Unbroken

If we don’t sit with the rough edges of our journey, we forget how we made it.

Kevin Gannon, The Tattoed Professor, ‘On being broken, and the kindness of others

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It’s Friday at the end of a long week of being trivially unwell. Trivially in the not-cancer sense, but disruptively in the whole-family-down-with-it sense, the “Oh, everyone has this, isn’t it dreadful, have you got the cough yet?” sense. Whole days in bed, shivering and sweating. And coughing.

Having to cancel a large lecture and now being very late with grading, I’ve been struck by the kindness of students who sent messages of sympathy when I said I was sick. These are the ways we all work together to shape workplaces worth working in. (And if you feel cynical about the contribution students make to this, please go back to Liz Morrish’s account of students comforting staff at times of workplace distress. Or anything by Sean Michael Morris, but especially this post.)

The students where I work are easy going, understanding, and when they need to complain, they’re constructive and tactful. They want things to be less awful, and that includes for the people who are teaching them. They know what it’s like to have a bad day at work, to be dealing with difficult people, to juggle work, study, illness, stress and exhaustion. As Kevin Gannon says in his beautiful post on disclosing our own brokenness in higher education:

We’re not sending graduates “out into the real world”–they’ve been there for their entire lives, and most of them know at least implicitly how the deck is stacked against people regardless of how hard they’re bootstrapping. We have given our students a wide array of tools, and tried to prepare them to use those tools well for themselves and for their communities. We teach in the hopes of a better, more compassionate, and more just world. But then we tell a graduation-day story that assumes our graduates will go out into a broken world riven by hate, fear, and inequality but also that it’s their fault if that world beats them down.

Fault is the shadow thrown by the magic bean we sell as the means of clambering up to a future in which not everyone can win. This bean is something to do with making an effort, toughing it out, following the rules. Resilience, grit—we peddle all sorts of qualities demanded when the world is harsh. And I think this is why we monitor attendance as a kind of minor virtue, a practice of grit. But when we make showing up compulsory, then we have to have a system of checking it, and penalties, and some means of managing something we call “genuine” adversity, and the whole thing has to be insulated against complaint. (And if you want to know more about how this goes down, this forum is an eye-opener.)

Where I am we have a fixed tolerance for not showing up 20% of the time, which has the rat farming perverse incentive effect of causing every sensible student to calculate that they have two free tutorials they can plan to miss. And I’ve written this all over the place, so just bear with me while I haul out my soapbox one more time: we then ask students to get a GP certificate for every single additional missed class over the two free passes, which means that we are clogging up the waiting rooms and schedules of our overworked public health bulk billed GP clinics in order to sustain a rigid and penalty-driven policy that doesn’t prepare students for their professional futures, while they’re sneezing all over the really sick people around them.

(University business data divisions currently measuring every passing cloud over the campus, why not measure this? How many GP certificates for trivial illness have your attendance policies generated? How much public health time have you wasted pursuing this?)

Just quietly, I take a different approach. We talk about modelling attendance on the professional experience of attending meetings, including client meetings. If you can’t be there, you let people know in advance. If you can’t be there a lot, this will impact on your client’s confidence in you, or your manager’s sense that you are doing a good job. It may come up in performance management. Your co-workers may start to feel that you’re not showing up for them. Opportunities may dry up a bit, if people think of you as someone who won’t make a reliable contribution.

And at work there won’t always be a form, but you will need a form of words. You need to know how to talk about what you’re facing with the relevant people comfortably and in a timely way, ideally not after the fact of the missed project deliverable. If hidden challenges are affecting your participation now, you can expect some of these to show up again when you’re working. University should be the safe space to develop confidence in talking about the situation you’re in, and what helps you manage it most effectively. You need a robust understanding of your rights in law. And, sadly, you also need to understand that sometimes the human response you get will be uninformed, ungenerous or unaware of your rights, and you’ll need either to stand your ground or call for back up.

To me, this is all that’s useful about expecting attendance. It’s an opportunity for us to talk with students about showing up as a choice that may be negotiable if you know how to ask; about presence and absence as ethical practices; and about the hardest conversations about times when you just can’t, and at that point need to accept the kindness that’s shown to you, just as you would show it to others.

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Thinking about how important it is to learn to have these conversations, I’m watching the rise of automated employee mood tracking with unease. Attempting to track employee mood over time is a natural consequence of discovering that we can track other physical health indicators, and that wearables (or implantables) give HR an opportunity to track health as one of the predictors of both absenteeism and presenteeism in teams. The Global Corporate Challenge (now owned by Virgin) is all over it. They even have a Grit In the Workplace Report (“Research shows that grit is a significant factor in success. Employees who have it help their organisations achieve better business outcomes”) which I can’t bear to read.

This morning someone was telling me about a Slack bot that could be set to enquire about my mood, and I know there are plenty of apps that can do the same. I’m all for journaling my own thoughts about this, but we do need to notice that these apps are now also being pitched at HR. My friend wondered if this was about our failing capacity to listen to each other, to ask how someone is feeling and really wait for the answer. I think it’s that organisations are starting to perceive all human interactions as potential data points, and conversational care as wasted data that evaporates uselessly into air. We’re affronted by our own forgetting: surely it would be better to remember that over the last six months, Thursdays have been good days?

The problem with this is that mood is far more nuanced than any algorithmic system can be bothered with. One I saw this morning offered a happiness scale of 1-5, and three mood choices: Great! Stressed! Or Tired! The Slack bot has a menu of five options, with emojis.

Screenshot 2017-05-12 13.04.43.png
Screenshot from http://oskar.hanno.co

But really, life is more complicated than this. To sustain compassionate workplaces, we’re going to need to do more than dashboard our moods in these simplistic ways and hurry on. We’re going to need to “sit with the rough edges of our journey”, as Kevin Gannon puts it, to understand how we each got here differently, in different states of mind, and to hold each other up with care.

This will take time.

5 thoughts on “Unbroken

    1. Thank you, and truly, welcome to the deckchairs, it’s lovely to see you here Your extraordinary post has been on my mind since I read it. This semester I’ve been significantly honoured to learn about the stories and lives of many students whose experience is close to your own, and I think the only way forward for us as a community of learners is to make time to listen really well to how broken so many of us feel.

      I’ve done some work as a patient advocate, and one of the things I point out often is that hospitals underestimate the capacity of patients to make a difference to working lives. I realised this from the generosity of students. Wherever we work in a kind of service like education or health, we think of this all as flowing one way, and I think we often block out the insight that “service users” are co-developing the places where health or learning happen.

  1. Just knowing out there in the world is an unclicked link to a thing called a “Grit In the Workplace Report” makes me shudder. In a world scripted by commencement glory speeches such things would not exist.

Conversation welcome here