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Working With Heart
By Angela Jackson   Printer Friendly Version

Picture this. It's Monday morning and you can't wait to get to work! You love your job, what's more, you feel valued and appreciated. Your ideas and contributions to your workplace are encouraged and you know you're an important team player. Sure, you work long hours, but that's okay because you enjoy what you do and feel energized at the end of each day.

Does this sound like you? Would you like it to? I sure would, because I spend a lot of time listening to people talking about how unhappy they are at work. When customizing a presentation, I listen to CEO's, middle management and front line people talk about increased demands, longer hours, poor communication, low morale, a sense of isolation and no time for just plain living. Sure, there are job perks. Many organizations hold quarterly get-togethers, packed with information updates, a motivational speaker and a sweatshirt! Perhaps "dinner and a blow-out" are included. Then its back to the conference table, the computer or the cubicle with the same lingering mis-understandings, unresolved issues and resentments. That there is a problem no one can deny. What can be done about it becomes the critical question.

Let me transport you back to my first job, with the Bet Your Life Insurance Company in Montreal. I was just eighteen and a proud graduate of Sir George William's Secretarial School. I'd been hired after one interview and was excited at the prospect of earning money and being self-sufficient.

I remember the sensations that Monday morning as I walked across the grassy park towards my new place of employment. The darting birds were chirping, the golden sun was shining, and all around me people were setting up booths for an outdoor art exhibit. I was early, so I browsed a bit, enjoying the brightly colored paintings, the easy conversation and sense of excitement in the air. Life was bountiful and I felt part of it.

Smiling, I opened the heavy doors of the Bet Your Life Insurance Company and made my way to the claims department where I would start work. I remember the hard expression of the woman who greeted me. There was no response to my smile, just a cold hello. Forms were pressed in my hand, I was quickly told about business policies and introduced to the office manager, and while she was speaking, a bell resounded followed by an almost deafening crescendo of typewriter clacking. I remember looking at the steno pool, where I would work, seeing row upon row of women lined up at their desks, faces tilted towards the papers beside them, some with dictaphones in their ears, the only sign of life being their fingers, rapidly tapping on those typewriters as if their very lives depended on it.

I stood there, mouth agape, feeling defeated before I began. Fearful that I wasn't fast enough, that I wouldn't fit in. Even my new outfit seemed all wrong. Worse, I felt that somehow I was all wrong too. My confidence and sense of expectancy evaporated. I wanted to run outside to the sunlight and happy voices in the park. It didn't matter that I'd graduated first in my class or that I'd left home and needed a job to survive. That noise, those bells, the dead air, the blank stares, the impersonality of the office felt like a prison. How would I cope?

Thirty years later I show up for my first day of work with the Government. I have a six month contract as the new client service rep. I've taken this job because for the past twelve years I've been speaking, training, and consulting with people about anger, stress and life balance and now I think its time to get back in the trenches again, to walk a mile in those office shoes. There I stand, surveying rows of cubicles. Behind the partitions, men and women sit, eyes fixed upon their computer screens, fingers tapping away. Some wear headsets and speak on the telephone while their fingers keep tapping. What's changed? I feel claustrophobic as I look at the windowless walls. Fluorescent lights dry my eyeballs and bad air rests heavily in my lungs.

We've come a long way with technology in those thirty years, yet the experience of isolation, of being overwhelmed with work, of being anxious, afraid, and undervalued, these feelings come rushing back to me. Steno pools and typewriters have been replaced by cubicles and computers, yet I sense a deadening of spirit emanating throughout the building, an unwritten code of commandments, called the "THOU SHALT NOT's" being followed. "THOU SHALT NOT" enter the doors of this workplace with a spirit of adventure, ready to create another exciting day. "THOU SHALL NOT" bring your whole being to work. "THOU SHALT NOT" notice the daily toll of stress and hurry sickness in our lives. Wait a minute. Who says we have to work like this? Echoes of Samuel Ullman's "Lines may wrinkle the skin but loss of enthusiasm wrinkles the soul." Reverberate through me. What would it take to infuse our workplace with enthusiasm and spirit? To be the contributing member of an organization which encourages people to bring their whole selves, body mind and spirit to work? To plan regular meetings that is spiced with spirited dialogue and innovative ideas? What would it take to create a workplace program to deal with anger, prevent illness and maintain healthy life balance? To institute weekly on-site yoga classes? To make sure the cafeteria has fresh, nourishing food? How could we foster a climate where risk taking and making mis-takes are considered valuable learning experiences? Where people are encouraged to be imaginative and fallible, and everyone is invited to contribute and listen to untested ideas. Where people are encouraged to take time to share their concerns with others. What would it take to create a workplace with heart?

We know it's not outer decor that makes the difference. Or mission statements on display. We've tried that along with quality circles, lean and mean, self-directed teams and coming to the party. What we've not done is bring ourselves, our whole selves, our vibrant, yearning, running over the edges, unbridled, expressive selves to the workplace.

Do you think we could commit to a real policy of doing more with less - more fun, more spontaneity, more exploration, more genuine caring and compassion, less bureaucracy, less intimidation, less fear and tension, less greed and power-mongering?

I think we could. We could start by looking at the definition of work - "effort exerted to do or make something, toil, labor, employment, occupation, task." Webster's dictionary.

Does this sound inspiring to you? The very definition of what we spend most of our lives doing seems life-less, flat, dull. Lets get another definition, like the definition of "wonder" found on the previous page in Webster's which reads "A person, thing or event causing astonishment and admiration, marvel, ...to have curiosity, to be filled with wonder".

What would it be like if we set off with this attitude in the morning? If our mission was to feel.........wonder! Would this bring zest to our days? Curiosity? Joy? Would this attitude open our eyes to limitless possibilities? Could we create "wonder palaces" instead of "work places?"

I think we could do it! Each one of us, wherever we are, can start by doing just one thing to make it happen. Doing the thing in front of us to do. Leland Val Van de Wall said, "do the thing and then you'll get the energy to do the thing." So what's in front of you that is crying for change? That nagging task you've put off for months? Is it in recognizing that you're part of the solution instead of affirming the problem? Who do you know at work that needs a helping hand but won't ask? How can you make life better for someone else? Could you be the one who makes the phone call to check out the quality of air? To book that yoga class? We are as powerful as the thoughts we imagine and how we follow them through into action, so if it's going to be it's up to?

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