How we choose our work

It is possible to take the idea further and to suggest that people actively and often unconsciously seek out work that relates to emotional issues with which they have difficulty. From time to time, I have trivialised this proposition by suggesting for example that teachers become teachers because they find it hard to learn, or that social workers become social workers because they have difficulty with social relationships. Probation officers on this theory would be attracted to the work by their own difficulty with authority, or by their own destructive predatory needs.

This certainly made some sense to me of why I went into this kind of work. Although I saw myself as in many ways a timid and painfully shy boy, and indeed a ‘good’ boy, I knew I was attracted by such examples of delinquency that I encountered. I first became aware of this as a boy visiting my grandparents. My maternal uncle was still living at his parents’ home (he stayed there all his life in fact, another feature of the phenomenon of delinquency that was not lost on me later). He was an uncouth presence, deliberately so I think, often rude and never joining us at any of our visits other than making fleeting appearances. He spoke to his parents with a rudeness that I would have never dared to adopt – there was little to admire in him and yet I felt some kind of connection with him and some kind of sympathy. I felt something similar as a school prefect when dealing with some of the more disruptive lads in the school – it was not just that I lacked the confidence and courage to challenge them; I enjoyed their ‘spirit’ and defiance.

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Distress at work

I had wondered about how the work of Menzies would apply to the probation service whilst I was in my first job in Sheffield. I came to reflect on a number of aspects of this informed later not just by the way Menzies understood the emotional impact of an agency’s function but also by the way in which the reflection process articulated by Janet Mattinson could also be applied to organisational life. Working across a range of organisations in the new city provided me with plenty of material to extend how I understood what drove people’s behaviour in professional roles.

It is a striking feature of all kinds of agencies working with people in trouble that the fact that the work is distressing and anxiety provoking is not only hard to acknowledge but also to acknowledge this fact feels like a sign of weakness. Staff find it hard to be ‘tender’, and such emotions can attract real hostility within helping services. We are well used to seeing this phenomenon in for example the armed forces or the police but it is no less a feature of many probation and social work settings. What this means is that the distress and anxiety of the work has to find expression in other ways than straightforward acknowledgement. This is what Menzies understood.

Emotional dynamics of work

The sense that professionals behave as they do because of the influence of the organisation in which they worked was not a new discovery. The seminal text was Isabel Menzies’ analysis of the behaviour of nurses in a hospital and how much of this was driven by the unconscious emotional underpinning of hospital life – the anxiety about death. Interestingly enough, we faced one symptom of this organisational life in the Bereavement Society in Milton Keynes when we tried to publicise the service to families of people who would die in hospital or after a stay in hospital. The idea that we would put up posters which alluded to the fact that people die was thought to be disturbing to the well being of patients and their families (as if this thought would not have occurred to them without our posters). This is however treating the defensive anxiety of the hospital as if it were just a problem to be overcome – the point about defences is that they are both dysfunctional and functional. They allow people to achieve things, care, be effective as well as get in the way of positive outcomes.

In the hospital, the way in which nurses’ tasks were allocated, as Menzies describes them, had a real purpose – all kinds of practical tasks had to be done and they would not be efficiently completed if staff were persistently distressed about sick patients for whom they were caring. Dividing jobs up into specialisms had the benefit of preventing nurses from getting too emotionally close to any particular patient. Whilst the hospice movement crystallised the possibility of handling things differently, the distress of staff about patients dying still has to be managed.

Moving On

So, I moved on from my first job as a probation officer to a social worker role in a new city.

It is interesting as I look back to see how much of this stepping out into a wider world involved a continuation of my development from sheltered immaturity combined with the impact of the organisational culture within which I worked. In the probation service, in a city where I had been a child, I felt increasingly constrained by the same kind of protected worlds – Methodism and the Probation Service both seemed to provide a home out of which I needed to grow. Both had a sort of sheepish approach to the world, critical of established powers but huddling for safety to what was known. I had grown up in them both but could not feel a full adult within either at that stage – Oxford had given me a taste of something more ambitious and glamorous, sure of itself in the corridors of power and it connected with the ambition inside me. That personal drive needed the support of a new organisational culture, and in some ways therefore I found myself in all kinds of situations in Milton Keynes that I may have feared to take on just out of personal commitment.