*** TW: brief mention of suicidal ideation ***
I had a meaningful interaction with my boss this week that really stuck with me.
He asked me to monitor a coworker’s emails while they were on holidays this week, to look out for a few important things that were due to come in. So I did, and I printed them off and left them on my boss’s desk for him to review. At one point he came over and asked me whether I had reviewed them as well.
I froze. My mind began to race. I felt my throat tighten. My hands trembled. Was I supposed to review them? Was this a trick question? Was I in trouble?
“No,” I said, nervous. “I didn’t know if I was allowed to read it.”
“What do you mean, allowed?” my boss replied with a laugh. “Of course you can read it. I wouldn’t have told you to monitor them if you weren’t allowed to see them. We’re a team in this office. We’re all just trying to work together to get shit done. We can’t be a team by withholding information from each other, now, can we?”
Relief washed over me. Not for the first time, I thought to myself: that conversation would have gone much differently with a previous employer of mine.
My Workplace Horror Story
Once upon a time, I was working in a communications position. Why and how I stayed for so long, I still don’t know.
The dynamic there was very different than it is at my current job. I don’t think I heard my old boss use the word “team” even once, in all the years I was there. Because it was such a small office, I spent a lot of one-on-one time with my boss. To put it mildly, they had a short fuse. They often seemed stressed or overwhelmed, which they would take out on whoever happened to be around at the time. Most times, that person was me.
Every so often I’d hear them through the thin walls, unleashing hell on my coworker for reasons unknown. Selfishly, I’d think to myself how glad I was that it wasn’t me this time.
They always kept their office door closed, a perfect metaphor for the lack of communication that happened there. They were always giving me a hard time for not asking enough questions, but whenever I did ask a question they’d say “well, that’s a stupid question.” They frequently made comments that made me uncomfortable. For example, one day they were going on and on about how people with tattoos are “bums.” I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt that day, clearly exposing the tattoos that covered my forearms.
They liked things done precisely their way, or it was all wrong. They’d throw me under the bus for mistakes that had nothing to do with me. They insisted on being cc’d on every single one of my outgoing emails. Whenever I’d hand them written copy for review, they’d pick apart every word and sentence. I’d usually end up sitting there taking notes while they dictated exactly what they wanted me to write, word for word. I’d often find myself thinking why did you hire me if you insist on doing everything yourself?
In those three years, I became an entirely different person against my will. My mental health was at an all-time low. Every morning I woke up dreading going to work, and by the time I got home I was so exhausted that all I wanted to do was sink into the couch. I stopped seeing my friends. I lost interest in my hobbies and my grades started to slip. Just getting out of bed in the mornings took an enormous amount of effort, so the idea of doing things like housework and groceries seemed unbearable.
At the time, I was working 30 to 40 hour weeks all while balancing a full course load and a fairly intensive freelancing gig on the side. I was busy, but not busy enough to be that tired all the time.
Meanwhile, my performance at work was also slipping. I started calling in sick a lot. When I did work, I spent my lunch hours having panic attacks in the washroom. Getting any kind of positive reinforcement from my boss was like pulling a tooth. I’m not the kind of person who needs a pat on the back for every little thing, but I’m not exaggerating when I say they said “thank you” four times to me the entire time I was there. No, I’m not exaggerating. Yes, I counted.
My coworker (bless her) told me a few times that she was glad I was there and that my work was appreciated; I think she could see I was struggling. For the first time since 2012, I was having thoughts of suicide. But it wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to die, I just wanted to rest. I was tired of going through the motions of day to day life, and I began to wonder “is this all there is?”
That was when I started researching burnout.
According to Psychology Today, burnout is defined as a persistent state of stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment and a sense of ineffectiveness/lack of accomplishment. This leads to an inability to function properly at work and on a personal level.
When burnout goes unaddressed for too long, it becomes habitual burnout. This is also known as chronic burnout, or burnout syndrome. And that’s exactly where I was. The symptoms of burnout had become so embedded in my life, that I was experiencing a significant ongoing problem, as opposed to occasionally experiencing stress or burnout.
Habitual burnout can be incredibly traumatic, and can even lead to physical health problems.
My overall mental health improved significantly as soon as I left that job. When I started at my current job, it felt like the moment when Dorothy lands in Oz and suddenly everything turns to colour.
For so long I suffered under constant scrutiny, criticism and micromanagement. It was refreshing to be at a job where people just let me work and trusted my ability to do my job. It made me feel confident in my own skills again.
Pretty recently, I made an oopsie at work. Immediately my survival instincts kicked in, and I went into defense mode. I worked myself into a fit and literally gave myself a full-blown panic attack. I prepared to be reprimanded and degraded, but instead my boss went over the task again with me, identified the area where I went wrong and walked me through how to fix it. No harm done. That may seem like a completely normal way to go about things, but to me it wasn’t. He didn’t even mind when I made the same mistake again a few weeks later.
That conversation would have gone much differently with my previous employer.
This may sound ridiculous, but I think my toxic former workplace might have given me a mild case of PTSD. I often find myself overreacting to things that aren’t actually a big deal. When my boss and coworkers ask me something, I automatically assume it’s a trick question. I’m always on the defensive. My self-confidence when it comes to my own skills has been badly damaged, hopefully not beyond repair. I wish I had paid more attention to the signs of burnout and left before they became habitual.
If your job is making you feel constantly stressed out and frustrated to the point that it’s seeping into other parts of your life, it may be time to start exploring other options.
That’s not to say I don’t sometimes feel frustrated at work, or have low mental health days. I’m also not saying I’m no longer susceptible to burnout, because that’s absolutely not true. That’s a risk everyone faces. There are many factors that cause burnout, and it can happen whether you love your job or hate it. The important thing is to know your limits and know the signs.
What Makes A Leader?
My one year anniversary at my job is coming up in September, and the novelty of working in a real team environment still hasn’t worn off. I’m filled with gratitude. Never will I take the words “can I give you a hand with that?” or “this looks great, thanks so much” for granted again.
I’ve learned that “company culture” is more than just a corporate buzzword–it can actually make or break a job. If your organization has poor company culture, it will almost certainly be reflected in your bottom line. A 2018 report by Globoforce found that 89 per cent of HR leaders agree that ongoing peer feedback and check-ins are key factors in productivity and employee engagement. In fact, having a highly engaged team results in a 41 per cent reduction in absenteeism and a 17 per cent increase in productivity. This in turn results in up to 21 per cent higher profitability, according to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report.
As for me, going from such a toxic environment to an office where I feel actively encouraged, appreciated and validated has made all the difference in the world. I feel proud and satisfied with my work again. I no longer get that hollow feeling of dread in my stomach when I wake up for work in the morning. In the evenings, I find myself with plenty of energy to cook dinner with my partner, see friends, do some art or writing, or even get some housework done.
George E.M. Kelly once said “Remember the difference between a boss and a leader. A boss says, go! A leader says, let’s go.“
Now, when mistakes are made at work or things go wrong, instead of playing the blame game, we focus on working together to find the solution. Every morning my boss asks me how my night was. He checks in on me often and asks if I have any questions or concerns that he can help with. He and my coworkers make me feel truly valued and cared for.
And at least most of the time, his office door is usually open.
© Victoria St. Michael 2021