I was raised by hard working parents who demonstrated to me the value of showing up and delivering excellence every day. This gave me a work ethic that has sustained and elevated me throughout my career. I started babysitting at 11 and worked ever since, often working two jobs to put myself through university.
The rewards of this work ethic earned me many promotions and eventually Director level positions in an increasingly toxic and hostile company. For those of you fortunate enough to never have worked for an organization such as this, I encourage you to read The Corporation by Joel Bakan, which offers a fascinating and accurate depiction of the pathology of these workplaces.
My experience there, like the experience of many others, culminated in a downward spiral of mental health due to the rampant bullying and undermining nature required to succeed in this environment. I had joined the company shortly after returning from the workforce from my second maternity leave and originally loved my job, my boss, my peers and the company. With a series of personnel changes over the years that saw the most corrupt employees promoted and the most honest and hardworking ones fired, including my beloved boss who was the reason I joined the company originally, the workplace became so negative that I would feel physically ill on Sunday nights knowing I would have to return.
The lightbulb moment for me came when I was on a fabulous vacation with my family in Kauai. I seemingly had everything anyone could want in life. We were staying beachside in a great resort with my wonderful, healthy and loving family. I was making excellent money in a job that was local and required no travel. I had everything I was supposed to want yet I sat poolside reflecting on the fact that with all I had in life I couldn’t be happy. I feared that I would never know happiness again.
Luckily, like with so many wonderfully toxic companies, another re-organization would soon find me back to the elusive happiness I wasn’t sure where I’d lost or how. Being in a position to influence my departure was a wonderful stroke of luck that allowed me to leave with a small amount of money to help ease my transition.
During the first few months being free from the handcuffs of a toxic environment showed me, and those closest to me, exactly what I had been missing and I slowly began to find myself again. While I had lost my job and income, what I gained over the next several years was profoundly more important and powerful in my life.
My family was the first to notice and comment on these changes. One moment that stands out to me as particularly pivotal was making dinner with my family one evening, while we were goofing around, singing and dancing to the radio. My husband looked at me and sincerely told me he couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard me sing. In that moment, I also couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed and sang with the people who meant the most to me.
I had been so busy giving my everything to a company that didn’t value me, that I had nothing left to bring home to the people who were most important in my life. My family got the worst of me and I knew I hadn’t been the wife or mother I wanted to be and truly believe that had I stayed in such an awful work environment it would have broken up my family. Now, 5 years later, Friday evening dance parties while we make dinner are the norm. The distance that was created between my kids and I has disappeared and we routinely will dog pile together on the couch to watch movies. I joke with them that I have no personal space but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know that I’m their soft place to fall and have the time and energy to give everyone in my life what they need, mostly my time to listen and be present.
Joining my former company when I did, I was filled with joy and optimism. The culture was one of the things that originally drew me to the company and I loved volunteering with the HR team at the time. A short three years later along with several company changes, one of my colleagues was pulling some photos and found one of our team volunteering together. She showed me the picture and kept stating that she couldn’t believe how young I looked in the picture. It was true. In just three years, being surrounded by the toxicity in the workplace had visibly aged me. I was burning the candle at both ends, working out at 5:30 AM to get to work by 7:00. But nothing I did physically could counter how badly the environment was impacting my health.
After I left the company, I spent a lot of time with friends and family outside doing the things that recharged me and kept me happy. I had a great group of friends that I cycled with, I spent 5 weeks with my family traveling through the summer and would walk to my kids’ soccer games in the community to cheer them on. Last time, when I met up with friends and former colleagues, they all remarked how much younger and healthier I looked. Again, this was true. Being surrounded by love and positivity profoundly improved my health in a way that no early morning bootcamp ever could. Not only did I look younger and healthier, I had a lightness that I didn’t believe was possible during my poolside reflection a half year earlier.
I’ve spoken to so many people over the years who have left, voluntarily or involuntarily, poisoned work environments and the sentiment I get from people is that it is akin to leaving an abusive relationship. Luckily, I’ve never experienced that in my personal life but I can completely understand now why people stay in those types of environments and how that abuse erodes confidence and self-esteem until people feel they aren’t worthy of anything else.
The gift of time is clarity to see the situation for what it was. It’s so much easier to identify the gaslighting when you see it happening again to other people who you know are amazing, but for some reason are a threat to others. The toxic pattern really does keep repeating itself if the culture isn’t fixed from within. The targets just continue to rotate.
The one statement I have repeated since day one of leaving a toxic job was that I will never again allow anyone else to steer my ship. I know for certainty that whatever else I do from here, no matter how big or how small, it will be under my control. The freedom to be able to chase my dreams, start a business based on high ethics and excellent work is a gift that I will never take for granted. I love to be able to do the best and right thing for clients rather than what works best for a select few at the top. The ultimate freedom is knowing I have the freedom to only work with clients who share my values and that I can leave any client who does not act ethically. Never again will I have to choose between doing the right thing or remaining employed.
Working in a cutthroat environment, there is very little room to take chances and try new things. As is the case in many environments, where people are fighting to survive, the dynamic becomes one where the workplace culture is split primarily into two groups. There are the people who do things and others who sit back and criticize what has been done. This has the opposite effect of moving a culture forward as so many people can see that those who take chances and try to innovate are often sabotaged while those who fly under the radar remain and often move up.
Being able to work surrounded by highly intelligent and confident people has allowed me to take chances to create my dream job and my dream life. Feeling fully supported by business partners and colleagues has allowed us all to be agile and try new things in our business, without the fear of being undermined or penalized for something not being right. We haven’t always gone down a road that was immediately successful, but we definitely have continued to grow and evolve to create a company and an atmosphere that is better than we ever thought possible.
Being in a new environment where I was taking chances and seeing success, increased my confidence to try new things in my life. I was engaged in joining new things, meeting new people, and really stepping out of my comfort zone. These weren’t always easy steps for me and it was a continual work in progress. However, I know that I have the ability to work towards new things and have the support around me to help me succeed.
This included joining an adult figure skating team after a short break of 35 years on the ice. My first day out, my legs were shaking with nerves so badly that I fell and gave myself whiplash. I truly stood on the ice in one moment and debated skating off and never coming back. The one thing that kept me on the ice and moving forward was knowing that I was setting an example for my kids that we don’t give up easily. It was also a fabulous opportunity for me to see firsthand how brave they are every time they try a new sport, start a new school or team, or push themselves out of their comfort zone. At the end of the season I was rewarded with amazing new people in my life, incredible memories of competing in front of friends, family and strangers, as well as some shiny metals.
As much as I would never wish someone else to have to experience what it feels like to go to work every day in a hostile work environment, living through that experience has given me an insight into how people feel and react in similar environments that is invaluable in both my professional and personal life. In both areas, I am often interacting with and supporting people, who are going through or have previously gone through similar environments and experiences.
There are many times when I am sitting across from somebody and hearing their story, where I can completely understand how they’re feeling and what the impact of some of these incidents and experiences have on them. I don’t know that I would truly have the ability to fully listen and put myself into somebody else’s experience and circumstance, had I never had the direct experience of trying to successfully navigate such a negative and hostile work environment. This has made me far more effective in my job, being able to hear everyone’s perspective in a balanced way, and has also made me a kinder, more loving, and more accepting person to all those around me.
I know there are many people out there who feel trapped in their current negative workplace situation. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s experience and recognize that I was in an exceptionally fortunate circumstance to be able to get out. However, I can now clearly see that for me personally, giving up a high paying career in exchange for all of the blessings I have received was the best decision I’ve ever made. I hope if you find yourself in a negative situation either personally or professionally, some of what I’ve shared about my journey will help you start to make some of the necessary steps to get yourself into a more positive environment.
Special thank you to our guest blogger who has chosen to remain anonymous.