On World Teachers Day, my boss approached me while I was flat out putting hats, sunscreen, and shoes on 22 restless toddlers. She handed me a flower and said “thanks for all your hard work!” before hurrying off. I was furious, and binned it.
Ungrateful? Yes, but the tokenistic gesture felt more like an insult when every other day of the year, my fellow educators and I were ignored as we desperately cried out for the basic resources we needed to do our jobs. Hopelessly understaffed, the centre had an astounding turnover rate averaging one departure per week – bad news for the small children in our care who need and deserve stability to thrive. I can’t describe how heartbreaking it is to be trusted with a child’s welfare, and only be able to do a half-arsed job despite running yourself ragged trying. The culture of the workplace was evident on everyone’s faces as I would pass my co-workers who smiled at me with dead eyes, and you could feel the resentment in the air as people did the best they could for the sake of the kids, and the kids only. “You don’t know how lucky you are to work here,” we were told by managers who were notorious for spending no time in the classrooms, but occasionally sweeping through and barking criticism.
Like all my peers before me, I eventually started to break down – and so did my relationship. “What’s happening to you?”, my boyfriend asked one night after I returned from doing two hours unpaid overtime. “We used to have so much fun, but I haven’t seen you smile in months and now you’re just stressed and cranky all the time.” Fair call. While I never intentionally took it out on him, my stress certainly had an effect on our relationship, as we spent fewer nights laughing in the kitchen and more nights dealing with my excessive stress. My health suffered as I fuelled myself with caffeine and found comfort in fried foods.
Inevitably, the day came when I walked out. I didn’t have another job lined up. It was a rash decision, and my last week involved a barrage of parents demanding to know why yet another educator was leaving – some of them, I found out later, pulled their children out. It was a few months out from Christmas, so with a bit of retail experience in my past, I headed to every Westfield in my vicinity and handed out dozens of resumes to stores who I knew would be in a hiring frenzy. In the bright storefront of a beauty and skincare brand, a cheerful sales assistant told me she’d pass on my resume to the manager. ‘She seems really nice,’ I thought as I walked out, not noticing an award in the store window from Great Places to Work Australia. They were one of the retailers who called me back for an interview, and after deliberating between a few offers, I joined their team.
The first sign I’d landed in a great workplace was the training – my God, there were flashcards and everything. What is this black magic? They’re thoroughly equipping me to do the best I can? This is new. Next came the encouragement from my new manager, who cheered me on after every little success, and pointed out my mistakes honestly but with respect, and a positive emphasis on learning from them. This is definitely new. More than anything, there was a culture of shared responsibility. Rather than criticising from afar, the manager was on the front line with us and made it clear that the store’s success depended on us all working as a united team. Likewise, higher-ups such as the area manager also made regular appearances with the same ‘let’s lift each other up’ attitude. They paid attention to our strengths and delegated responsibilities accordingly, and I discovered I had a talent for organising inventory that I never knew about.
I noticed each co-worker arriving for their shifts with enthusiasm and a huge smile. They checked the KPIs for the day, got to work, and high-fived each other when goals were reached – and most importantly, all of it was truly genuine. Most of them have long tenures of several years, and have personal relationships with the customers, who are just as loyal to the brand as the staff are. Suddenly, my biggest problem at work was listening to Christmas carols on repeat. There’s only so much Michael Bublé anyone can take.
Though I work hard, I no longer drain all of my mental energy just getting through each day, and as such I’ve found the space to work on my hobby and side gig of writing. Now, I’m in the early stages of building my own little freelance business – a feat which was unthinkable in August, and a symbol of not only perfect work-life balance, but meaning. Meaning through balancing passion and work. Meaning through working for a company that has core values surrounding corporate social responsibility. Meaning through helping customers and making them happy. And meaning through my personal development and seeing a real future in my workplace.
My mental health has improved, and with it my motivation and productivity. It’s a beautiful afternoon, and after I finish writing, I’m going to walk the dog and laugh in the kitchen with my boyfriend while we make dinner.
Author: Rebecca de Britt