Death in the workplace

Very recently a friend who was planning to leave her place of work and move on, put in her resignation (yes, she had watched my TEDx Talk and I think it should come with a warning).  When she put in her resignation, management asked her to pack and go immediately. Even though the news was now out that she was going in the moment of hearing her news they thought they had a month to prepare, they thought they would have time to have a few more laughs together, more time to dream and create a few more things. Management requiring her to go immediately was unexpected. Her sudden departure was a little like a sudden death. It’s been around a month now and her old crew have been kept busy with immediate and pressing priorities, and now the realities are starting to sink in. Her office door is closed, dust has settled on her desk and there is none of the familiar giggly banter in the corridor.  The lights don’t go on where she once worked.  Her work buddies are beginning to feel the real strain of her absence – her wise counsel, clear head, quality leadership and competent support – all gone.  Her love shared, no longer just down the corridor.

I remember President George Bush (the younger) talking about his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as his ‘work wife’.  The intimacies of the workplace are real; and in this workplace, sisterhood brings all the features of any cloister you hosted Hildegard.  The work site is a second home and for some perhaps the first home of their deepest relationships and the place where some find most meaning in their lives.  I recall your angst and sadness when your dear friend Richardis moved from your convent and despite your protests (even to the Pope) you weren’t able to reconcile what you considered a defection.  Loss runs deep and grief has to find its own way of worming its way out.

Once upon a time in a workforce I was leading, our boss decided to resign immediately and in making the announcement to the team, one of the most senior people, a tall strong male (who I often dubbed as one of my weapons of mass distraction), fell against the wall and I thought he was going to collapse.

Resignation can be a death in the workplace. When the working community have time to prepare in the weeks or months leading up to the final departure a kind of palliative care can settle in, often it is the one that is leaving doing the caring of the others.  When Fates get her way, and the leaving is instantaneous, the sudden death experience is shocking.

David Whyte‘s work The Three Marriages reminds us that the relationship to our self and our work is one of the key marriages and for many of us we also fall in love with our work mates and our work as well, so when there is a falling out or a resignation, the partings hurt. The other side of resignation is the impact your work death has on those who are left behind, especially when the leaving is accelerated not by your own hand.  Once you have gone, your ghost still remains and your spirit may live on in others, your legacy will be visible in the people you have trained and selected, maybe the products you have designed are marked with your indelible fingerprint … whatever remains you are not written out of the story. “We become visible to the world through our work” David Whyte reminds us, and even though we may no longer be in that work, having been there, our legacy remains. ( I recently discovered a cartoon that I had commissioned back in the 1980s was still being used in promotional material.)

When you decide to leave a job you step into a risk and some may consider you foolish or even selfish for leaving others behind – but you know it is the step you need to take.  You are taking up, not relinquishing and for many it is a return to your deepest and truest self, so that self can be nurtured and grow in a new way – a resurrection.

I like to find satisfaction in my labour and how I hold the other marriages of my self and my love together is a triune challenge, but one that I sign up for each and every day.  And in that signing up it is inevitable that I will experience the full range of what it means to be in relationship – intimacies that open me to love, death, betrayal,  joy, anticipation, grief … and every other emotion that the landscape of the three marriages offers. I have always valued my work and understood it as vocation.  Vocation is a summons, a divine call, it is not a job.  It means that I am always following that call regardless of the job I might find myself in, when I do find myself travelling with others who are fellow travellers it is a blessing and I miss them when we aren’t on the same road and I  like to remind myself we are still on the same journey and that gives me some comfort.

When we find a real vocation we “marry” our work but we also commit beyond the immediate work to a legacy we will leave behind us; we make vows to an invisible future that will somehow be sustained by own equally invisible harvest somehow gleaned from all the very, very visible effort. In work we marry a hoped-for future as much as we do when we marry a person. The memory and the hoped-for legacy is with us ’till death do us part”.   The Three Marriages, p.316 D. Whyte.

Isle of Wight Graveyard

Isle of Wight Graveyard

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