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Dublin: 13 °C Friday 29 May, 2020

'My doctor insisted I leave the job, and signed me off on stress leave'

We’re not entitled to be unhappy with how we are being treated in the workplace. You are seen as a malcontent, someone who doesn’t respect authority, or that you didn’t want to do the hard work.

Anonymous Female Image

I HAVE ALWAYS been determined to succeed and get ahead in life. I earned both my bachelor’s degree and master’s by the time I was 21. I worked hard – part-time jobs in hotels, retail, even working a back-breaking job on the night shift in a major retailer stocking shelves. I always worked well, I gave 100%. I’m smart, efficient, and I get on with people.

I did every bit of work put in front of me, being paid peanuts, working all kinds of hours. Notice, home life, fair pay, or mental health weren’t really a consideration for employers, but hey, I was getting my foot in the door, and trying to make it.

Unreasonable expectations

Fast forward a few years, and I was in a settled job, doing what I wanted. Things were looking up in the economy and jobs became available. But pay was still peanuts. Hours were still unreasonable. Expectations remained unreasonable.

During one particularly busy and high expectation period in work, I begin to suffer from panic attacks. I would get chest pains, and collapse into a heap when I did eventually get home, crying uncontrollably.

I took the important decision to go and receive counselling, which I still attend to this day over two years later.

In our company, employees felt like second class citizens. Managers’ needs came first, employees were to be walked over, not informed about any major decisions the company was taken, and expected to carry out these decisions without question. Roles and responsibilities were changed regularly, often with just a few hours notice, and advice from teams and employees were never genuinely considered.

We weren’t valued

It’s not that we needed the inmates to be running the asylum, but we were highly qualified and experienced professionals. We didn’t need to be dictated to, or patronised, or lectured to.

We had bought into an “all for one” team ethos that evolved through the downturn, but when it came to the employer’s part of that deal, we slowly realised it was all talk, and we weren’t valued at all. It bred a hostile environment and contempt for the workplace. Employees felt they weren’t being trusted or heard.

I moved on, and if possible, things just got worse. The high stress level and expectations of my role were untenable and I made my manager aware of this on several occasions. Nothing was done. I was expected to just get on with it.

Stress leave

Eventually my doctor insisted I leave the job, and signed me off on stress leave. Several staff left, one after another, in hushed tones, eventually including myself.

I felt defeated, embarrassed, disappointed in myself. Even writing this now, I feel like everything that happened was my fault – I let things get too far, I didn’t raise the issues enough with management (I did, I had records) and somehow, this was my personality.

I began to worry about the pattern. When I attended interviews, I was asked “how come you left after a year and a half?”, and instead of saying “my employers weren’t fair to me, I worked hard and in some ways I felt like wasn’t respected and heard”, I would say, oh I just needed a new challenge.

I shirked the question because those concerns aren’t acceptable. We’re not entitled to be unhappy with how we are being treated in the workplace. You are seen as a malcontent, someone who doesn’t respect authority, or that you didn’t want to do the hard work.

But that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t my fault it didn’t work out, and it isn’t the fault of so many others in my situation, the people who are keeping the councillors in a job.

We are highly qualified, highly educated individuals. I know of so many hugely talented people who feel they are not being heard in their jobs, that their constructive criticism is being heralded as “whinging”.

Intimidation, bullying, patronisation

I know of cases where people have been told they have to stay late at night, and that they have to accept it – that it can’t be put in their contracts because that’s not legal but if they want to get ahead, that’s the way forward. I know of people being called unprofessional for the smallest slight, of bosses robbing ideas and presenting them as their own.

I know of people under a constant pressure to perform, feeling unable to do basic personal tasks without the fear of someone looking over their shoulder, and of criticism to the point where employees are constantly on edge, expecting every conversation to become an inevitable bad judgement of their work.

I know of intimidation, of low-level and obvious bullying, of patronisation.

I know the strongest people I have come across in my life, who would never take extreme criticism from a stranger, friend or partner, but crumble in a corner because of a situation with a superior.

I know of counselling, of tears, of thinking that someone is not good enough, of depression and questioning one’s own worth. There are only so many blows you can take before you retreat and give up the good fight. Better to come in every day and do the bare minimum, no one can get at me then. How is this a constructive office environment? How does it encourage ADULT employees to want to succeed?

They are lucky to have us

These are the people employers should be listening to, and should value most – they are the ones who care. They are the ones that feel they have to stay in a job long past the point of acceptable treatment, and who feel some unfathomable loyalty and dedication to a company who would drop them in a heartbeat if they felt things weren’t working out for them.

Why do we hide behind reviews on websites and feel like we’re in the wrong when we say, “don’t go for a job in there, it’s not a good environment”? There seems to be an incomprehensible belief that employees are always trying to pull one over on an employer.

Of course, that does happen, but in the vast majority of cases, the employees just want to go to work on a daily basis and do a good job with the most of their complaints centering around a lack of milk in the kitchen.

I hope the next time I am asked in an interview why I left a role, I have the courage and conviction to say that employer wasn’t working out for me. Yet even in this piece I remain anonymous. It’s unfair for the onus to be on me to explain the bad behaviour of a bad employer or for me to feel like a future employer thinks I am sporadically making my way around the working landscape because I wanted to throw my toys out of the pram.

We need to learn, post-recession, that they are lucky to have us. And they need to be told as much.

The author of this piece works in public relations and has requested to remain anonymous.

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