toxic jobs

Personal stories about toxic jobs and workplace woes.

January 29, 2008

bean counters and coffee breaks

When Trisha returned to work after an absence of eight years raising children she could not believe how toxic the workplace had become during that time. She was expected to work for five hours without a break and to drink water at her desk rather than enjoy a coffee break.

"Sometime during those eight years the traditional mid-morning and mid-afternoon tea or coffee break disappeared off the map of the workplace," says Trisha. "Just like that."

"How did it happen? Who was responsible for breaking this tradition?"

Trisha doesn't know the whole story - she doubts if anyone does - but she imagines that in some lavishly furnished office somewhere in the world the bean counters and the management consultants got together to devise yet another way to cut costs and maximize their profits.

Some management guru with a camel-like liquid storage capacity suggested that if he could get by without morning and afternoon refreshment then so could staff. The ten minutes staff waste filling themselves with tea and coffee each morning and afternoon could be better spent being productive.

There were excited murmurs in the room. This could work!

Spreadsheets were drawn up and massive projections were made to see how many billions of dollars companies could save if this simple cost-effective measure were promulgated. Finally, much to the camel's delight, his suggestion was accepted. They patted him on his hump - oops, back - gave him a check for a million dollars and off he padded to the nearest bar to get tanked.

The idea spread like wildfire throughout the world. The office tea and coffee bar area no longer served as a meeting place where workers would congregate to chat, refreshing themselves with mid-morning and mid-afternoon tea or coffee. That wonderful workplace camaraderie that once happened, quite naturally, twice a day, when everyone downed tools and tuned-out for ten minutes, together, was gone forever.

Trisha notices that the facilities remain, but now they are merely places where weak-willed workers sneak into very furtively to indulge in a quick and lonely caffeine fix on their way to or from a toilet break.

"You see," explains Trisha, "it was not just that management deplored staff wasting their time having liquid refreshment when they could quite easily survive for 5 hours without it - and keep on working - but they also deplored caffeine addiction in their workers."

Any addiction - except work addiction - was seen as a sign of a weak character. First they got rid of the nicotine addicts, now they were getting rid of the caffeine addicts.

Every office had its stoics - those who could survive for 5 hours without liquid refreshment, just like a camel - but Trisha and the other weak willed workers were shamed into storing bottles of water under their desks in order to survive the drought. And, for those, like Trisha, who had a caffeine addiction in addition to being poorly endowed in the liquid storage capacity area, clever ploys had to be devised in order to get a fix at work.

The well-organized caffeine addicts brought flasks of the addictive liquids, ready made from home; but Trisha made use of the hot water facilities at work to concoct her brew and take it back to her desk, being very careful to avoid the glare of the stoics as she snuck past them.

How anyone can hate the aroma of coffee or deplore those who have a caffeine addiction is beyond Trisha’s comprehension, but maybe the stoics with camel-like liquid storage capacities are a breed apart from the rest of us.

"In fact," says Trisha, "some stoics are super-stoic in that they can work through lunchtime, too - and can stay later than anybody else at the office - and they make an incredible impression on management which, of course, is their intention."

Anyway, for someone of Trisha’s vintage who can remember the good old days prior to the 1990s when a ten minute break in the morning and the afternoon was set aside for staff to stop work and congregate for some social banter - maybe duck out to buy a cappuccino and have a quick smoke - the demise of the tea or coffee break has been heart-breaking.

With more and more Baby Boomers opting out of this miserable existence - either to retire early or start their own businesses - the functional, soul-less corporate workplaces will be left entirely to the stoics who will, no doubt, gladly accept the next lame-brained penny-pinching suggestion at a think-tank of bean counters and management consultants.

"Let's see," ponders Trisha, "a shark-like type who never sleeps might suggest a 24-hour working day. After all, if he can do it, so can staff!"

"When pushed just a little bit over some magical line," says Trisha, "the stoics might finally wake up to the fact that they are human, too, and then it will be Revenge of the Stoics! There will be a stoic revolution far worse than any revolution in history and the heads rolling this time around will not be that of royalty but of corporate chairpersons, bean counters and management consultants."

Trisha is sad for herself but mostly for her adult children and as yet unborn grandchildren who will never know the pleasure of a good old-fashioned morning and afternoon tea or coffee break exactly as she knew it. Her children can’t believe that workplaces were once so easy going, but then Trisha remembers her own mother telling her about tea ladies.

In the 1950s, when Trisha’s mother worked in a typing pool, the tea or coffee break was such a sacred occasion that companies actually hired tea ladies to serve the girls tea and cookies at their desks. Imagine that!

"These days, of course," laughs Trisha, "they would be called Tea-Persons, but that’s another story."

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