In the interests of keeping the HR for Mental Health potato a hot one, I recently invited a few trusted friends to write pieces for this blog around their experiences of stress at work. Below is the first, from P, a friend I've known for over a decade now, and who is living in the thick of stress created by work right now. P welcomes advice and comment, so please add to the comments if you feel you can contribute.
When I started to feel afraid of going to work last October, I put it down to a gloomy mood created by dismal winter weather. I've never really experienced what I now understand to be Seasonal Affective Disorder, but the feelings I had seemed to tie up with what I read online about SAD. I bought one of those lamps that simulates natural light and an alarm clock that wakes me gradually by illuminating the room as a Spring sunrise would. The lamp seemed to be helpful, but the alarm clock stopped working properly after a week and I've not motivated myself to try to fix it or take it back to the shop. I assume I did something wrong with it. I'm not even convinced about the lamp any more.
It's June now, and my black moods are hitting hardest on days when the sun shines and the skies are blue. Weirdly, I was bright as a button one day last week when it rained constantly.
I work for a large financial company (you would recognise the name, so I won't give it or many specific details that might mean I can be identified by my employer.) I've been there around two and a half years, one of six recruits that joined the department to launch a new product. That's been a great success and we worked well together until last Summer, when a senior member of the team went off sick for a month and I covered their workload. I stayed in touch with them through their leave as they had info I needed and I genuinely liked the person, and wanted to be a good friend and colleague.
When they returned to work they were swiftly fired. I remember that I expressed my surprise at this news, and asked when a new team member would be interviewed or if work was to be redistributed. Nobody answered. Nobody took the work back from me. I asked our manager to delegate some of it to other colleagues and was told "We're all doing extra things, you know."
The industry is not thriving at present and I only got this job after being made redundant from a job I loved and had held for almost 9 years. It's not an industry I particularly wanted to find myself in, but I was on the dole for six months and I never want to be back in that position again. It put so much pressure on us; my husband had to work extra hours to ensure we could pay the bills. I decided to focus on getting the work covered and doing an excellent job, hoping this would show them I was able and willing to try new things, and secure my position. Maybe I'd impress them and be promoted?
As time went on I realised my former colleague had been mismanaging their accounts and had left a real mess behind them. Again, I went to my manager and asked for help, or at least for my authorisation levels to be increased so I could close issues quicker. This was refused on both counts. "If you don't know what you're doing bring them to me, I will get round to it." This meant my caseload was artificially higher than my colleagues as I had inherited a bunch of issues that I was effectively being prevented from resolving.
I've stayed later to ensure that cases I need my manager's seal of approval to resolve are prepared and ready on her desk for her to look at first thing next day. I've come in early to make time with her so we can talk through the cases and so I can illustrate to her what I've done so far, and why I need that extra authorisation level so I don't keep bothering her. It's all for nothing. She has made it clear that if any member of the team impresses her, it's not me.
I hesitate to use the word 'bullying' as I've seen an extreme example of that and this isn't anything like it. I've come back from breaks to find rubbish piled on my desk and my wastepaper basket filled with food waste I didn't put there. Personal items have gone missing, including the photo of my husband and our nephews that sat proudly on my desk. Within hours of that disappearing, an email was sent around about keeping desks 'uncluttered and professional.' Nobody else lost any photos, or sweet packets, teddy bears or the other stuff we accumulate in the places where we are.
I've been yelled at for "interrupting (her) train of thought" when I asked for some help as she wandered around the office playing Temple Run on her phone.
I've been yelled at for not realising it was suddenly my job alone to sign for deliveries- even though I was in a meeting when it arrived.
I've been yelled at, again and again.
This has gone on for months now. My manager barely speaks to me, and in my performance review a 'point of concern' was raised about why my unresolved cases were 18% higher than others in the team. I highlighted that at one time they were almost 90% higher (thanks to covering the work of the sacked employee) and that I'd done well to reduce them by over 80%. This was met with a raised eyebrow and a sceptical "Hmmm..."
I got a bit upset then and challenged her on the fact that I'd repeatedly asked for support and been given none. She acknowledged that I'd asked for support but "not been clear on what kind." Somehow this got twisted and by the time my review report came back I looked like an incompetent, temperamental and fragile character who was struggling to do my job. I emailed my manager and told her I was refusing to sign off on the report as accurate, and heard nothing more until three weeks ago when I was told it had been filed by HR anyway. I'm currently trying to get a sensible answer from them that isn't "Take it up with your manager."
In recent days I've gone in to work to find my email inbox full of new casework, all signed off with the patronising cut-and-pasted message "If you're struggling with this let me know and I will reallocate it to another team member." If I'm struggling, it's because of you and I doubt you're going to help me now. I won't show weakness though, and I haven't yet sent a case back to her asking for it to be given to a colleague.
I lie awake at night anxious about what the next day wil bring, and I take two hours to get ready in the morning. I need an hour to get showered and dressed and another to psych myself up to get out of the door. I don't eat breakfast, I can't keep it down. I used to take lunch with colleagues in the canteen but now I run for the door, I'm so desperate to be out of that building for even a short time. I get through every day as best as I can and travel home in a daze to another evening of plastering on a fake smile and not being able to tell my husband I need to get out of there. He cannot get the extra work like he did when I was unemployed and he's had enough pressure on him lately. I will not add to that.
I've been for a job interview and failed miserably. The agency feedback- "They thought you were nervous and inexperienced." The job was almost identical to the one I did for nine years.
I feel my relationship with my colleagues has broken down, and that I am seen as a liability because they don't believe me when I tell them what my workload actually is. The manager has been very good at bringing attention to my unresolved cases stats in meetings, whilst congratulating others on their own achievements.
I remember Niki talking to me years ago about managing stress at work and I didn't really get what she meant. I assumed everyone had stress, but that it was a motivator that kept us buzzing and getting things done. Niki and I have had more conversations about stress at work recently.
I know I am under it, I am stressed and I am struggling. But I need this job, and I don't want to walk away.
I don't want to feel like this any more either.
I've promised P some ideas on how she can help improve the relationship with her manager, as well as a few around raising the issues formally. I know, as her friend, that I am close to the fire on this one and would love some ideas from readers of this blog on how she can start to feel better about work and her relationships there.