Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Could you handle losing your job?

Have you ever lost your job or worried about being retrenched? How did you handle it? How did you keep going?

For some, the loss of a job is too much, as it was for the Cell C employee who committed suicide because he had heard he was about to lose his job. My heart goes out to him and his family, because I have an inkling of how he must have felt. The past three and a half years have brought home to me just how central a job has been to my identity, and how the prospect of losing it can eat away at your self worth until there is almost nothing left.

I was made redundant in Sydney in late 2008, as the global credit crunch manure was about to hit the Australian fan (“made redundant”. Don’t you love that? As if your entire existence has become extraneous.). Later, in South Africa, I spent all of 2010 and the earlier part of 2011 convinced the axe was about to fall.

In some ways, the redundancy was much easier to handle. It was at least clear cut: one day you have a job, the next day the FD calls you into his office and you don’t. Unemployment was terrible, to be sure, because all that structure your day used to have falls away. You no longer wear the corporate battle gear, you no longer board the Mosman ferry to Circular Quay every morning and back at night. You sit in your rented apartment overlooking the harbour and feel utterly, utterly useless.

But having a job and constantly worrying you’re going to lose it can be as awful. It’s when you start to hear whispers that all is not well, when the CEO’s PA keeps giving you sympathetic looks, when you accidentally see revealing organograms, that all those little things add up and the paranoia begins to settle in to the core of your being. Little by little, you give over to the fear, and eventually your entire life revolves around the invisible axe hovering above your head, the one that could fall at any moment.

It’s amazing how a toxic workplace can turn you into something resembling a jumpy Vietnam vet, seeing the looming apocalypse in every memo, reading Byzantine conspiracies into every skinner session on the smokers’ balcony. Office politics is a brutal game, and not everyone is good at playing it.

It wouldn’t matter so much if work was simply a source of income. But it’s also something in which we invest much of our identity, and that’s where much of the trouble lies. Whether or not we are favoured by the corporate animals higher up the food chain comes to determine whether we can love and respect ourselves. Work soon breaches the boundaries we try to set between the office and home, and annexes large territories of our souls.

Though we talk about the importance of friends and family, it is our jobs that determine our place in the world, and work which establishes whether we are the ones who issue the orders or meekly carry out the bidding of bosses. (Few experiences are stranger than encountering a former manager in the local supermarket, when they no longer have power over you and you no longer have to suck up to them.)

I am fortunate enough to be able to walk away from wage slavery, at least for now. I have low overheads, my car is sponsored, and I have the freedom to do the kind of work that I want, whether it’s kicking off an art career, writing novels or coming up with strategies for interesting social media projects. Most people don’t have that option; if I had dependents, I’d still be hunched over my laptop filling in time sheets.

To all of you who have lost your jobs, or are about to, or remain stuck in corporate hell, none of what I have written will serve as any real consolation. There’s no George Clooney to tell you that being “let go” will give you a chance to pursue your dreams. The trick, I suppose, is not to let work define you to the degree that the loss of a job is the end.

Because really, it isn’t.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  • Biko: Philosophy, identity and liberation
  • Stagflation
  • Breaking down South Africa?
  • Being Cuban and black in post-apartheid South Africa