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Back to Work
My story begins after returning to work after an 8 year absence to have my youngest two children. I returned to the place I had previously worked but in a different department.
Having had such a long period of absence my skills were lacking. Before giving up work I had used a golfball typewriter - after my return everything was computerised and I had little or no knowledge of computers, work processing and spreadsheets. However, previously I had always been good at my job and I was a fast learner. I was a good typist and soon picked up the word processing which working in an academic environment required typing quite complicated equations.
For the first few weeks things were going really well and I was pleased with myself that I appeared to be picking things up so well. I worked in an office with a girl whom I got on well and she was very helpful and taught me a lot. It was really nice to have my own salary again after so long. I could buy things which I hadn't been able to afford for a long time.
Then the supervisor, who had been absent for the first two weeks returned to work and I noticed a change in the attitude of the other girls. The Supervisor was someone who had been in the position for many years. She was extremely good at her job too. She had a remarkable memory and having been in post for so many years had a wealth of knowledge and over the years had worked her way up within the department and was in charge of all secretarial staff. Her downside was that having reached the top she felt challenged by younger staff coming to work within the department who had more up to date skills and qualifications.
It wasn't long before I realised that she was despised by most of the other secretarial staff and there had been and continued to be a high turnover of staff. I soon discovered why when she began to criticise everything I did. It was never "the way we do things here". I tried very hard to try to comply with "the way things were done" but felt that they were changing too often and I couldn't keep up. I found too that my new found skills could not be used unless they complied with the way she did things - this meant that if she didn't know how to do them you couldn't do it that way even though her way was inefficient and took much longer.
For example, many of the academic papers had footnotes and I looked up in the software manual how to ensure that the footnotes were placed at the foot of the page which contained the reference. I was actually very pleased with myself for having worked it out myself. When I returned from a few days leave I was confronted by my supervisor who held the paper up at me the minute I arrived for work saying the paper required correction and editing immediately.
She was shouting at me saying what a mess it was and that several people had tried to undo the mess I had made of it unsuccessfully. It appeared that she had tried to put in the authors alterations but couldn't work out how to access the footnotes. I was told that under no circumstances was I to use that method again and was to type the footnotes out manually which meant that if anything was added I had to change the footnotes on every page to ensure they were at the foot of the correct page whereas doing it my way the computer would have done this for me.
That was just the start but it carried on to the point that I felt her constant criticism was beginning to wear me down. It got to the point where I felt that she was constantly looking over my shoulder and I couldn't get on with anything without confirming everything with her first. But even when I carried out her instructions to the letter there was something wrong with it. I wasn't allowed to talk with the academic staff directly; I had to go through her for the most trivial of things. Likewise I found that staff would never approach me directly but went through her to the point that I felt excluded.
The girl who shared my office would sympathise with me and tell me that other girls had been subject to the same treatment and not to let her get to me. She told me one girl who had left had put in a formal complaint on leaving but she had turned it around to look as though the girl had been incompetent. There always seemed to be someone in tears. There was always cards and collections coming round for those who were lucky enough to have found another job.
I should have left too but feared that if I did, how would I explain it to another employer that I had had an 8 year absence then left the post after only a few months. I had convinced myself that I would be unemployable.
I couldn't sleep, I lost my apetite and was so tired I could barely cope with the children. At work I was so fearful of criticism I was constantly checking and re-checking everything. Some days I felt I couldn't type a few lines without messing it up. Things that I used to do in minutes took up to half an hour by the time I had checked it. Then when I had submitted my work I was constantly worried; did I do this, or did I forget that. I got to the stage where I felt I couldn't function. I was so obsessed with work I was forgetting to organise the children. I had mentioned things to my husband but not how much it was getting me down. He had a very pressured sales job which was commission only. I felt that with my salary there was less pressure on him and he appeared so much happier.
One day I arrived home and my husband asked me if I was OK and I broke down in floods of tears and told him what had been going on. He was so worried he told me that we didn't need the money that bad that he would see me in such a state and that I was to phone them the next day and tell them I wasn't coming back. I told him my worries about not being able to get a reference which he found absurd and was adamant that I was not to return. I felt as though someone had just rescued me from the jaws of death and I slept soundly for the first time in months. The following morning I decided to go in to work but hand in my resignation and work my notice. Handing my letter to my supervisor I felt an enormous relief.
The day I handed in my resignation, during my lunch hour I bumped in to a colleague who worked in the HR department who I had known from working there previously. She asked me how I was getting on and I told her that I had resigned and why. She was in charge of organising casual staff to cover absences and busy period and said that if I wanted she would put my name down and give me a ring if anything suitable came up and I agreed.
I left work and went on holiday for 2 weeks and on my return I had just put the suitcases down when the colleague rang and said that there was some work if I wanted it that would last about 3 weeks. They had appointed someone to the post but needed someone to cover whilst she worked her notice in her previous employment. That person later rang to say that she had changed her mind about taking the job. That was 17 years ago and I'm still there and have been promoted twice.
In my old department they finally realised that the staff turnover was down to the Supervisor and whilst they took no direct action they re-organised the staffing giving her less control over the clerical and secretarial staff. Despite this, she found ways of intimidating them and it continued that way for several years until she retired.
I still cannot think back on that period without feelings of anxiety. I became a union representative and now represent others who find themselves caught up in the same situations.