Over the past decade, the concept of “Corporate Culture” has become an increasingly relevant factor in why people choose to work where they work. I imagine a person would be hard pressed to find an interviewer or interviewee that doesn’t bring up the topic in an interview, and there are more and more stories of people turning down hefty salaries or leaving jobs because there wasn’t a good culture fit.
Brad McKay is a retired veteran with 33 years of service with York Regional Police. Brad co-created the York Region Critical Incident Stress Management Team in 1996 where he holds a position as advisor to the executive and alumni team lead. Brad started the Operational Stress Injury Prevention and Response Unit for the York Regional Police and lead the creation the Peer Support Team there in 2014. As a Certified Trauma Services Specialist, Brad has responded to and coordinated over a thousand interventions for front line responders and their families. He leads Trauma Recovery Groups, provides peer support in a weekly first responder yoga program, provides clinically supervised peer support. Brad is a Team Lead, for the Peer and Trauma Support Systems with the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. He recently co-authored “Walk the Talk” a peer support systems guide with Syd Gravel.
During the first week of any job, by law, you are usually asked to review and acknowledge the common workplace safety hazards to ensure your safety at the workplace. For office jobs, this can be reviewing ergonomic sitting positions, or best practices to get up and move about to avoid neck/back strain. For jobs in warehouses or manufacturing facilities, it’s much more in depth about creating a safe workplace. What all of this training has in common is the fact that they pertain only to physical health. There are generally no considerations about potential risks to your mental health, or what can be done to manage and mitigate those risks.
Kaylee Houde was one of the first people I approached to be a part of IMPACT@Work. Having followed her professional journey after briefly meeting each other in university, I knew she had a great story to tell, and from the moment I brought the project up, she was enthusiastic and willing to contribute thoughtfully and honestly.
Site Life & Mental Health at Work
I know a lot of people who claim their work-life and home-life are completely separate. Others say that they are a completely different person at work than they are at home. This cognitive dissonance is not sustainable for me, and I believe the world of psychology would argue that it is not typically comfortable for anyone.
Today I am going to share a story about mental health in the workplace, and the difference between forcing myself through days that were not aligned with my values and purpose versus the alternative.
The Red Flag
I should have seen it coming. It was about a month after the corporation announced that I would be part of a divestment that the first red flag showed up. I felt pretty uncertain about my future. All I knew was that in a few months time the corporation that I was relatively fond of would no longer be where I showed up for work. I would report to a new boss, at a new company, with a new culture and performance structure, and I had limited choice in the matter. I could either accept the acquiring company’s offering, or go somewhere else. There was no in-between.
The red flag occurred as I was frantically building my network, out of this place of fear and uncertainty, desperately grasping at any connection I had and could find as a safety net. I had set up a meeting with a consulting company, an information interview, on a Friday afternoon. What happened, however, was totally out of my character. I did not even show up. For some reason I felt that I had not formally confirmed the date and time, and simply deleted the meeting from my calendar.
I was clearly in a bad place, because I live and breathe by my calendar. I never miss a meeting, and I am rarely late. This time, I totally blew it. The lady texted me to let me know she was on her way, and I called her back blundering about my mistake and clearly sounding like a tool. She proceeded to send me a condescending e-mail about waiting until I was ready and knowing what I wanted in life. It cut deep.
I felt this sinking and sickening feeling in my stomach, and I accepted my fate. I was going to go work for this company that I knew nothing about, and at least give it a shot, because I clearly was not ready to act as an adult about my emotions in the real world.
A Handful of Months Later
When I started with the new company, I realized the one thing I could control were my thoughts, actions, and responses. However, this too seemed to be gruelling at times. I was in a new environment, with new clients, and my team was in various states of disarray fixing employee data and just getting base-business up to par. I told myself I would give the position 6 months, and if I still was not happy, I would do something about it. Thus, I put a smile on my face (however, fake) and kept plugging along.
I was in around the 3.5 month mark when I was told I would be based at a remote location going forward. I had a month to set myself up for a fly-in fly-out (FIFO) schedule whereby I would work 4 days up at camp, and have 3 days off, indefinitely. I was not thrilled, but I decided to give it a go.
It was NOT good.
Less than 2 weeks into this rotational work and I was fatigued, anxious, and starting to show signs of depression. It did not help that my team was often not available, with closed door meetings or being spread all over the site. It did not help that the work I was doing seemed tedious and meaningless to me. It did not help that my clients were stressed out about the initiatives and policies that I had been tasked to roll-out. But, what was the kicker, was how all of these things combined with my FIFO lifestyle really impacted my wellbeing.
I would dread Monday mornings, my internal dialogue saying things like, “What is the point? Does life mean anything? Who am I? What am I to do? I am stuck. I am not worthy. I am not respected.” I felt scared and alone.
It was all a bit more manageable before, when I could go home to my boyfriend and rant about my day over a cup of tea and some couch cuddles. It was manageable when I could snuggle up in my bed at night and get a decent sleep. It was manageable when I had energy to balance my work with the things I really liked to do evenings and weekends.
With site life, and a FIFO work-schedule, it was a different experience:
- I would get up at 3:30am (how ungodly?) every Monday morning to make it to the airport on time for my flight to site.
- I would spend 6am-4pm as my formal working hours, 4 days per week, but as we all shared dinner in a big hall I was usually engaging with the same clients and/or colleagues well into the evening without reprieve.
- I would get gawked at for being a decent looking female at the site, I could barely go for dinner without turning heads even in a baggy hoodie and my hair in a bun. I won’t even get into the gender inequality, that is a story unto itself!
- I would be too tired from this schedule to do much of anything Friday-Sunday at home, as I would spend Friday running all the weekly errands and doing laundry and would sleep most of my weekends away in despair.
And so you have it, my job was officially bleeding into my wellbeing in a way I never thought possible. I was becoming unrecognizable, not interested in doing anything anymore, and was truly unhappy.
The Breaking Point
It was a Thursday evening, at 7pm my flight landed, and I was starving from my 10 hour day. I staggered to my partner’s truck where he picked me up and asked me what I wanted for dinner. We went to my favourite pho restaurant, and he tried to engage me in our usual conversations about the week. I was short tempered and barely responded coherently.
In the truck after our meal, he asked me what was wrong and pointed out that I was being, “Kinda a b*tch.” He was right, too. I was being awful to this man that I love and call my life partner.
I said, “I honestly don’t know, I don’t think I can do this anymore… the money just is not worth it.”
Those were the words, “The money is not worth it anymore,” that stuck with me.
When Sunday night finally rolled around I had impending anxiety about my upcoming week at camp. I could barely breathe, and was shaking with despair. I was attempting to cry myself to sleep when my partner asked me what I was going to do. I said, “I am taking a mental health week to reflect and decide what is next for me.”
And so, that is exactly what I did. My doctor gave me a note excusing me from a week of work, I spent the week searching the job market and applying on 30+ jobs, I went to the gym and concluded that I would put in my notice. It was the only way forward that made any sense, and that I had full control of.
Never Looking Back
Oh, and since then, the anxiety has lifted and all those signs of depression seem like a distant memory. I still cannot believe how unhappy I was only a few months ago, and how different my life is now.
Everything has completely changed.
The part that worries me, however, is that a lot of my colleagues are still there – pushing through an environment they are not happy with, but to what end? Do they do it to get a year end bonus and some stock options that won’t make them any happier? I fear a lot of people put up with the fear and anxiety without knowing their options or what is out there. They put up with workplace abuse, because they do not know their own worth in the market. Or, when they go to that second round interview they do not ask the tough questions about culture and values.
Mental Health at Work
It is with this experience that I have realized work can play a significant role on one’s mental health. In fact, it could be for the better or worse, depending on where you work and their care for people.
The fact of the matter is, that after a certain income level incremental income is less and less associated with happiness. That is right, research shows that money does not buy happiness, especially after a certain base-level. And yet, we stay.
I have a seriously demanding job today, run my coaching business part-time, and am also taking online classes. Yet, I am the happiest I have ever been. For me, it is because these items are aligned with my values as well as my purpose and personal growth aspirations. I am the busiest I have ever been, but I am learning things I care about and making an impact every day. I am on a journey that fits with who I am and what I care about, and it is so inspiring to wake up every day excited to do something!
My good friend Ameera Ladak says, “Your workplace health and happiness depends on three things…
(1) Your workplace culture and policies
(2) Your manager and how they implement them
(3) The nature of your work”
I agree, these three pieces of the puzzle have a huge impact on your workplace happiness, and when all three are out of whack or misaligned with your values, well, happiness is fleeting at best.
I encourage you to do a values check the next time you’re having a bad time at work, and if you do not know yet what your values are, let’s define them together. That is why I now devote my life to career coaching: to help others wake up with purpose and happiness and to reach their full potential every day. I do this to ensure workplace happiness is a priority, so that action can be taken. I do this to ensure your Sunday evenings and Monday mornings are just as mentally healthy as every other day in your life.
Let’s work together.
“Be the change” – Mahatma Gandhi
Keep on sippin’