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  • Writer's pictureClare Kenny

My first proper job gave my an anxiety disorder

My first long term job after I graduated, I often jokingly say that it gave me ‘an anxiety disorder and 3 lifelong friends’.

 

I say it jokingly, but it’s not a joke…not really.

 

Now I am sure there are many things that lead to my ongoing struggle with anxiety.  Things from childhood, unhelpful coping mechanisms – nothing is every binary.

 

But for me I didn’t graduate university an anxious person.  3 years into this job I was an anxious wreck.  And I drank too much wine to cope with it (which is a whole other story).

 

Recently I was chatting with one of my friends from this said job.  We were talking about the importance of challenge in your work.  I LOVE challenge.  I love reaching for a goal and making steps each day to improve and better myself.  I’m borderline obsessed with self-improvement.  I exercise while listening to a Brene Brown podcast so I can ‘exercise my mind and body at the same time’. 

 

But there is challenge and there is trying to survive in an environment where you are set up to fail.  Where an environment, dressed up as ‘high paced, high standards’ actually breaks your spirit and makes you question your self-worth. 

 

I reflect a lot about what made that job have such a negative and long-term impact on my mental health.  Because there were lots of things about that job that I enjoyed immensely.  As I said I have lifelong friendships from that job that have endured decades, I worked with incredible clients, and I grew and learnt so much.  But it also nearly killed me. 

 

Why was that?

 

No leadership authenticity

The messages coming from leadership were not backed up by reliable day to day actions.  The brand we presented to clients and the outside world, was not mirrored in the experiences of the employees. 

And with this lack of authenticity and vulnerability from leadership – there was f*ck all psychological safety. When we were asked about what things could be improved, people would say things like ‘people need to unstack the dishwasher’ rather than brave saying something of more value because it would be seen as ‘not being a team player’. 

Leaders could say ‘well we do ask them for feedback’ even though no one ever felt safe to give a real answer to the question.

 

Negativity was the enemy

If you were struggling - with the workload, your mental health, the pace, the internal politics and bullsh*t – it was seen as weakness.  Or not even weakness, but as negativity!!  The culture was sunshine and smiles – so that is what was expected of everyone.  You needed to suck it up, swallow it down, slap on the smile and lean into the toxic positivity.   No ‘negativity’ allowed.  Which is the same as cultural group think, it shows a lack of psychological safety where no one feels safe to challenge.  It leaves no room to innovate or evolve.  Or to protect your people.

 

Demands far outstripped the resources

The expectation on us was huge.  Generally we were all in our early 20s having just graduated.  We didn’t know what was acceptable and what wasn’t.  We’d regularly work to 2-3am with no one telling us to stop.  I remember one Friday night a girl who had recently joined our team being in floods of tears saying she was so stressed and waking up in the night remembering things she hadn’t done and panicking about that.  We all soothed her with comments like ‘that’s natural – that’s just what it’s like in this job’ and ‘that means you are settling in and are a real part of the team now’.

 

We didn’t have the awareness or tools to set the right boundaries.  We were all intelligent driven people with a propensity to burnout and honestly when I look back, I can see that those qualities were leveraged and abused to squeeze out every last ounce of productivity from us.

 

Can you recognise any warning signs of these types of practises showing up in your culture? 

 

These experiences can really stick with employees. I know it did with me.

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