What happens when your workplace touts itself as being mental-health friendly, and emphasizes the importance of empowerment, open communication, support and diversity, but misses the mark in reality? What happens when you’re the only one to realize this, and you’re forced to address power dynamics and unfair practices while dealing with your own mental health concerns?
This post is written anonymously, because we unfortunately still live in a world where there are consequences to speaking out against organizational injustices, and the repercussions of speaking publicly are too costly. That does not make this story any less important or valid; in fact, the opposite is true.
I landed my dream gig. An internship for a nationally recognized brand. My role would allow me to be creative, develop new skills, and be trusted to represent the brand in front of some of the most influential customers.
This company valued young voices, and had a good grasp on the issues young people were dealing with today. I felt lucky to have landed the opportunity, and was ready to exceed all expectations.
I quickly learned that even my dream company, was not exempt from company politics. And that summer, the politics escalated. There was a need for internal investigations to bring the office back to status quo. The investigation was conducted without a third party which meant that employees were asked to speak honestly and openly about co-workers to co-workers.
When I was approached during this investigation, I was caught off guard, with nothing prepared. I found this whole process odd and uncomfortable, but my lack of experience in company settings made it difficult to trust my feelings. Nonetheless, when asked, I shared what I had observed in hopes that my honesty would help alleviate some of the issues at hand.
A few days later, I was (again, unexpectedly) called back into an office with management. They had heard everyone’s ‘side’ and had come up with a solution. Upon hearing the solution, I felt uneasy. There was blame on those who were feeling most victimized by the escalated politics. There was sense from management that staff (including myself) were too sensitive, and to some degree, needed to just deal with it.
Not really understanding my place or voice in this, I didn’t speak up in that meeting. All I could muster were words of agreement.
I went home feeling very uncomfortable. Having studied psychology, and done extensive work in mental health, I was well aware that having management take a blaming approach to the situation wasn’t productive. Whether or not their sentiments were true, making those who felt brave enough to speak up about an unhealthy work environment feel invalidated, was not going to make the work environment any healthier. How ever you want to cut it, an unhealthy work environment affects the bottom line.
I decided to write an email to management, outlining just that. I was quick to acknowledge the limitations that I know have been set for me (ex. being young and inexperienced). I shared only from a personal perspective (ex. “I feel…”), and even referenced studies that had been taught to me during organizational psychology classes at school. The email was strongly worded, but constructive.
I didn’t feel any anxiety sending it. I’m no stranger to strongly worded emails, but normally I feel my heart rate shoot through the roof when pressing send. In this case, I had put so much time and energy in making it as constructive as possible, that I was confident sending it. Especially because the company had put so much emphasis on listening to and valuing young voices.
The next morning, a Friday, I had an email from management that read:
“We’ll talk about this on Monday.”
I was so confused. What is ‘this’ and why Monday? My anxious thoughts began blowing the situation way out proportion – I re-read my email a hundred times to assure myself that ‘this’ wasn’t something bad. That ‘this’ was just the constructive discussion to follow. That I was prepared for ‘this.’ After all, I had been proving myself and exceeding all expectations all summer. I was a staple part of this company even when I wasn’t on payroll. I didn’t ask to be involved in the politics but was responding to a situation I was inevitably roped into. Even with reassurance from my direct supervisor, my lawyer relatives, and my brutally honest friends that my email was not offensive in any way, in my head I was already grieving being fired.
I remembered the emphasis the company had put on mental wellness, and gathered the strength to ask for accommodation. I responded to that email explaining how this situation has triggered my anxiety severely due to the anticipation of unknown. I asked for an explanation of what the meeting would be about, and why it had to be on Monday (instead of today). Management was well aware of my anxiety, they had mental health training, and frankly, even a legal obligation to accommodate. However, the response I received was far from accommodating. Something along the lines of:
We will discuss the email you sent. Having a meeting on Friday isn’t best practice.
My heart was racing. Immediately I knew the meeting was not going to be a constructive discussion. I felt like I was going to be yelled at, and made to feel young and stupid for speaking up. Especially speaking up with strong sentiment. I felt like if the discussion was supposed to be calm and easy, management would have eased my anxiety, had the meeting in a more prompt fashion, or at least given me an idea of what exactly we would be discussing. I felt I was being punished through their lack of accommodation. Though I didn’t feel I deserved the punishment, I felt stuck, shut down, and forced to take it.
The weekend to follow was not a positive one. My heart rate stayed high for three days. My mind wouldn’t stop racing. I couldn’t stop talking about all the different ways the meeting could go. And though all my support systems kept reassuring me that I was overreacting, I couldn’t help but feel so broken inside. I had asked for simple measures to accommodate my anxiety. I had made my needs clear, which in itself is so difficult to do. I justifiably deserved to be accommodated, even if I hadn’t been crushing it in my work all summer.
Yet, here I was, pacing, crying, distraught all weekend long.
Monday afternoon, I was called in to the room with management. The power dynamic was noticeably unbalanced. Me, the young, inexperienced intern. Two of them, both at least 12 years my senior, the top dogs of the company, with my email in hand; printed out, highlighted, with notes.
I sat there quietly listening to them completely invalidate my words. Listening to them tell me how much my email offended them, and hurt their feelings. Having them tell me that they thought ‘we were friends’ which made the sting of my email that much more painful. There was no apology, no recognition of my perspectives or feelings. But an expectation that I would validate theirs.
I spent 15 minutes apologizing just so I could get out of the situation. I didn’t argue, I didn’t stand up for myself, I didn’t assert my feelings. At the very end of the meeting, I used any remaining confidence to ask why my anxiety wasn’t accommodated for; explaining that the result was two unproductive work days, and a sickening weekend. The response from management was that the weekend was terrible for them too, that they too have anxiety, but best practice is best practice. I began to cry, out of sheer frustration. One of them reached out as if to comfort me and said, with a straight face, “I’m emotional about this too.” I took a deep breath, walked out of the room, and told no one what had happened.
I was embarrassed. I began to feel an internalized anxiety around speaking up, sharing my voice, and asserting my needs. To justify their reaction, I began convincing myself that I had done something wrong. That my opinions and perspectives (though no different than many other employees) were over exaggerated. That maybe I was too sensitive.
It took over a year to feel confident in my choice to send that email. Over a year to realize that the way the situation was handled by management was wrong. Through gaining work experience in other settings, and speaking to peers, and even those familiar with labour laws, I’ve learned that this situation was not my fault.
As young people in the workplace with mental illness, a lot falls on our shoulders. When policies and best practices don’t create productive, healthy work environments for us, it becomes up to us to be aware of the law, the most recent research, and (perhaps the most difficult) our own needs. It is up to us to be confident in our voices, and in our demands. It is uncomfortable, it is exhausting, but it is necessary.
If you feel something isn’t right at your workplace, don’t let others discredit you. Mental illness, like physical illness, requires accommodation. You are not meant to feel anxious, or depressed at work, because frankly, that is not productive. The role of a manager is to facilitate and support productivity, not trigger the opposite.
There is no perfect way to go about handling an unhealthy work environment, but I hope that as we continue to figure it out, we’ll forge new standards and policies that work for us as young people, as people with mental illness, and as humans who shouldn’t settle for being treated like less than we are.