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Professionalism (and getting shouted at)

January 21st, 2017

Chimney sweep

(The image is a screen shot from Mary Poppins of Bert the chimney sweep.)

Mary Poppins said ‘In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the job and SNAP! the job’s a game.’ I agree, but it can be hard to find the fun in a job that you’re really bad at.

I feel sorry for people who are bad at their jobs. Waiters who get orders wrong, accountants who can’t count, receptionists who lose bits of paper. I have totally been there.

A lot of the time, I’ve been able to tell myself that it doesn’t really matter, that it’s just a temporary, menial job and not a reflection of my true value. But in the moment, when it takes me 15 minutes to slice prosciutto in a deli, or when I give someone the wrong cat to take home at a cattery, or when I try to charge someone $17.60 for two bananas and a bread roll in a supermarket, or when I simply can’t clean hotel rooms in under 28 minutes per room, I find it hard to keep perspective. In those moments my own incompetence is demoralising and depending on the reaction of other people, hurtful. When someone rolls their eyes at me, makes a horse-snorty noise or starts tapping on a counter my embarrassment is made even worse when I know they’re right. I am bad at my job.

I was bad at being a bacon factory worker. As I’ve already discussed I found many of the factory processes incomprehensible and I was often confused about what I was supposed to be doing. This could be very frustrating for my co-workers.

An example from my diary:

Day 11: Monday 11 December

Not a good one.

Pam: “Oi! You don’t just let meat fall off the belt!”

Me: Apologise as humbly as possible and try to remember her seniority and respect her experience.

Quite hellish actually.

Not everyone at the Pig was like that. For example, Bruce used to be a beekeper until the drought of ’93 killed all his bees, and he came to work at the bacon factory. He said he didn’t mind the work, and said at least the job was stress free. I decided that Bruce was very zen (even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant). I saw Bruce as a role model for calm acceptance of factory life.

One day I was working with Bruce and Pam on a slicer. I tried to help Pam push a trolley to the chiller. It was a disaster and she screamed at me. The next time we filled up a trolley the same thing happened. Meanwhile, Bruce’s eyes were twinkling above his beard net. I think he was mildly amused. When I returned to the slicer, in the laconic understatement of the early noughties he said, ‘Is Pam a bit angry with you?’ Later, I asked if he would swap jobs with me, so I wouldn’t have to work with Pam, and he agreed. He was a nice man.

Pam often raged at me about bacon related issues. I could not understand why she cared so much. It was only picking up bacon and putting it back down again, after all. I hated being bad at it, but I also couldn’t understand how she could care enough to scream about it.

I’m not condoning workplace bullying but I now have a different perspective on the situation. Pam worked in the bacon room year in year out. She was a good bacon factory worker, she took pride in her work. Every summer students like me came along, and for two months earned more than she did on casual rates. We were crap at the job and she had to pick up the slack. I’m sure we also acted like the work was unimportant and beneath us.

At the time, I thought Bruce was a paragon of virtue and Pam was hysterical, but now I see they had different strategies to deal with the drudgery of the work. Bruce stayed calm and meditated (for all I know he was actually planning a homicidal rampage, but I imagined he was thinking of a flowing river). Pam took pride in her work and became a bit obsessive about it.

Now that I’ve found work to do that I’m not completely terrible at, I’m a lot more like Pam than Bruce. When I returned to work after having my first child someone said to me, ‘Does your job seem a lot less important now?’ The answer was no. When I was on maternity leave I didn’t think much about the office but once I was back, I cared.

I care about the things that I spend my time on, not just the fun bits. My life is not just larks on holidays with my friends and family, or my hobbies or my writing. My life is also the Annual Report Disclosure Index, the washing, and creating a family medical appointments spreadsheet. Sometimes at work I’m given a task that at first seem unspeakably dull but once I start work on it I find I’m fascinated and develop strongly held opinions.

Of course, I try to keep a better sense of proportion than Pam did, and not to shout, but nothing I spend my time on is likely to be completely stress-free, and that’s not a bad thing. For me, the stress is the element of fun. SNAP! The job’s a game.

Next time at the Pig: Socialism and the revolution

Posted in Office, The Pig, Work

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