Several years ago, I was employed as a care worker in a large service for people with intellectual disabilities. I supported five men and five women to live independent lives in two different houses in a suburb an hour outside of Dublin, in Ireland.
Much of my job involved performing regular household maintenance and hygiene checks in these bungalows.
I ensured the toilets were clean and the fridges contained enough food. I balanced the houses’ financial accounts, paid bills on behalf of the residents and helped them shop for food in the nearby supermarket.
My job included doing all of the things necessary to keep the two houses running just as I would with my own.
Except I also had to document a significant part of what I did every day in several report books, administer medication and follow policies.
I also sometimes had to work overnight shifts for 12 to 24 hours and slept in a small, cramped bed next to the office desk.
My manager summoned me a review.
These discussions took place every three months, and they served as a means for managers to assess the performance of their teams.
I sat on the bed next to the desk.
My manager pulled a large grey folder from the small wooden shelf, slapped it on the table and adjusted her black narrow-frame glasses.
“I’d like you to reread this Bryan.”
She pushed the grey folder towards me.
I picked up the folder and edged away from her. She was a serious woman who believed her team wasn’t up to meeting their responsibilities, me particularly so.
On good days, I railed against her. On bad ones, I suspected she was right.
The hygiene policy was a heavy grey document. It contained dozens of pages about the household chores we had to complete each day including vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the toilets and so on. The policy also went into painstaking detail about the tick charts and daily reports to fill out.
I put the policy back on the office desk.
“If I spend all day doing these cleaning exercises, how will I have time to take the residents out for coffee or to meet their friends?”
(A big part of the social care profession involves teaching people independent living skills many of us take for granted.)
“When you’re on shift, the house is never clean enough. Please check there’re no crumbs in the toaster, and dust behind the back of the cupboards. We’re getting this place ready for a big hygiene inspection, and you’re letting us down.”
“Will this feel like a normal home for the men and women who live here if we’re going around inspecting the toaster every morning?”
My manager held her head high.
“Just for once Bryan, I wish you would stop asking me questions. I didn’t make this up. It’s service policy; it’s your job; and if you want to work here, you need to follow it.”
The work we were doing in the community was important and satisfying.
I enjoyed helping men and women with intellectual disabilities live full and independent lives in the community.
But I couldn’t handle the day-to-day rules and regulations. It’s in my DNA to ask questions and wonder why I should do things one way and not another.
After school, but before starting my career in social care, I trained for four years as a journalist.
We didn’t talk about fake news back then, but journalism lecturers highlighted the importance of speaking up to authority, of holding anyone who says, “This is how we do things” to account and of asking difficult questions.
My manager didn’t appreciate my difficult questions, and journalism wasn’t paying the bills.
Still, I struggled to get past her habit of criticising team members by leaving notes for everyone to read in a household communication book.
As a team, we relied on this book to hand over information to each other, but it had become a public ledger of my professional failings. My manager often recorded what I’d forgotten to do for everyone to read in this tattered red book, which sat on the office table.
I told myself my manager was doing her best to comply with regulations and policies she had no control over.
I needed to either fall right in line or rise up and into a new role within the service. The pay was OK, and who was I to put pride before compliance?
I enrolled for a masters degree in intellectual disabilities.
I studied. I filled in the tick charts. I read the communication book. I checked the household car for defects. I wrote lengthy reports. I administered medication. I read every policy, and I worked day after day. even showed new team members the way and cleaned behind the toaster.
Most of all, I stopped asking difficult questions.
After I finished college (again), I imagined myself ready for promotion.
So when a more senior internal vacancy came up, I applied.
I was finally ready to manage my own house. I would hold my team in higher regard than my manager us. I would wield household policy with a velvet glove rather than with an iron fist. And I would do away with the household communication book.
A few weeks later, my manager called me into the office.
“I’ve bad news.”
She pushed an envelope across the table. It was from HR.
“Thank you for applying for the role, but we are not calling you forward for interview at this time.”
The HR director wrote about not recognizing my qualification as an appropropriate one and wished me well with my studies.
My manager smiled.
“You have plenty of work to do here. Now about our hygiene inspection…”
I knew then I was irrevocably stuck.
I came home after work and argued with my wife.
“I can’t deal with the depth of madness in that place, and my manager is complaining about my inability to clean the place,” I said.
“They want us to be caretakers, cleaners, doctors, nurses, mechanics, personal assistants and more, and it’s never enough. Why do I have to put up with their unrealistic expectations?”
“You don’t,” my wife said.
“What do you mean?”
“If you hate the job so much, why don’t you just quit?”
“That’s a ridiculous idea,” I said. “I need a paying job. Why would you say something like that? You don’t understand what I’ve to put up with.”
“I understand more than you realize.”
I went upstairs to write about our argument, but instead I reread old entries from my journal.
One began like this:
“I came home from work last Thursday. I sat in the car outside the house for 20 minutes in silence. What is it about this job I hate so much?”
“After work today, I could barely speak to anyone. It was all I could do to go straight to bed. What am I working for?”
In a way, my journal had become a personal communication book, and I needed to find an answer for questions that kept surfacing in my entries.
Worst of all, I was afraid.
An office job came up outside of intellectual disabilities.
At first, I was torn.
Did I really want to turn my back on years of study and hard work?
On the one side lay the security of my current job. It promised stable pay, tedious hygiene checks and stifling policies.
On the other side lay a pay cut and the uncertainty of a career change.
My masters and time spent building a career in an intellectual disability service be damned. Security was turning me into an anxious, depressed and prematurely bald man in his early thirties.
By then my manager was on leave, so I worked out my notice quietly. On my last day, I left my manager a note in the household communication book.
I explained all I had done. I took extra care to document everything there was left to do. I didn’t want them to miss a thing. I wrote:
“The new team members are querying the latest policies and have lots of questions. They need answers.”
Was I retaliating by leaving a note like that in the communication book?
Perhaps. But a secure and well-paying job or career wasn’t enough to quench my inner nature. It burned like a fire in a neighbour’s house and threatened to leap out and burn me up unless I acted.
I’m compelled to ask difficult questions even if I don’t always like where the answers take me. Although my next job didn’t work out either, my only real regret is that I took so long to quit because I was afraid of what lay on the other side.