Late Sleep Early
Andrew Key reflects on what it's like to be a social care worker in a residential mental health project in Sheffield
As I sit down to write this, I’m coming off the back of 25 hours straight at work. Because my job takes place in a registered care home that provides 24/7 care, ‘breaks’ aren’t really a thing. Sometimes there are quieter moments, when the pressure is off for about ten minutes, and you can sit on a pleather sofa, drinking a cup of tea and looking at your phone, or complaining with the one other colleague you’re on shift with, but at any point you can be interrupted by a resident, who will immediately need your full attention. These little snippets of stolen time don’t really allow for much rest. You might think it’s illegal to not give workers regular timed breaks, but there are a lot of nice little legal loopholes in situations such as mine, glossed with terms like “compensatory rest”, i.e. you can rest as much as you want after your shift.
Now, when I say I was at work for 25 hours, this is—in terms of the legal technicalities—not exactly true. Yes, I was at my workplace from 1:30pm yesterday until 2:30pm today, and no, I did not leave my workplace in that time. But between 10pm last night and 8am this morning I was doing a sleep-in shift (remunerated at a flat-rate of £32.94 for the whole period), which means that in the eyes of my employer—and, according to a fairly recent legal decision, in the eyes of employment law—I am not ‘at work’ but simply ‘available to work’. What this means is spending 10 hours on my own locked inside an office which I am not allowed to leave without having first established contact with emergency services, lying on the now pulled-out pleather sofa-bed, trying to read, looking at my phone, listening out for a resident to come and knock at the window and ask for medication or to call the office to tell me they’re afraid of the street noises outside, trying to sleep, being kept awake by the sound of the pipes clanking in the ceiling or the fridge whining.
Since I’m not ‘at work’ but merely ‘available to work’, I don’t earn minimum wage for this period. I get paid a bit more if I’m disturbed by a resident, but not if I’m disturbed by anything else. It’s never possible to get any real sleep in this room: the fabrics are all sprayed with flame retardant liquids which leave a sticky residue, and after having just spent 8 hours in a room illuminated with those fluorescent strip-lights, sustaining myself with instant coffee, I’m always kind of weirdly wired and exhausted at the same time. And I always think that the residents who live on the other side of the dead-bolted door are going to wander into the room; they invade the slight dreams I manage to have and I expect to see them standing at the foot of my bed. So I toss and turn for the night, get up into the thin morning light before my colleague turns up at 8am, then do another shift in the morning. Not all of my shifts are like this—a ‘late/sleep/early’ as they’re called—but a good amount of them are. They get easier the more you do them, of course; you learn how to pace yourself, how much of yourself to give to the residents at any time, when to eat, when to stop drinking the shit coffee, what to put off until tomorrow. But by hour 20 of being there, no matter what’s happened, I am tired and increasingly unable to focus or give people the attention and patience they need from me. I become worse at my job. Usually when I get home afterwards I can’t do much at all, even though it’s only mid-afternoon. I typically just sit around until it’s night, trying to eat some vegetables, sleeping a little bit, feeling like all the wrinkles in my brain have been smoothed over with Polyfilla.
A little while ago I took someone I’ll refer to as E, one of the residents, to a blood test. Some anti-psychotic medications require very regular blood tests because they can encourage your body to fuck itself up if you take them every day for years, as many people with treatment-resistant diagnoses of schizophrenia are legally required to do. E is a big guy who can be quite boisterous, but when the needle when into his arm and he winced, I was filled with a painful, deep, tender love for him. Not pity or empathy: love. The love I feel in fleeting bursts at work is painful and complicated and it would probably be better to not feel it. It’s a job. I scrub a lot of toilets. Often, I’m basically a very patient janitor with a capacity to listen calmly to a distressed person. But when your job is to care for vulnerable people, and you spend time with them and see them as individuals rather than as a set of symptoms to cure or problems to fix, you will very likely begin to love them, sometimes. This might seem like a reward that comes from doing social care work, but it’s not. A reward would be better pay, better conditions, feeling less like you’re being held in contempt by the government for doing socially necessary but not financially lucrative work.
Like the long shifts, I worry that this also might make me worse at my job: less effective somehow. This is a worry I want to fight against, but, at the same time, my relationship to this job is one where I am in a constant struggle to detach myself from the work, from the people, from the political and social forces which structure the work. It’s a job. It’s a means to an end: it pays the rent and gives me time to write, or to not write, as I want. But the real work, the work at the core of the job is indisputably more meaningful than any other job I’ve ever had, and I never doubt that. It’s crucial that we provide care and attention and time to people whom society has made unwell and then punished for expressing that illness.
Until now I’ve been on a zero hours contract but due to a combination of fortuitous circumstances and some bluffing on my part, I’ve managed to land myself a regular part-time contract. Not a lot of hours, but enough for my purposes. Because of my zero hours contract, I’ve worked quite irregularly. Some weeks I work a lot, and then other weeks not at all. Zero hours contracts are terrible and should be illegal, but I regretfully do have to acknowledge that I like being in the position where I can turn down shifts I don’t want to take, and I can take weeks at a time off (unpaid, of course). It’s a mixed bag. Anyway, since I started the job I’ve been doing this ‘art project' on Instagram. My workplace is up a big flight of 151 stairs behind the train station in Sheffield, and at the top of the stairs there’s a nice view. At the start of every shift I go and stand in more or less the same spot every time I go to work and I take a photo of the landscape, which doesn’t change, and the weather, which does change. It’s the same photo, more or less, but always different, because every day the light is somehow new. I usually put these photos on my Stories. What I like about these photos, this project, is that it replicates a lot of how I’ve come to see the work: the work is not really about recovery or rehabilitation or about ‘curing’ mental illness, whatever that might mean. It’s about helping people who sometimes need to take flight from the horror and pain and despair of their everyday life, people who might retreat into psychosis from time to time, and ensuring that when they’re ready to try and start to come back to the everyday, it’s still there for them. Their clothes are clean, they have bed linen, there’s food, there’s toilet paper, their doctors appointments are taken care of, if they need meds they don’t have to go and collect them from the pharmacy. The everyday is not about progression, or forwards momentum. It’s about repetition and doing the same thing over and over, as a way of sustaining and reproducing the world. Within that repetition there is always change, novelty, difference. No two shifts are alike; no two residents are alike; none of the photos I take are the same. Maybe my colleagues or my employer would refute that description of the work, maybe this will result in an email from HR, but it’s my way of resisting the despair that threatens to arise when I spend my time embroiled in the intersection of social care policy, the crumbling health system, and the claustrophobic points at which the criminal justice system intersects with the residents’ lived experience of very intense mental distress.
Social care is in the process of losing a lot of employees because it is one of the few sectors where COVID vaccinations are mandatory. I think people should get vaccinated, but I understand why many of my colleagues and other workers in the sector are worried about this kind of policy. The pay is shit. The conditions are shit. The work is often degrading and exhausting and extremely challenging. Workers are treated with contempt by their employers and by the government. The job is making me become a little ungenerous in my thinking, and I’m finding myself getting irritated whenever I read about an exhibition by some cool young artist or a new book by a full professor of sociology, or whatever, which takes ‘care’ as its subject. I was incredibly naive when I started the job, and I still basically know shit all about shit all, but I know a lot more than I did ten months ago. There is an employment crisis in the sector: nobody wants to take the many jobs which are available. The vaccine thing builds on the deficit from Brexit. It’s fucked. The lack of people willing to take on the work obviously results in the remaining employees becoming overstretched and exhausted and miserable and worse at their jobs. It is not easy to work with someone experiencing psychosis when you are exhausted yourself. The other day when I got to the top of the stairs there was a fence in the way of the spot that I take my photographs from. It felt like a truly stupid, perfect metaphor.
Recently I read this book by the French poet Yves Bonnefoy called The Arrière-Pays. I’m not sure if I fully understood it, but it’s one of those books that feels like it might, with time, become a very important book for me because it started to get towards describing an opaque feeling I’ve had many times in the past but which I’ve struggled to understand. The arrière-pays is Bonnefoy’s way of describing some vague sense of an elsewhere. It’s a feeling which, for him at least, is evoked by the landscapes in the backgrounds of Italian paintings from the quattrocento: those rolling hills with tiny mysterious cities and castles in the distance. The arrière-pays is the ‘over there’, the road not taken, the other country where things will be reconciled and there’ll be a feeling of some kind of genuine belonging. "I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads … It seems to me that here, or close by, a couple of steps away on the path I didn't take and which is already receding – that just over there a more elevated kind of country would open up, where I might have gone to live …” If something about this sounds a bit utopian or mystical that’s probably accurate, but for Bonnefoy it has a lot to do with the invention of perspective in painting, and he also reflects on dreams and the return of experiences or memories from very early childhood, from the ages before we used concepts to understand and organise everything we encountered in the world. It’s complicated to think about. But reading the book helped me realise something about the reason I take those photographs before my shifts. It isn’t because I particularly like the cityscape of Sheffield, marred as it is with bland student accommodation high-rises. I take the photos because on the horizon you can see the edge of the Peak District; green-brown fields, heather, often the rain sweeping across the moors. I’ve walked through the fields I can see in the photos, multiple times, and I know for a fact that they’re not this magical place where everything will be OK forever. But when I look at them in the distance just before my shifts, at 7am on an early autumn day, and they’re illuminated by a thin light and the mist is hanging over them, and there’s a cold drizzle, this feeling starts to flicker somewhere inside of me, this sense of an elsewhere just over there, this strange tension, this strange promise of transformation inside the experience of the everyday, inside the repetition and the encounter with the mundane, within the tension between the normality of routine and the sometimes wild uniqueness of the people I spend my time caring for at work. But it is there: that sense that through a close attention to the cycles of everyday life, some slight hope is possible, a suggestion for a way of being in the world that doesn’t feel so obstructed, so fenced in, but which feels real, unconstrained, maybe even free.