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There was never a time when there was not too much to do, we were in a perpetual state of nearly failing.

Organisational culture can create an incredibly intimidating working environment, in which stress is the norm. But adversity can also bring out the antidote. Here’s my story…

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Back in the day

In a previous life, I started my career at Yorkshire Post Newspapers (YPN), holed up somewhere deep in the belly of its mercilessly masculine building, an ugly concrete silo on the outskirts of Leeds city centre. For whose benefit eludes me to this day, a decision must have been made by inhumane architects to deny the entire Pre-Press floor a single window. Mercifully, this war crime monstrosity of a building has recently been demolished.

Those were the early days of electronic output, the days when Quark XPress was the only option, leading to everyone’s tolerance of its legendarily awful customer care. In fact some rather elderly typesetters and compositors remained in the department either because they had not achieved a suitable redundancy package or because the management still feared the computers would seize up and the newspaper wouldn’t happen without skilful lead blockers on hand to revisit Victorian printing methods.

But for YPN, the acceptance of this paradigm shift was a necessity. It had to embrace the new dawn of progress, and implement the upgrades as a big bang change – no running in parallel here. Whatever fed the presses, they remained hungry.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/6″ offset=”vc_hidden-xs”][vc_empty_space height=”40px”][vc_single_image image=”1600″ img_size=”full” alignment=”right”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”5/6″][vc_column_text]

The engines of war

The department exclusively used Apple computers. This was the era of the big beige Performas in the mid-to-late 1990s, rammed with extra RAM that came on 1Mb sticks. They crashed on a regular basis. And when a Performa crashed, it did so without warning and without compromise. The sound of an Apple rebooting (which hasn’t changed to this day) used to boom out across the department like shells landing on a battlefield.

To keep the engines of war alive, we (the footsoldiers) had to run just to stay upright like hamsters on an absurd productivity wheel rigged with explosives. We were getting our heads around new technologies, unnecessarily complex and mind-numbingly slow by today’s standards, all the while peripherally eyeing the clock tick ever-closer to the print deadline.

The network was so slow that if anyone printed anything, the spinning beach ball of death would appear on everyone else’s screen. And this was a print-based publisher, so printing was not unheard of.

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Way down in the hole

In this bizarre strip-bulb world, at the very heart of the whole nuclear bunker, was the page output, colour-correction and scanning war room, known affectionately as the Dark Room. It did have lighting installed, but its use was forbidden. In this gloomy hole, photo transparencies and negatives were scanned by lasers on drum scanners the size of submarines, an Eskofot machine tried desperately to match the dot patterns of previously printed materials and colour-correctors would sit forlornly in front of screens, wondering whether Photoshop had just crashed, or it was still thinking about it.

Those screens were adjusted with unnatural gamma settings to try to visually compensate for the 20% dot gain that the ultra-absorbent newspaper was going to add to the ink during the printing process. Essentially, photographers took nice pictures, the screen made them look horribly dark, even in this darkest of dark rooms, then we tried to guess how to make them look nice again. This was a complete artform, and the final images in the paper seldom looked anything like either you expected or the photographer originally envisaged.

In the winter, we would enter the building before sun-up and leave after sun-down, so those with shifts in the Dark Room were essentially nocturnal, pale red-eyed beings with mole-like twitchings. Lunch, if it was taken at all, would be spent at the keyboard, since a culture had somehow developed in which ‘breaks’ were frowned upon.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/6″ offset=”vc_hidden-xs”][vc_empty_space height=”40px”][vc_single_image image=”1600″ img_size=”full” alignment=”right”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”5/6″][vc_column_text]

Empathy in the pressure cooker

Operatives throughout the department worked their shifts with the kind of imperative productivity that only appears in such deadline-driven environments, where nearly every mistake you made ended up nakedly fixed in print on tomorrow’s news-stand. The work was repetitive and dull, despite the creative and technical skills of the workforce, like being a pianist told he couldn’t use the black notes.

We were hamstrung by erratic technology, perplexed by new workflows, driven by fear, tortured by the inevitability of our own mediocrity. There was never a time when there was not too much to do, we were in a perpetual state of nearly failing.

In hindsight, this was an interesting place to start a career, because the first lesson you needed to learn was not how to absorb an organisational culture (it was already in your face) or structure (it was absolutely hierarchical) or know the brand (that was a function of a rather aloof editorial department) or understand the product (a paper is a paper). No, the trick here from the very outset was to become adept at managing stress.

It was not a place where the perfectionist could survive, so I quickly had to denature myself a little on that front. It was not a place where academic success or qualifications mattered. The work sank or swam on the back of the buoyancy offered by co-worker empathy. It was very social. There was a strength in togetherness that bled from the turmoil of the situation. A sort of band of brothers.

Everyone helped everyone else, knowing full well that some weren’t going to make it. This was not an edict from on high, it simply happened that way. Of course there were personality clashes in the mix, but we all seemed to be on the same team.

Stress is not exclusive to any domain or field of endeavour, but it is relative. Deadlines are inescapable; they present an unusually stark barometer of success or failure. Time is the enemy. Where quantity and speed of output are all-important, quality becomes reduced to a nicety, a by-product only achieved through fighting time with maximum efficiency, but even then it seems accidental. At YPN, those revered as masters in this world were those who got it right more than half of the time.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/6″ offset=”vc_hidden-xs”][vc_empty_space height=”40px”][vc_single_image image=”1600″ img_size=”full” alignment=”right”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”5/6″][vc_column_text]

The uncertainty principle

The school and university years have their own stresses. They are sometimes abstract, relating to future progression along unknown paths, vague promises of wealth and success. They can also be very real indeed, especially relating to competition amongst peers and how one is perceived by others.

This is a social predicament, and in that sense, perhaps skills are developed here that prepare for the rigours of corporate social stresses and responsibilities.

It could be argued the difference is that co-operation and empathy are social maturities yet to be acquired by many teenagers. And coping with stress is not (to my knowledge) taught in schools or even universities as a skill.

But I have seen work cultures where people of all ages struggle to escape from self interest, where ambition overwhelms altruism (and sometimes common decency), where the qualified seem inept or unfathomably difficult to work with and the unqualified hold a team together and drive a brand forward. Again, education or achievement have little bearing here.

Ultimately, everybody’s stress is unique to their character, their situation and their interactions with others. Some people stress over lack of responsibility, others over the burden of too much responsibility. Some people stress about the tint of their fake tan.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/6″ offset=”vc_hidden-xs”][vc_empty_space height=”40px”][vc_single_image image=”1600″ img_size=”full” alignment=”right”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”5/6″][vc_column_text]

The altruism of chaos

Although it’s relatively recent research, there is now evidence that self-sacrifice and altruism may be biological imperatives (Altruism can be explained by natural selection, for example), that community is about more than strength in numbers – it is an innate driver in evolution of the success of creatures with social environments. Like us.

Despite a fairly resilient nature, I acknowledge that my first job changed me. I believe that I have been far better equipped to deal with stress at work and at home since this baptism of fire. Because whatever happened, the newspaper got printed. Sometimes you had to collectively move hell and earth to make it happen. And sometimes you had to collectively shit a miracle. The thing that made you turn up for work the next day was a bizarre pride in the fact that you survived yesterday, but mainly not wanting to let your colleagues down. You could not let them down.

In my experience, it’s a shame that the culture of camaraderie only emerges fully in periods of adversity because it has the power to make any team greater than the sum of its parts when they’re not firefighting, nearly failing or shitting miracles. Empathy is a weapon worth harnessing as a preventative measure in the war on stress, as well as an extremely effective band aid once battle commences.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row]