I HAD a troubling conversation with a friend of mine recently. Trina left her old job at the beginning of this year, where she had been working in HR doing stuff related to OH&S (Occupational Health and Safety for the iggerant) and Work Safety claims etc. She started work at a big corporate firm, one which specialises in Human Resources stuff, having tried to find an opening in the community service area and then giving up (I think it’s rather telling that there’s actually a lot of competition for community service jobs: it seems to mean there’s lots of people who want to support other people, and not enough funding to create the jobs that are, it would seem, actually needed!). Rather foolishly (especially for someone who works in HR!), she didn’t read the contract before she signed it. Happy with how much she was being paid, she skipped over the bit where she would need to work 8 til 6, 5 days a week. Ugh.

Those are pretty nutty hours. She’s a serial hobbyist, picking up new hobbies left right and centre, doing courses in cooking, massage, drama and so on. In some sense, I think, she has to supplement the work she’s not entirely happy doing with other things in order to feel like she’s at least a bit balanced, that her job isn’t the definition of her. The new hours has necessitated the cutting back of these hobbies; her evenings are impossible to do anything in, and weekends wind up so chockers there’s very little time for just resting. It’s meant that she’s been ill a lot more frequently than she otherwise would (well, I reckon she’s still doing pretty well, but 3 times so far this year is more often than she’s used to having coldy-flu things). Having thought about it for a while, she recently decided that it wasn’t sustainable, and that she should resign. Her manager was a little horrified when Trina articulated this, and they had a conversation about it.

Trina outlined her reasons, saying that she didn’t think that the current work-life balance was sustainable. The manager, already worried because she’s recently lost a number of staff members, agreed to let her cut back to 4 days a week, taking mondays off. Trina was happy with this, and agreed to revisit the question in a few months. It was, though, made clear to her that it wasn’t a permanent solution as far as the company was concerned. She would, eventually, need to go back to 5 days a week. Since Trina’s not really planning on sticking around forever, though, it didn’t matter so very much to her. She felt like she’d been listened to, and that a workable compromise had been reached.

Then the manager did something truly terrible: she sent an email to the entire team explaining that Trina would only be in for 4 days a week ‘because she’s sick.’ Trina received calls and messages both knowingly sarcastic and sincere, asking after her health. Some people have assumed she has cancer. These conversations were really quite perturbing, understandably. Trina mentioned that she wasn’t happy about this, and her manager explained that ‘if I’d said anything else, everyone would be asking for the same thing! Besides, my manager won’t be happy with flexible working arrangements; he’s old-fashioned.’ (How extraordinarily many sins does the claim to being ‘old-fashioned’ permit?!) The concerned questions about her health increased, and eventually she emailed her manager explaining that she wasn’t happy about the justification that had been offered, and that when people asked about her illness, she was responding with, ‘I’m not actually ill, it’s just a work-life balance thing.’ Her manager is visibly irritated by this, and this week called a meeting…

In the meeting, it became clear that the increase in illnesses had become the lens through which all the other reasons Trina had offered for being unhappy with the way her job had been going were being understood. Not only this, but the manager had shifted the ‘check-in’ meeting from being ‘in a few months’ to ‘in six weeks,’ once Trina’s had a chance to ‘rehabilitate herself.’ Trina’s refusal to work crazy hours that really didn’t work for her had slipped sweetly and simply into nothing more than a pathology, an illness she would need to get over. In fact, the manager even expressed her own dislike of how hard she had to work, but pointed out that she did it anyway, so why couldn’t Trina? (That last bit was implicit, but nonetheless).

Okay, so to me what’s going on here is pretty clear, but I’m just briefly going to spell it out. The exploitative aspects of this workplace are being covered over by marking Trina’s unhappiness with them, and more, her unwillingness to tolerate them, as an individual pathology. The therapeutic and fundamentally normalising approach to our lives that this culture seems to engender permits her manager to assume that with some ‘curative’ time, Trina will be able to take responsibility for ‘getting better,’ and return to being a perfectly normal worker, uncomplaining and cheerful. It allows her manager to refuse to think about the issues with her workplace, and the fact that it’s probably just not a sustainable workplace. And of course it demonstrates precisely what other workers who aren’t happy with the situation are putting at stake… Who wants to claim illness, especially when it winds up functioning as the mark of a worker who is somewhat unreliable? (‘Oh, she was always getting sick, you know, just not healthy. I mean, I know it’s not her fault, but… well, you have a business to run…’ And the reference winds up with the rejection of the potential employee. Fabbo.)

Perhaps one of the yuckier aspects of all this is that there are a number of people on her team who are from overseas, and the company sponsors them. According to Trina, if they were to resign (as she was planning to do) they would not only be out of a job, but would have to pay a large sum of money to the company. Awesome! With such vulnerability, how exactly is negotiation possible? Particularly when any intolerance of the vulnerability and exploitation of workers is marked as pathological… ugh! Medical discourse has an awful lot to answer for in the entrenching of liberalism! And of course the Australian Government’s undermining of unions.