At this moment in time, I’m waiting back on a job interview. It went well – at least I thought so – a couple of days ago. They asked when I can start and promised they would call me in the afternoon. It’s now the afternoon after the afternoon after that afternoon. Clearly, job interview promises are about as trustworthy as political promises.
When I was in work, though (or at least paid employment rather than the voluntary I’ve been doing for a few years), it was the first time depression hit me.
Of course, I had no idea what it was. All I know was that something terrible was hitting me hard and I didn’t want to carry on. It may not have been the cause, but the thing that tipped me over were the very people who knew better. Work colleagues.
I was not long out of school, many miles from home. The work place was a disused warehouse turned into offices in the environs of a dilapidated part of London. I’d left with very average O grades, and having such a lack of confidence didn’t believe I had the intelligence to do Highers or a degree.
Instead I wrote off to a variety of companies, just asking for a job. One firm wrote back, and not so much interviewed me as explained how the set-up worked and what I’d be doing. I was extremely chuffed with myself.
Very quickly, however, it turned into a nightmare. I was placed into a department where, though there was plenty of experience, me being the youngest by a good 10 years, a blame culture was deeply entrenched. “Cover your backside” was a recurring piece of advice.
The training was non-existent. I was left to read a manual that spoke in jargon only. It may as well have been written in Serbo-Croat. Then came the paradox.
The section head, a curmudgeonly, rotund, cheerless man on the edge of retirement, said “If you’re not sure, ask.” Yet, when I did ask, the response from everyone, including the section head was on the lines of ‘Jeez, don’t you know that?’. One work colleague gleefully commented to all and sundry that I was “thick as two planks.”
Instead of being given time and understanding that school leavers may just need a little nurturing to pick things up, I was instea ordered around and bawled out in front of everyone when mistakes were inevitably made. I was alone, lacking confidence, and more upset with each passing day.
Not only, however, was there a blame culture, but bullying was not so much turned a blind eye to but actively encouraged. Internal notes would arrive with abusive messages. One very brave man physically threatened me openly. Another would call me a “fat c***” and “pathetically obese.”
It wasn’t true, of course, but my distressed mind believed it. Of course. I may have done with losing a stone, but that was about it, just like half the people that were there . In my mind, though, having been systematically destroyed, I took every word on board. I felt useless, scared, ugly, worthless.
I wanted to crawl away and die. The work colleagues did nothing except laugh at the abuse and bullying. Bosses did nothing because I was too frightened to force the issue with my union and they were too lazy and incompetent to intervene. So long as the work got done they didn’t give a damn.
Eventually, I had to take time off work. Not for the psychological distress but for a flu virus and a nasty bout of asthma. It was then that I found that people didn’t give a toss if I was there or not, so long as I rang in or sent a doctor’s note.
I started staying away for longer periods, frightened of people at work, scared of any mistakes I would undoubtedly make, my self confidence and esteem completely shattered.
Something had to give. After 7 weeks off ill in a year I was hauled in for disciplinary action. I never realised at the time how mentally ill I was, so I admitted my guilt. Not one of those days off was enjoyed. They were endured alone, my life feeling worthless, wanting to die.
Soon after, when the firm relocated and the curmudgeonly one retired, his replacement, looking like Ken Livingstone’s scrawny brother, tried to impose his will on the place. I was put in for a disciplinary on the basis of my work.
By this time I was at the end of my tether. When asked for any evidence to back his allegations, Little Ken had none. The departmental manager, and Personnel, unsurprisingly sidled with him. The second warning was handed over.
My reaction surprised me as much as anyone else. “I don’t give a f*** what you have said or given me, I know this was a set-up.” I ripped up the letter in front of them. Again I spoke. “I don’t give a toss any more, I’m doing my own thing.” I hated the job, I hated the people, and hated myself. In my tortured mind, though, the only way to beat them was to hate back stronger.
Bearing in mind the environment up until then, sadly, the determination to hate everyone else worked. Little Ken was soon relieved of his section head duties – even in those days you couldn’t make things up and expect to get away with it all the time.
Work colleagues were given a bit of Celtic lip whenever they started. All of a sudden, apparently, I had improved no end at work. Over the next few years I was given four promotions and successfully applied for a head office role, away from the rabble.
It was a sad and salutatory lesson. I could easily have gone over the edge. If I hadn’t fought back, and fought back in what I still think is a shameful and reprehensible way, I would have committed suicide. The thoughts were already there. Even a few plans at the ready.
Which is why, whenever I am in work, I am somehow grateful in a tiny way. I was shown exactly how not to treat people, how not to do a job, how not to do everything and anything in life, let alone work.
I saw a similar thing developing 15 years later, with someone I never worked with, but was in close enough proximity to see and hear what was going on.
I had it stopped before it got anywhere near the levels of abuse I suffered. I became unpopular because of it, helping that individual against a group of hyenas, but right is right and wrong is wrong. So the wrong was righted.
I also remember seeing the colleague who sat with me soon after I left (getting another job and a healthy little pay-off when I went, via profit sharing). “Who are you conning out of giving you a job now?”, he sneered.
I had the perfect reply. “Four promotions, two successful job applications. That’s an awful lot of conning. Ever heard of the politics of envy?” At least my own rather unpleasant sneer-back had some substance to it.
I digress. What I’ve also learned, as well, is that people will and do try to hide work problems. If they are, or even if you just suspect they are even a tiny amount, help them or get them help from HR or their boss, encourage them, reassure them.
Luckily the workplace is now far more sensitive to issues like this, even though presenteeism is the problem rather than absenteeism these days. They know that if one employee is suffering, or unhappy, it will affect others, and can affect a whole office or shop floor to certain degrees.
Don’t suffer in silence, and don’t let your workmates suffer in silence. They, and you, will suffer in far more ways than just during 9 to 5 if you let it go on.
Quite simply, when at work, work it out.