The Hostile Workplace: Finished Before Your Time

In my first mental health blog—What It Feels Like to Freeze on National Television—I discussed the impact of the TV studio environment in triggering my now infamous panic attack.  In my writing since I have explored my personality predispositions as an introvert, highly-sensitive person and anxiety sufferer, and the experiences I’ve lived in coming to terms with those traits.  However, we simply cannot discount the environmental factors that influence our mental health, for good or bad, along with the systemic structures that shape those environments.

I, like everyone else, exist in a dynamic and inter-dependent relationship with the ecological, economic, social and political systems around us.  When those systems are nurturing and life affirming, we tend to thrive.  When those systems are unhealthy, we inevitably are too.

It is in the workplace, where we spend so many of our waking hours, that our predispositions and past experiences so clearly interact with the surrounding environment to highlight the systemic problems that impact on our mental health.  This blog is the first in series of postings I will publish on Mental Health at Work.  Like my previous writings on this topic, these postings are first-person accounts, records of my observations and feelings in different workplace situations across my working life.

Mental health = predispositions, environment and experiences.
Mental health = predispositions, environment and experiences.

I hope to share these experiences in a manner akin to the great American writer Studs Terkel, who in 1972 published a book entitled Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do in which he documented and reflected upon the workplace experiences of hundreds of people from all walks of life in the United States.  Terkel’s work is poignant and powerful in its simple honesty.  In that vein I share my own experiences; these are my observations and this is how I felt in the moment.

First paragraph of “Working” by Studs Terkel: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.  It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.  It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.  To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.”[1]

My first paid gig was a summer job working in a vineyard in Coonawarra.  My first ongoing job was doing pizza delivery for a paltry piece rate per delivery, a condition made slightly more bearable by traveling in my car to and from deliveries listening to heavy metal.  Between then and now I have worked in factories, warehouses, brick yards, collecting for charity, stacking books in libraries, teaching English abroad, and grinded away in the public service, prior to my entry into the university sector.

In each of these environments I observed people under stress and people externalising the strain by lashing out at others, as well as people doing their best to do their jobs, help others and get by as best they can.  I have observed the large hierarchical institutions in which I have worked systemically incentivising absurd behaviours that often undermined their operational effectiveness, in addition to hurting the people who worked in them.  Most importantly, I have been that hurt person, I have been that employee under stress and strain, and I have tried (often unsuccessfully) to be that person trying to be a small positive force in a sea of negativity.

When I was 20 I worked for a time as a labouring temp at a box-cutting factory in Gepps Cross, Adelaide.  One day during a meal break I wound up talking to an older guy in his 50’s who in one simple statement gave me the most profound work advice I have ever received:

“Don’t stay on ‘ere mate, this work’ll finish you before your time.” 

The work in this factory was physically demanding, loading stacks of uncut cardboard into the die-cutter machines to be printed and cut into shape.  Crews of 4-5 would man each machine, some loading in the cardboard feedstock and others unloading the printed and cut box sheets onto pallets for the forklift drivers.  We worked on call, conscripted at a couple of hours’ notice to work twelve hour shifts at day or night.

Cardboard box factory in China. The factory described in this posting looked much like this.
Cardboard box factory in China. The factory described in this posting looked much like this, though a little less automated (it was the 1990s after all).

The factory floor was a hostile environment.  It was extremely loud and between the noise, your earplugs and the constant movement of the production process, you were essentially isolated from human contact for most of the duration of the twelve-hour shift.  The last hour of those twelve-hour shifts was the most dangerous, especially at the end of a night shift.  Those moments when you’re counting down the seemingly endless minutes till knock-off time, tired and fatigued after a long shift, were the ones where you were at risk of walking absentmindedly in front of a forklift, dropping a pallet on your foot, or getting a finger caught in the machinery.  Fortunately none of the above happened to me, but I did have some near-misses.  It became clearly comprehensible to me how people die or get injured working in those kinds of factory environments.

Smoko breaks were acceptable while the die-cutter machines were being reloaded for a new print run.  It was acceptable to go outside for a cigarette during these breaks and I met more than a few young guys who claimed to of taken up smoking to get more break time on the job.  As a non-smoker I settled for a cup of drip-filtered coffee from the staff room but got chewed out by a foreman for sitting idle and not staying busy.  After that incident I resorted to smuggling my coffee into a toilet cubicle to get a little respite from the noise of production and the smug, vindictive power trips of the foremen.

The die-cutter machines centred on a tubular drum, fitted with semi-circular wooden die moulds fitted with razors in the shape of the boxes to be cut.  These razors were more than capable of slicing off a finger or gouging out a limb if not handled correctly, and this was very much a two-person job.  Nonetheless, it was a point of pride for some in the work crew to carry a die mould on their own from the store room to the die-cutter machine.  “What are ya?  A fucken’ pussy?” was the standard response when I’d refuse to carry one solo.  Looking back, it’s now clear to me that such displays of ill-conceived bravado by some of my co-workers were an attempt to reclaim some dignity in an environment where they were essentially powerless.

Die-cutter blades.
Die-cutter blades.

In this place I felt alienated from the people around me.[2]  I felt dehumanised by the attitude of the foremen on sight, for whom I held nothing but disdain.  The experience of being in this environment was physically and emotionally exhausting.  This was not a healthy place for me to be, but in an employment market where my labour was the marketable commodity, this was the work available to me with the limited skills and experience I had at that time in my life.

The factory floor is a hostile environment in which to spend your working life.  Big respect to the people who punch the clock in places like this day in and day out.  They earn every cent of their wages, but for that money they exchange a lot more than their labour.

[1] Terkel, S. (1974) Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. New York: Pantheon Books, p. xi.

[2] in the traditional meaning of alienation as physical separated by the hostility of the environment, rather than the Marxist interpretation of the term…although there’s a case to be made for that as well.