worrying? check.

by mch on June 12, 2009

Back in my illustrious career as an ice-cream scooper, I remember the panic I felt when the local little league team lined up outside the handy take-out window. This window was only operational during the summertime, and only ever got much of a line after little league games or other events around town. The take-out line was not a consideration when the staffing schedule was set up; we managed that line with the same number of bodies (usually one, maybe two) as if we had only inside, restaurant business.

I could write a whole book about management experiences and lessons learned from the horrible ice cream job. (I’ve done far more emotionally-charged work but this is the only job that gave me regular anxiety dreams.) But one night, thanks to a visibly endless take-out line I learned a special lesson about how I worry and how to end it.

When the outside line started to stack up, it was physically impossible to lean across two big rows of ice cream bins and then look outside the window to estimate the length of the line. Anyone working the window had to survive it moment by moment.

Everytime the line started, I worried. I worried we’d run out milkshake cups and be forced to climb into the restaurant’s attic to find new ones (and lose ten minutes in the process). I worried the line would grow and we’d be scooping past closing time. I worried everyone would want super sundaes. All these things I could not control, but I worried they were lurking behind each order and would ruin (?) my night.

That one night I was working alongside my shift manager, who’d stepped in to give me a hand. She was the only manager likely to do this, and I was more than grateful to have her help. She was running around in a bit of an anxiety-swirl as well (this job was really not for the feint of heart) and was muttering under her breath about the milk shake cups and ice cream cone stock. Every time she worried, it was as if part of my worry ebbed. I was not anxious that night, though I was working as hard as ever. It surprised me, I even found a sense of humor and could boost her morale a little bit. This one night I was protected by my manager, who was thinking ahead and taking the brunt of the anxiety for me. When she worried, I didn’t have to because I knew she was on it.

Now, of course worrying doesn’t do anyone any real good. But in this job, worrying was the way I coped with what I now see were major management problems. I didn’t have the resources to do my job well, we were perpetually understaffed, and had no power to change a bit of it. So really, worrying was the only thing I could do (and is not a choice I generally recommend).

But I am grateful for what I learned from my manager that night. That a good manager can anticipate problems, take the big picture view, and try as hard as she can to take the brunt of the worry for her employees. Which lets them do their jobs.

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