There was an interesting discussion on Radio 4’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ yesterday about workplace bullying.

I am now a few months out of my last workplace, and have spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of the working environment and the power given/taken to a certain kind of manager. It was a corrosive and damaging place to be and although I am a big boy and ought to be able to stand on my own two feet, at times it brought be to my knees. Social work is hard enough when you consider the nature of the tasks and the limitations of resources without adding in bullying as well.

When you are in the middle of it all, it is hard not to focus on particular individuals as the cause of all this. The dark shadow cast by certain people over everything is hard to escape- the thundering threatening e-mail, the meeting in which people are casually destroyed, the deliberate provocation and lack of co-operation. The relish that seemed to be exhibited at any kind of conflict.

There was a time when a new manager arrived who had a reputation to make. His career path was firmly upwards and woe betide anyone who got in the way. He had a new broom and wielded it like a scythe (to mix a deliberate metaphor.) Part of this meant categorising everything from the old regime as ‘bad’- and to be got rid of. Unfortunately, I was the only surviving middle manager from a previous ‘re organisation’ (which in the public sector is another word for a cull) so I was for it. There was no attempt to discuss with me some kind of plan of action, or lay out goals and action plans. No attempt was made to understand my strengths, or to make use of my considerable ‘organisational memories’.

What began was a campaign of alienation. I was called in for Performance Development Reviews and accused of all sorts of things that made no sense to me. I started collecting e-mails that seemed so unreasonable and even abusive that I thought I may need to use them as evidence later. It felt as if all the hard work I had put in to building an integrated mental health service had no value, and was being systematically sneered at, and then dismantled.

I stopped sleeping. I developed terrible cluster headaches. It became incredibly hard to maintain motivation, and all around me I saw people retreating into trenches and keeping their heads down. I contemplated just handing in my resignation and in a desperate moment, confided in a much older wiser manager who was doing some locum work with the council. He told me “Chris, don’t be so bloody stupid. What you need to do is to go and see (…..) and tell him that you have thought long and hard about the situation, and realise you have a lot to learn, and that you want to hear any advice he has to give about how to improve performance, and to provide the sort of management required. If you do this, you then have six months to get out intact, and protect your mortgage and your family.” 

I more or less did this, and things settled down. Years later, I was told almost casually by the manager who had put me under such pressure that I had made considerable improvements- and that he had initially thought that I was not able to do this, so had tried to get rid of me.

Perhaps I had improved- but I do not think so. I think my development, if there was any, was more about managing my interface with the higher management. I did this by expecting no support, by trying to focus on the important stuff and to protect my staff from some of the huge pressure coming down. I think I also became more valuable, as a lot of the hand picked new management team did not adapt well, and many left soon after joining the council, sometimes leaving chaos in their wake.

Back to ‘Thinking Allowed’ however. They were interested in the sociological aspect of bullying, not the psychological one; so rather than focussing on individual processes, the focus was more on the sorts of environments that breed this kind of behaviour. What sort of organisations might make it more or less likely? What organisations are high risk? Sociologists Ralph Fevre and Amanda Robinson claimed that organisations which are well versed in modern management practices may create a culture in which bullying, harassment and stress thrive.

Unsurprisingly Fevre and Robinson found that organisations that were overly focussed on abstract performance and production targets to the exclusion of the particular human needs of staff will certainly be high risk of bullying behaviours developing.

They looked at different kinds of bullying- ranging from psychological through to actual physical violence, and found that even people who have been subjected to violence tended to focus on one thing as the most damaging- the fact that their workplace placed no value in the work they were doing, or their contribution to the organisation. This certainly resonated with me- the social work department I worked for seemed to operate in an environment where the soft detail of caring social work had no currency whatsoever. Rather everything was reduced to narrow performance stats, which placed pressure on people to constantly cover their backs.

When I think about my time under this kind of stress, I find myself feeling a little ill- but I have to acknowledge that this is not just about particular individuals- it is a systemic thing. It grows in the margins of an organisation being squeezed to death by inspections, scandals, enquiries, financial crises, staffing shortages. There will always be people who are able to exploit these situations for their own personal gain, but the real problem is the nature of the environment.

What then might change round such an environment? Some of it I think has to be about a change in management style- a rediscovery of a value base, and the value of individuals. The place I worked had all the right language, but somehow totally missed the mark on this stuff. For the sake of those who work there, I hope that things have changed. There is evidence that new managers are trying to achieve this, so good luck to them.

As for me, I feel like I am still in recovery. I am expecting to need to go back into the social work/health care world, at least as a part time worker, in the new year. This still makes me feel a little queasy, but I hope that this will continue to abate. Some scars will remain…

Today I was not Murun Buchstansangur…

After a particularly brutal week, there was a chance that today could have gone something like this;

(This post bring back lots of memories! Can you believe that this was a children’s programme back in the 80’s? This one seems to recommend idleness and alcoholism! I confess to a slight affinity to Murun Buchstansangur- perhaps related to the general melancholy that seems to be his watchword…)

After a morning seeking motivation, I eventually sparked into life, and re roofed my workshop and the bike shed- both damaged in the big storm. Quite a productive un-Murun like day in the end.

The postman brought me a letter today, offering me jobs that I do not want, or redundancy. It has been a long time coming (2 years of rumour, misinformation, bad communication and often downright overt rudeness) and despite having made my decision some time ago, it was still something of a shock to the system.

Murun does not seem to need a job. I wonder who pays his mortgage, or re-roofs his sheds?

A day of possibilities…

They don’t come along often. Sure there are always choices that we can make but most of the time the road leads in one direction. But I am approaching a junction though.

Three ways diverge. One is promotion in my current work, the other demotion. I can choose either of these versions of ‘more of the same’.

The other road is far less certain. Once again, there is a more than even chance of being offered voluntary redundancy. I should be getting a letter by the end of the week asking me to put my cards on the table.

Take the blue pill.

Make the jump into the unknown.

Burn my bridges.

If I take this option there are no guarantees that it will not go badly wrong. We have talked about a variety of other ways of making a living- B and B, art, retreats, writing, crafts and pottery, but these are fairly untested.

The penalty for failure in terms of impact on myself and my family would be catastrophic.

But despite all of this the possibilities of the uncertain road are calling me…


The back-to-work-after-Christmas Hakka…

The house is now empty after a wonderful time spent with friends over New Year. We always take a group photo, which always seems to be a record of the development of our kids, and the increasing decrepitude of we adults-

The other thing this photo reminds me of is the end of another Christmas/New Year break. A new year is upon us, and work begins again.

This year may (or may not) bring changes, but for now, the grind will grind on.

Andy and I were laughing about the feeling of needing to psych up for work. Almost like the New Zealand rugby team performing the Hakka-

So, by way of my own little hakka, I wrote some words. Imagine them being performed by men like those above.



Scowl me out that stress-face

This holiday must fracture

Stoke the furnace, sound that bell

This man must manufacture



Scrape the windscreen, warm the car

Before we once again commute

What was that bloody password?

I must again reboot



A million unread  e-mails

Have scleroted up my in box

The undrunk mug of coffee

Is waiting for a detox



There are those who are waiting

To mire me up in memos

Their words have little meaning

And even less good purpose



I should have been a cave man

His was a better planet

The things we folk must do

To slay this seasons mammoth



Smash some windows, kick some cats

Shout at the television

Tomorrow we must rise again

To earn some long division

Working like an ant…

So here we have a picture of a leaf cutter ant, taken on a recent visit to a zoo thingy. I missed the focus point, but you get the gist.

And I am sure that most of you will get the analogy all too readilly too.

These ants work non stop to cut up leaves, carry the bits back to their colony, and so make a big compost in order to allow more ants to hatch, grow and do the same.


Back to work…

Oh dear.

Tomorrow I return to work for a few days. It is that rather difficult period within social work between Christmas and New Year, and I will be the only manager covering all sorts of things beyond my usual mental health remit. It may be quiet. It may be manic.

Always a shock to system.

To this list (for rather too much of the time) add ‘Social work management’!

In order to cheer myself up, I went searching for other peoples feelings about work, and discovered this TED lecture

Hmmm- at this point, I think castrating lambs with your teeth has it’s attraction…

But then again, what I do has value. I do my best to make a difference, and to be graceful and respectful to those who work with/for me (and sometimes I even manage to do this!)

And because I work, I have a house and other resources that enable me to serve the Kingdom, and to give my kids a start in life that I did not have.

So I will go in tomorrow, reluctantly perhaps, but with a smile.

I plan to give the office a good sort out.

Bare those teeth- and bite!

The management regret….

Stress on Flickr – Photo Sharing!

I have had a bellyfull of managers this week. I have to be careful, because I often become a breeding ground for a depressing cynicism about my work.

I am a Social Work Manager to earn my mortgage, but at times I look around and wonder if I have been cast on a foreign shore amongst some kind of fish people who breathe a different substance and speak in bubbles.

There is a certain kind of management culture that values one dimensional toughness, and measures progress by the attainment of irrelevant goals. Failure to fit in to a certain stereotype is punished subtly and unsubtly- and I am never really going to fit in- both as a choice and as a consequence of the way I am made.

On good days I feel that I have a whole set of skills that mean that I can do my job in my own particular way, and do it well.

But then I spend time with management colleagues who rail against the failures of their staff and have no good words to say about anyone but themselves, and how they are going to sort out the slackers that work for them. And I fear for those people- who will no doubt become slackers, even if they are not already.

And I a brought up sharp by a higher management who do not treat members of staff fairly and with respect- even though their rhetoric (which they even seem to believe) suggests otherwise.

And I am angry with myself for my complicity, and my inability to challenge or walk away.

But I am a person who believes that God uses us as Trojan horses to gain entrance into the very fabric of our humanity, and there to tend the fragile but tenacious seeds of the Kingdom.

So as I wheel my horse into the office for another day of solutionless problems, what should be my calling?

To find precious integrity, and to hold on to it- not as a position of superiority, but of survival.

To see people not as a reluctant resource that requires the insertion of a rocket where the sun don’t shine, but instead as creatures of unique gifting and abilities. To search for strengths, not failings, and encourage them out.

To build bridges not battlements between groups of staff.

To understand the need for boundaries, but not to hide behind them.

To be first, an Agent of the Kingdom

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