be acknowledged, let alone rewarded, in this current climate. Yet I was a casual academic for over a decade. I know of higher education workers who have worked for even longer on back-to-back limited-term contracts, only to find out at the eleventh hour after all of those years of service, that they didn’t have a job to return to after Christmas. I know of an exceptional academic who worked as a subject coordinator in one session, only to be scrambling for work the next. These stories aren’t the exception in higher education in Australia, they are the rule.

I knew all of those things. I know them intimately. I blog about them for goodness sake. And yet still I try. Still I commit. Still I return to my car in the dark. Still I miss the soccer practice and the school pick ups. Still I irrationally hope that my hard work will be rewarded with security, opportunities for advancement, recognition of my contribution.

As well as being ashamed, I think I am also angry. Over the twelve months I have sacrificed time I could have spent with my daughter, who this year entered kindergarten. I sacrificed time I could have used to look after myself both physically and emotionally following the illness and death of my Dad. My working class background, coupled with my long term history of precarious employment has left me feeling ashamed and guilty. I am angry at my own perceived childishness for investing in the seemingly naïve notion that hard work is always recognised and rewarded in due course. I am angry at myself. I am angry at being in this position yet again.

I know this problem is much bigger than me, my friends and colleagues, my Twitter allies. These are issues that need to be addressed at the systemic level. I don’t have answers, only a drive to see positive change in the sector that I am a part of, however tenuously. Join the #securework Tweetup on Friday and share your stories. I know I will.

The emotional toll of the toxic workplace

This post is not in reference to any particular workplace or environment I have been in, but is an amalgamation of the experiences I have had across many different workplaces. While I reference The Thesis Whisperer as a blogger I admire, my post isn’t about academia or even university specifically (I have had a life outside of this place duh). Unfortunately I don’t have any concrete answers to provide, rather, this is a thinking-through of my own reactions to the experiences I have had. 

A toxic workplace can take many forms. What one person finds intolerable, another may experience as business-as-usual combative office politics. A Google search reveals that this notion of the toxic workplace has entered the lexicon of popular culture, has become a ‘thing’. Some checklists credit specific personalities and archetypes as being responsible for this particular phenomenon, others recognise the existence of more general behavioural patterns. In my experience it can be both: it can be because of the influence of a few ‘bad seeds’, or it can be a general environment of negativity and paranoia that takes its toll on everyone. Put simply, a toxic work environment is one in which you go home at the end of the day feeling at best unfulfilled and depressed, and at worst angry and anxious.  In my experience  these feelings creep up on you. At first you attribute your unhappiness to isolated incidences, or to particular people who you work with, however eventually you come to realise that these events aren’t isolated, but patterns of unhealthy behaviour that, if unchecked, can repeat themselves for months and years at a time and cause untold emotional suffering.

The Thesis Whisperer’s post ‘Academic assholes and the circle of niceness’ examines the phenomenon of toxic individuals (“assholes”) as present specifically within academia.  Citing Robert Sutton in his book ‘The No Asshole Rule’, TTW notes that being an asshole (arsehole?) is advantageous, and while workplace assholes may not be popular, they do end up being respected more, and their behaviour may even end up being emulated by the people who work underneath them. TTW continues:

Appearing clever is a route to power and promotion. If performing like an asshole in a public forum creates the perverse impression that you are more clever than others who do not, there is a clear incentive to behave this way.

The sad thing is, I have worked with far too many assholes to argue that this isn’t the case. I think everyone has. Being a jerk, perversely, pays off. I have worked for and with some of the most gorgeous, genuine, talented people you could imagine, but I have also worked for, and interacted with, some massive jerks. Jerks in high places. Jerks who don’t apologise, who never back down, and jerks who appear to all intents and purpose to be a success within their careers. Jerks who act like jerks so often that it has become normalised, background noise, part of ‘the-way-it-is’.

That’s all well and good, but there is a cost to fostering this environment. It is true that in some workplaces the people who act like jerks may appear to rise to the top, but the flip side is that good, kind, talented people will be lost. TTW notes:

He [Sutton] clearly shows that there are real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour. Put simply, the nice clever people leave. […] It’s a vicious cycle which means people who are more comfortable being an asshole easily outnumber those who find this behaviour obnoxious.

My post isn’t about academia specifically. As a long-term casual my interactions with academia have only ever happened from the fringes. I have made my opinions on the treatment of casuals abundantly clear. However toxicity is something I have known to permeate the cultures of environments as diverse as the retail sector and the corporate sector. I have worked at, and left, my own share of toxic workplaces and situations. I have stayed up all night worrying about work. I have cried to colleagues about unfair treatment and conditions. I have taken stress leave from work because the situation had become so untenable. I have had my concerns about a potentially dangerous situation dismissed by a superior who really should have known better. I have worked alone in a cubicle or an office and felt angry, alone, and having no idea what recourse I had, if any. I have rarely, if ever, stood up for myself. These experiences have come to have an emotional toll on me. I enter into these situations in good faith, and remain in them for far too long for many reasons. I think part of me doesn’t want to believe that the people who are nice to my face, are perhaps not as well-meaning when I am not around. I also form loyalties to colleagues in the workplace, where I will feel a sense of obligation to the individuals I work with. Mostly I make it about me. If only I was more assertive/less sensitive/better at handling complex situations/thicker skinned I would be able to cope better in these situations. So I return to the scene-of-the-toxic-crime, day after day, silently hoping that things will get better, all the time knowing full well that they won’t.

With the transition into full-time employment, comes the risk of encountering this toxicity. This makes me question my own abilities. It isn’t the work I question. I am fully aware that I am smart and driven and capable. It is the navigation of office politics that makes me feel entirely out of my depth. I am already someone who speaks in the passive voice. My emails are peppered with “if it’s OK” and “would you be able to’s”. Having come up against these kind of environment and conditions in the past has made me question my ability to be the career person I would like to transition into.  My daughter is going to school next year, casual employment is becoming increasingly tedious and demeaning, I want to start being paid for public holidays and sick days, which seems like a small ask and yet seems to be the hardest thing to transition to with my background as a long-term casual.

This blog post may read as if I am not capable, but I am thinking about it from another perspective. It isn’t that there is something wrong with me, it is that there is something wrong with workplaces that reward negative and intimidating behaviours, and that leave the people who work hard and contribute feeling unacknowledged. I refuse to compete with my colleagues, I am perfectly capable of being diplomatic because I posit it as being fucking nice and talking to everyone as I would want to be spoken to. I am more than capable of responding well to criticism as no one could ever be more critical of me than I am of myself. When I have come up against these situations in the past I have talked a big game when I am at home with my husband about how I am going to stick-it-to-the-man, but at the end of the day I will back down, eventually walk away, as I figure my mental health and emotional stability is worth more to me than aspiring to a ‘career’ in a place that makes my colleagues and I unwell, rewards arsehole-ish behaviour, and fosters unhealthy interactions between peers.

As I said in my introduction, I am unable to offer any advice on how to navigate toxic workplaces as I am unsure of how to address these issues myself. This year is the year of the assertive Smart Casual, so I am turning a critical eye to my experiences within the workplace, and asking myself what place I see for myself in the future. I know I want to write. I know I want to work in an environment which fosters teamwork and collaboration, and doesn’t operate on a platform of competition. I know I will not tolerate intimidation tactics and make them about my perceived sensitivity. The Thesis Whisperer offers the suggestion of instigating a “circle of niceness” within the worklace: a space where colleagues can come together to “be[..] together and talk[..] about ideas with honesty and openness” (sic). I think this is an idea that can be useful outside of the academy, as the asshole phenomenon is definitely not university specific. I want that, I think most people want that. It is an idea I am going to bring with me to my current situation, and to any future employment situations I enter into.

If you need a nice Smart Casual at your workplace let me know.