May 17, 2012

Black and white photo of a woman on the beachWhen anyone asks me why I gave up working for myself I tell them it was mainly the stress of having an unpredictable income and the sense of isolation that came from working on my own, which pretty much sums it up.

I felt like the pressure and solitude was getting to me, so I got myself back into the world of employment before the stress became too much. I was really nervous about going back into the workplace but a steady income and social interaction was precisely what I needed. I was in for a horrible shock.

The social isolation of self employment was tough but pales in comparison to the horror of working for a company with an aggressive, disrespectful culture. That was when "mild stress" became "moderate depression and severe anxiety". When "a bit wound up" became "mentally ill".

Working for myself, I had control over situations and treated clients and suppliers with respect. If I was becoming a bit down or moody or lonely, it was up to me to do something about it. Take a walk, have a break. My mental health problems escalated, however, when I was faced with an aggressive, controlling boss.

Colleagues burst regularly into tears

I worked on a 7 day rota that changed weekly but was given it just one week in advance, making planning a social life difficult. My friendly nature was publicly mocked, as if it was a weakness. I was told I'd gone "from hero to zero". Unachievable deadlines were set. My advice was ignored or dismissed, even though part of my role was to advise the owner in an area she had no experience.

Gossip was spread, lies told and staff divisions created, by the boss. Colleagues burst regularly into tears. I became angry and irritable in all areas of my life. I ruminated constantly and didn't sleep. I fell out with a friend. Someone I'd known through business for years, got on well with and liked, began to ignore me.

I was tearful and more socially isolated than ever

I was tearful and more socially isolated than ever, consumed by anger, especially when I didn’t feel understood or supported. When I confronted the boss she said it was the first time an employee had done so in 27 years. If true, I wondered how many people’s mental health had been affected by feelings of helplessness, fear, humiliation and intimidation in those 27 years.

I withdrew from social situations as the anxiety took hold, blaming myself for being unlikeable, even though I’d never struggled to get on with people before. I became paranoid, thinking everyone was talking about me. I eventually left, shattered, without a job to go to.

I wasn't the only one. Staff turnover was a whopping 90%. I took the first job I could get. The culture there was almost as bad. By now I was getting help and support for my mental health problems, so was better equipped to cope.

Where could I go to air my grievances when the bully owns the business?

What the two companies have in common is that they are small businesses, where the boss is also the owner of the company and so the creator of the company culture. Where could I go to air my grievances when the bully owns the business? That's when I felt utterly helpless.

I searched for advice online: "Speak to your HR department" (there isn't one) "Talk to your line manager" (haven't got one). In big companies there's usually somewhere to turn to get help. In a small business the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming.

 company cultures and bullying bosses have exacerbated my depression and anxiety

It's great to see some large organisations addressing mental health discrimination and company culture although there's a long way to go. Kindness, support, fairness, respect and diversity make for a happy workforce. Apart from benefiting the mental well being of the team, a happy employee is a more productive one who'll also take less time off sick. Everyone's a winner.

Small businesses need to pay attention to this too. The irony is that a big factor in these oppressive work cultures is the small business owner's stress. I have no doubt that dysfunctional company cultures and bullying bosses have exacerbated my depression and anxiety. If someone had a broken leg you wouldn’t kick them in the shin.

I've realised the importance of a supportive work culture for my mental wellbeing

I've realised the importance of a supportive work culture for my mental wellbeing so am biding my time until the right job but, more importantly, the right company comes along. If you're in the same boat, you're not alone. Be kind to yourself and good luck.

There are some really kind people out there. If you own a small business, please look after your staff; they’ll reward you for it with loyalty, hard work and profit.

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