I didn’t realise how dangerous my workplace was.
I mean, it was just an office, in a division of a big company. One that was generally reckoned to be a ‘good’ employer. What harm could I come to?
The answer, as I found out, was a great deal. I shouldn’t have been going in to work in a collar and tie (this was a few years ago!), I should have been wearing a mental and emotional HazMat suit.
I had no idea of the potential harms that surrounded me. Threats to my wellbeing, dangers that could trigger PTSD-like symptoms.
Of course, I knew there was some toxicity in my workplace, although back then we just said it was ‘unpleasant’. Bullying was not so much rife as the preferred management style.
We also had ‘management by searchlight’. When the beam fell on you, you would be subjected to intense examination for a few days and expected to work all hours to come up with answers. Then, as suddenly as it fell upon you, it would move elsewhere. All that ‘urgent’ work would be dropped as some other poor sod got ‘the treatment’.
It could be triggered by a customer complaint, poor results, or management whim. You never knew when or if you might get caught in the spotlight.
Or you might be criticised for a lack of loyalty, for not ‘toeing the line’, even though it was never explained where ‘the line’ actually was.
Or you could be pressured to do things that you felt were wrong or unethical, under the threat of being branded a ‘loose cannon’ and excluded from the ‘in’ group.
I knew it was terrible and affecting me. More visits to the pub to decompress and let off steam. Self-editing of everything I said, second-guessing of everything I did. Work became heavy and difficult. The Sunday Blues got worse.
However, I and my colleagues just rationalised that this was normal. There wasn’t much we could do about it, we just needed to ‘toughen up’ and learn how to cope.
Does any of this sound familiar?
What I didn’t know is cumulative exposure to this toxicity is extremely damaging, especially as we often don’t recognise the symptoms and blame ourselves for not coping.
We brush off our feelings of fear, helplessness and hopelessness, without realising that we’re at the top of a very slippery slope that can lead to PTSD.
We dismiss symptoms like disturbed sleep, irritability, trouble focusing and isolation but we tell ourselves it’s just stress and that’s part of the job (it’s not, it’s really not).
Others sneak up on us. The unexplained aches and pains (IBS, anyone?), our waning interest in and energy for out-of-work activities, our feeling confused and directionless.
We don’t think our job can be dangerous because we’re just working in an office. We’re just pushing bits around a screen, not digging for coal or making steel in blast furnaces.
But it is dangerous. More so, because the threats are hidden, insidious and cumulative.
If you realised just how dangerous, you’d be reaching for that emotional HazMat suit.
Perhaps you should get one now.