Have you ever had a really bad day?
Not an everyday garden variety bad day. Where you lock your keys inside the house, as you emerge into icy cold rain that is blowing in sideways. Your umbrella turns inside-out, then makes a bid for freedom cartwheeling away down the street. Your best business suit looks like you have showered in it, after an evil minicab driver took great delight in aiming at a giant puddle to soak you. Sodden and forlorn, you wait in vain at a bus stop for public transport that never arrives to carry you to that career-defining make or break job interview.
No, we’ve all had that kind of bad day.
I’m talking about an Olympic standard bad day. A day where you snap, and just can’t take it anymore.
Not a humdrum minor meltdown, expressed via a torrent of creative expletives while stomping around and feeling sorry for yourself. What they call the “red mist” in Formula 1, or a “brain snap” in rugby league. A five-alarm toddler tantrum writ large.
No, I’m talking about the kind of day that starts out badly and only gets worse. Finishing with the protagonist metaphorically (possibly literally) burning everything to the ground and fleeing the country.
Next stop: anywhere but here.
A former colleague had one of those days earlier this year.
For months they had endured bullying in the workplace. Working for a boss who claimed all the credit when things went right, but was invisible when things went wrong. They had found themselves frozen out. Removed from the loop. Excluded from decision making. Not invited to meetings. A clear pattern of actions collectively designed to deny their ability to get the job done. To drive them out.
An inconvenient truth it is often quicker, easier, and cheaper to break someone than it is to put them on performance management or make them redundant.
It isn’t nice.
It isn’t illegal (probably).
It isn’t uncommon.
After one bruising encounter too many in the corporate Game of Thrones, my former colleague stormed out of the building and straight into the office of a friendly neighbourhood employment lawyer.
They didn’t seek a get rich quick payday via a compensation claim.
They weren’t looking for an apology or an explanation for the unreasonable behaviours.
They just wanted it to end. For the world to stop so they could get off.
How could they escape from their many month-long notice period?
How could they make the next time they returned to the evil empire be the last time?
The lawyer asked some probing questions. Attempting to discern the real from the imagined.
In a world populated by “special snowflakes”, the lawyer encountered an endless procession of self-entitled narcissists who felt the world owed them success by right. Boastfully claiming credit for their wins. Forever blaming others when they felt they weren’t receiving their due. Immediately. And in full.
Occasionally however, the lawyer encountered a prospective client who really had been wronged. Those were the cases they had built their career around helping.
The lawyer sought to separate paranoia and observer bias from legally actionable wrongdoing. To distinguish conjecture and hearsay from what could be evidenced and proven.
In less than 10 minutes of listening, the lawyer had identified a clear pattern of intimidating behaviour and bullying. Yet one that would be impossible to prove in court.
They asked my former colleague one simple question: “how did you wish to spend the next 3, 6, 12 months of your life?”
Continuing to work?
On gardening leave?
Or free from their current workplace entirely? Possibly with a payout. Probably without a reference.
At that point, my former colleague burst into tears.
They were done. An irrecoverable situation. Bridges burned. Working relationships untenable and unsalvageable.
When they expressed a desire to leave immediately and never look back, the lawyer advised going to the HR department. Request a without prejudice conversation. Play the discrimination card. Seek an immediate release from their employment contract, with the notice period paid out as a redundancy to minimise the tax bill.
The grounds for the discrimination claim didn’t matter, there were almost too many to choose from. My former colleague was female. Aged over 50. An immigrant. Sporting dark skin and an exotic name. The only member of the leadership team who ticked any of those boxes.
The fact that the bullying campaign had nothing to do with any of those things didn’t matter.
She had spent a career swimming against the tide. Battling discrimination and bias that made landing every job or promotion that little bit harder. Never one of “us”. Always one of “them”.
For the first time, those things that set her apart could be used to her advantage.
Merely raising the question of discrimination would threaten the inclusive corporate image that the firm spent a fortune projecting. When compared to the costs of a public relations nightmare, paying out a notice period would be the expedient choice.
The lawyer cautioned that playing the card wouldn’t be without consequences. Professional reputation tarnished, for leaving under a cloud. Hiring prospects damaged, as the inevitable whispers campaign would make it unlikely my former colleague would find work in that incestuous lucrative industry again.
In that moment, on that bad day, she simply didn’t care.
She just wanted out. She had spent enough of her life doing things that made her miserable.
Earlier this week, I read the obituary of one of my imaginary friends from the internet. A friendly personality, whom I never got to meet in person. Always generous with their time, support, and praise. Just five months short months after retiring to live their dream lifestyle, they had succumbed to cancer.
A tragedy on many levels.
The obituary was part biography, part eulogy. Attempting to distil a person’s essence and a lifetime worth of achievements into 500 words. Crafting a plausible narrative, weaving together all the randomness and “life happens” events into a comforting formulaic fairy tale of a life well lived.
Only possible in hindsight. In no way reflecting how the adventure actually felt while being experienced by the decedent.
One line stuck with me. The deceased had “spent their life” helping others.
A medium of exchange denominated in that most precious of commodities: Time.
With an account balance that is only knowable after the fact. Constantly drawn down until exhausted.
The obituary proclaimed the deceased’s life had been spent doing something they found rewarding.
Which was comforting, yet it had been spent just the same. No refunds. No returns.
Wisdom of youth
Later that day, I bumped into my former colleague at the local shopping centre. Still unemployed, but much happier within herself. Richer in life, though poorer of pocket.
She recounted the tense final conversation with HR. Being unceremoniously escorted from the premises by security. Work issue laptop, phone, and security pass confiscated. Replaced by an onerous confidentiality agreement and a redundancy payment in lieu of notice.
No opportunity to say goodbye to her staff. Nor colleagues with whom she remained on good terms.
She confessed that the consequences of her exit had been more far-reaching than she had anticipated.
Health and life insurances cancelled.
Mortgage offer rescinded.
House purchase falling through.
A fruitless job hunt, despite daily media reports decrying a nationwide employee shortage and resultant wage inflation as employers competed over the shallow pool of domestic talent currently available. She described feeling as though she were radioactive. Former colleagues and people she had once thought were friends, all actively distancing themselves for fear of being contaminated by association.
Yet despite the career setback and financial dislocation, she described herself as being content with how she was now investing her time.
A marked change in outlook, where previously she had felt like her time was being spent unwisely.
Another person who was applying the same concepts to time that we do with money.
Save it? Not doing tasks we don’t enjoy. Outsourcing those that others can do more efficiently.
Spend it? A scarce precious commodity, that once used is gone forever. Commuting. Queueing. Devoting it to low-value activities that bring little joy or satisfaction.
Invest it? Using time productively. On activities that generate value, financial or otherwise. Learning. Playing with loved ones. Doing things we derive pleasure from.
My visit to the shopping centre concluded in the toy shop.
A smiling shop assistant announced: “That will be £29.99, please”.
My younger son turned his death stare up to 11 and let me have it. I had declined to pay for his latest coveted treasure. If he wanted it, he would have to either pay for it himself or wait until Christmas.
The boy responded by mimicking the shop assistant’s upbeat sing-song tone of voice. “That is 15 weeks of my life, thank you”.
She raised a questioning eyebrow at me, as a torrent of hard-earned gold coins cascaded from his pockets. The shop assistant expertly corralled the scattering coins, no stranger to unhappy customers emptying their piggy bank onto her countertop.
The boy grabbed his latest acquisition off the counter and stomped towards the exit. I shot her an apologetic shrug as I trailed in his wake. His attitude could use some work, but he was developing an excellent grasp of the concept that wealth is measured in time.
A valuable lesson that few adults ever learn.
“Spending” their lives, without consciously understanding that is what they are doing.