Pride, grief, and work

Pride, grief, and work

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

An obstacle to re-building, and then articulating, a sense of vocation can be when an ignominious or startling exit from work has hurt your pride. In writing this section, when I talk about ‘pride’ I am referring to the right sort of pride that arises out of a healthy ego, not a sort of vanity. For obvious reasons, hurt pride can make it difficult for someone to reinvent their personal brand. Someone whose pride has been hurt spends their time looking over their psychic shoulder, trying to pick out whispers and finger-pointing, waiting for jeers and cruel exposure.

During the current economic downturn, some sectors are experiencing such a drastic upheaval that many of their workers are being cast off with little warning. People who had enjoyed secure (or apparently secure) careers have found themselves being churned through brutal redundancy processes. Contractors in the arts industry who could point to years of consistent gigging suddenly found their projects cancelled overnight. Artists, academics, professional staff, technical crew, and many other types of workers found themselves unceremoniously dumped while their sectors collapsed around them.

Nobody likes to be made to feel expedient. We all need to feel special. Fair enough – we all are special, each of us with unique mixtures of qualities, skills, talents, experience, and knowledge. Where we are all the same is that each of us needs some measure of security – emotional, psychological, material – to be able to thrive. When our place in the economy – whether that be as an employee or one of the self-employed – is terminated, then our expedient status is made clear to us. It hurts, because those unique and wonderful skills, talents, and qualities are treated as if they can be jettisoned as excess tonnage, thrown overboard. And it’s scary because, with future income unsecured and our work status ‘cancelled’, our sense of security is undermined.

This state of affairs is bad enough, but if how we are cast adrift is particularly brutal, shocking, or cursory then – alongside our insecurity and psychological pain – we have to deal with hurt pride. It’s the curdled icing on top of a poisonous cake. Given the horrifying prevalence of workplace bullying, some people may have taken on board psychosocial damage – including injured self-esteem – even before this whole pandemic lockdown era wreaked havoc on our economy. Which means that alongside possible feelings of relief and liberation from the bully (and – remember – feelings of relief and liberation can be manifestations of grief) the hurt their pride receives from being chucked out of work could compound the hurt their pride had already received from bullying.

Another attack on the professional pride of some workers in some sectors can come from the attitudes of the society around them, including from official figures such as politicians, or prominent figures in the media or business. The arts industry has been one of the hardest hit in Australia during lockdown, with staggering numbers of arts workers cut off from income – whether that be in the form of salaries, sales, commissions, or fees – and, due to lockdowns and social distancing requirements, unable to access the forums, venues, and the networks they need to be viable. Last December, in a cabinet reshuffle, the federal government arts portfolio was absorbed into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications; the word ‘Arts’ was left out of the portfolio name altogether. For years, the arts sector has been systematically defunded by our government and the JobKeeper income support scheme was designed in such a way that many arts workers were ineligible for it, despite there being an obvious need for them to be able to access it.

Speaking of JobKeeper, the government retrospectively changed its governing policy three times to block universities from being able to access it, despite universities also being extremely badly affected by pandemic lockdowns. This came on the back of years of adverse policymaking from the government in the area of higher education.

Public universities were excluded from JobKeeper. Many, many artists were excluded. Many migrants, those on temporary visas, now stuck in Australia because of logistics and money, were not eligible for help at all. Casuals who had not been with their employer for 12 months were not eligible, which had a large effect on young people and women. The list read like a rollcall of groups an unimaginative critic of the government might have predicted would be excluded: academics, artists, recent migrants, young people, women. Frydenberg, asked why artists and actors had been left out, said, ‘We had to draw the line somewhere.’” ~ Sean Kelly

Whenever the government talks about higher education, and if it talks about the arts, it does so with spin and obfuscation. It does not articulate what drives its hostility against these two sectors; speculation from others ranges from wild-eyed conspiracy theory to sober reasoning about ideology.

But to work in these sectors is to know that your government is ranged against you, that they do not value the work you do. So, in addition to hurt that may be sustained by poor conditions or culture, and alongside hurt sustained by a rude ejection from these sectors, comes the hurt of knowing that the leaders of your own society don’t want a bar of you, that they believe that your work is of no value.

“One of the utterly shitty things about this utterly shitty situation is that a significant section of the political class sees this as mission accomplished” ~ Tim Dunlop

Talking about hurt pride might sound superficial, like playground stuff, but I don’t think so. In talking about losing work, and then having to go out and secure replacement work, it is important to consider the role of self-esteem and having a sense of identity. How on earth does someone sell themselves if their ability to feel the right kind of pride in their work, their training, and the skills and values bound up in all of that has been damaged or undermined?

What leads to hurt pride in relation to work? A loss of status, an attack on reputation, not being allowed the place and time to celebrate or even be acknowledged for your achievements. With a sense of these things being lost to you, it can initially feel very hard to rebuild a narrative around what you do and its worth.

This loss of face – of pride – needs to be grieved alongside everything else. So how to do that? How to accept and feel for the loss of status, reputation, place in the world without sacrificing or damaging a more grounded sense of self in which resilience will have to be found and from which a healthy ego will have to grow?

To be continued…

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

You can buy The next day here.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

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