Toxicity at work. Ohhhh, Heather.

It has been another difficult weekend, friends. The pattern seems to be this:  Muscling my way through the workweek via sheer will power, then Saturday morning comes, the defenses fall away, and I’m vulnerable, depressed, and I experience bereavement and sadness that knocks me breathless. And then I go back to work…

Work.

This past week, when I tell a staff member I am resigning, the colleague I’m speaking to will eventually say a) “I’m leaving too,” b) “I’m actively looking for another job,” or c) “I’m on the verge of resigning every day.” And then they disclose the specifics of what they are going through there, sometimes tearfully. Wow. I knew things were bad there, but I didn’t know how bad until now.

I didn’t want to disclose too much about workplace woes on this blog, so when I’ve mentioned work, I’ve mostly focused on the positive (the residents and patients) until quite recently. But actually for several months DH and I have been talking about my possibly resigning from the position. I’ve hinted at the reality of what my supervisor is like on this blog, but when it came to her, I’ve also tried to focus on the positive, because she can  be effusively supportive…

But the truth is, her worser nature more often takes over. And as the home stretch nears, now I’m struggling to focus on the positive. Wearing thin. Guys, she can be really, really, really difficult to work with. I’ll call her Heather.

To give you some idea of how difficult it is to work with Heather as a supervisor, one of my co-workers had an enraged meltdown when Heather left for the day recently, was screaming and throwing pens and pencils, and we had to close the office door and calm her. She was reacting to Heather. And none of us felt that she was overreacting.

To give you further idea: No social worker has lasted longer than 6 months in my particular position (I’ve lasted the longest yet!–a year).

And: we lost a social worker in July, due to Heather (that was a shitstorm of a time, was difficult for me to keep it to myself when blogging). The veteran staff members say that our department has the highest turnover of any department. Because of Heather.

Even staff members who probably really shouldn’t are disclosing to me how much they hate working with her. “I can’t believe you have to be around her 40 hours a week in that hot windowless cave,” one said to me. “I would knife someone.”

Recently, when I was chairing an interdisciplinary meeting of six staff members, I told them Heather was going to relieve me in an hour so I could go to lunch. They all stared at me for a moment, until one department head said: “Okay, team, we have GOT to get this finished in an hour, then, before she shows.” Another staff member said: “If I have to see her right now I might kill her.”

On top of this, the facility itself is run in a dictatorial way (the CEO did tell one of our psychologists: “This is a dictatorship.” This CEO is the same woman who would not let me go home to Ohio for a couple of days around Christmas). It has a Big Brother feeling there, and people get “in trouble” as if they are in grade school. The lack of professional respect and dignity showed to staff can be appalling. There is a huge focus on paperwork, not enough focus on qualitative work, and an obsession with the Department of Health’s yearly visit.

Heather reacts to this atmosphere in a way that would inspire empathy, if her toxic levels of stress and anxiety didn’t infect her staff. She becomes panicky, critical, accusatory, and frazzled. She complains loudly, childishly, and constantly about her workload and what administration is asking of her. Sometimes it seems she might have a panic attack, after she has interacted with administration. Maybe she is concerned she will lose her job? I don’t know.

This past Monday when I walked in the door, the first thing she said to me, scowling and frantic, was: “Today is going to be disgusting—disgusting! It is the worst day of my entire career, and you’re going to need running shoes. Roller skates. Get ready.” This is normal for her to do.

When I told her that I was going to have to take some time away from work for my health and mental health, because I was having trouble functioning, the first thing she said was: “But the Department of Health could visit in December.”

“This isn’t about the Department of Health,” I said slowly, tamping down the storm of feelings. “This is about my health and mental health. And I don’t think it will make or break the Department of Health visit if my position is filled by someone new.”

The psychologists also have to work with her, and they avoid her as much as they can. They talk to us openly about what we have to deal with and try to give us support. It’s kind of them. I wish they were our supervisors. Mine is a very challenging position, my first year as a social worker, and I feel that I haven’t had a supervisor I can rely on. I feel that we have had to “hold” her, instead of the other way around. Dealing with the situations my position in particular is designated to handle (I work with the most challenging families and residents) has been extremely difficult without adequate supervision.

This microcosm inside the larger dysfunctional culture is a doozy.

People feel infantilized. Unappreciated. Expendable. Of the people who have disclosed to me that they are leaving, two are key figures in the staff with tons of responsibiity—I can’t say I am shocked, but I am definitely sad, because these two do amazing work and are wonderful with the residents.

I know I have only three more weeks there. (Am seriously questioning my decision to give 4 weeks 1 day notice, instead of the required 3 weeks.) But because I am leaving, and because I am going through the loss of our baby, I am having difficulty performing the nod-and-smile that is oftentimes what staff have to do to survive there. But I’ve never really been a nod-and-smile kind of worker. When I was a managing editor, I was a confrontational workers-rights advocate to administration (one of the reasons, among many, social work seemed like it could be a good fit for me). That part of me is really knocking hard at the door right now and telling me to speak out about my experiences and others’.

But I am keeping in mind that my emotional reactions are distorted, giant-sized, at the moment—which is one of the main reasons I  need a little time off, especially from this kind of work, especially from this place.

I am doing everything I can to keep myself in check. Do not want to burn bridges. Want many bridges. Want to continue open-mindedness and quash indignation. Even if a different person every day discloses indignities. Even if I could rattle off a list of indignities, injustices, and unethical treatments I’ve experienced until I can’t sleep at night (not that that has happened forty-two million times, ohhh no).

Workplaces are extremely complicated. They have ethos, theme, and long chains of cause and effect. They have histories and blueprints. They have decades-long roots. New workers come in and they have to sniff out the situation like a dog sniff-inspecting a new room. All workplaces, as far as I can tell, are infected with some level of toxicity. And I’ve met very few directors/supervisors who seem to handle their positions healthily. Sometimes I feel an interest in being a workplace mediator who comes in and basically does workplace group and individual therapy. Where I work now definitely needs it.

Calling upon all forces, inside and out, to get me through these next three weeks with my bridges intact—well I guess it is just one bridge I am really worried about. The one to Heather. I  need her for a recommendation letter. She wants to be on my side—I need to let her do that. Must remind self to keep up the coping skills I’ve used all along, if at all possible, even though right now I am in post-miscarriage resource bottom-of-the-barrel. Leave office as often as possible to do work on the units. Take many walks around the grounds. Gravitate toward those coworkers you really dig for rejuvenation. And take comfort in the residents and patients, the bonds, the love, the stepping outside of oneself to listen to others—that is the most important stuff.

Speaking of listening—if you made it to the end of this lengthy rambling outpouring you deserve medals! DH is not home, and I’m here in the quiet, tapping away while drinking a Redbridge. We walked through that park again today, around that gorgeous lake. We said little. We were horribly depressed. We kissed like lovers (instead of snuggle-buddies) for the first time in a while, which felt good, and a little odd, like we were relearning each other’s mouths, like we were teenagers, or like we were sad middle-aged people who wanted happiness and sexiness back. We’ll get it back. Eventually.

Slow time.

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15 Comments

  1. I totally get it. This post reminded me of the last job I had, from which I still suffer PTSD. I’m starting a new job tomorrow (after not working for a year) and I’m a little gun-shy. But I know this job will be different–and if it’s not–I know I will walk away before it sabatoges my health and sense of well-being. More power to YOU! Life is too damn short. XO

    Reply
    • Yes! Life is too short. Very excited for you that you are starting your new job, can’t wait to read about it. BOUNDARIES. It’s good to grow up and learn how to set them. XXOO

      Reply
  2. Oh man, I am so glad you are leaving this place. A toxic workplace sucks it all out of you, and you don’t need MORE crap on your cracker. I wish you could leave sooner, but in some ways it might be kind of interesting to be there knowing that you’re leaving, almost like you’re less attached and more observer. I never understood why horrible supervisors got to stay in their jobs, especially when it is widely known that they are horrible. I hope the end comes quick and you keep those bridges intact. Oh, and congrats on the kissing! :)

    Reply
    • “Crap on your cracker” made me choke on my water laughing! Crazily, I have now worked four different jobs in different industries where I was lucky enough to work under supervisors who were eventually fired—I’ve got about as much luck in that department as I do in the baby-making department. ): It’s been good to think of your words today—less attached, more observer, yes, you’re right, and it helps to be reminded! And thanks for the congrats, smooch smooch…

      Reply
  3. I felt stressed just reading this, I can’t imagine what living it must be like. Sounds like you are making a very wise choice by stepping away. Good luck with these last few weeks…you are so so close.

    Reply
  4. Danielle

     /  November 11, 2013

    I am so excited for you to be leaving such a toxic environment! I too work in a very toxic environment as a child psychologist and your recent posts are giving me the courage to resign in the coming months. We too, have been told that it’s a dictatorship (same language, no joke!) by a non-clinical supervisor with a penchant for micromanaging! I can’t wait for you to be done there!

    Reply
    • Isn’t it wild—you’d think, doing the kind of work we do, there would be more instances of nurturing environments and less instances of dictatorships! (Am shaking my head at the same language used, yikes!) But I’m finding that the opposite is the case—had some pretty ugh experiences during internships as well. I’m so sorry you’re struggling inside the toxic sludge. I know how painful it can be. Cheering you along! If it doesn’t serve you, you can do better. I hope you find the environment you deserve soon. And thanks for the encouragement!

      Reply
  5. Kali

     /  November 12, 2013

    Hi, I’ve been in toxic workplaces, and it can really suck the life out of you. Looking back on those I’ve left, I’m VERY glad I never took up an “advocate” role in any of them–it would have been pointless and left me a marked woman, instead of leaving me with contacts and solid recommendations.

    My theory is, human beings aren’t meant to function in large groups–the workplace almost inevitably turns toxic because humans can’t operate efficiently outside of a small network. So you get fiefdoms and power plays and plain old whackos that can’t be overthrown the old-fashioned (tribal) way–with weapons or war or outright revolt and takeover. Our institutional structures keep the whackos in place and the talent leaving. . . the arm-chair psychologist in me thinks that we will always be tribal and any attempt at organization/efficiency beyond that of which we are capable, fails and descends into dysfunction.

    I’m not even sure that made sense.

    Anyway, good on you for pulling off this Herculean task of getting through the next few weeks without losing it. I certainly was doing the minimum after my last miscarriage, and now I’m just trying to keep up at the office while I 1) look for another job and 2) try to get pregnant.

    I’ve tapped out my well of strength. . . but the other day, something snapped in me, I knew I couldn’t go on the way that I am, so I started doing various types of meditation when my bad thoughts come to take over my mind and body. It is helping to stem the helplessness and despair. I’m not jumping for joy, but I’m managing to give myself a break from the weight of constant sorrow through focused breath, recorded meditations, reiki (I give treatments) and watching inspiring spiritual videos on youtube (and I don’t care how cheesy it sounds). Even my acupuncturist noticed that my pulse is less stressed.

    I wish we could plan for the day when the grief lifts just enough to allow us to move forward and feel some strength again. My experience is that we can’t, we have to go through it, but when the relief comes (and usually unexpectedly for me), seize it while it lasts. You’re already doing that. I admire you so much.

    And I’M the one who’s rambling, not you, your post was very coherent and thought-provoking–since we all have workplaces.

    Reply
    • You give reiki treatments? That is so cool! I love reiki. I should go again, but I can’t bring myself to go back there, a year after my last appointment, still not further along toward motherhood—something about it just depresses the living shit out of me. Although I know the reiki would be great for me.

      Good for you for turning to meditation and inspirational material. The cheesier the better—who cares! I have a friend in AA right now and she says that her new motto is: “Whatever works.”

      Today is a grief day. Crying with office door closed again. But I really need to stop the evening drinking. I don’t do too much of it but it’s getting very close to the time for me to say that the “party” is over (if crying and numbing one’s mind with television is a party). But I feel the same way as you—wish I could know when I’d be up, when down, but just have to seize the up whenever it graces me with its presence.

      I agree with you about the dysfunctionality of institutions! Your take on our tribal nature is interesting and so truthful. Fiefdoms, yes. The bigger the institution becomes the more difficult it becomes to locate the poison and extract it. Or even bother extracting it at all.

      Keep up the good recovery work. I’ve been meaning to ask you—do you have a blog?

      Reply
      • Kali

         /  November 14, 2013

        I don’t have a blog but maybe it would be therapeutic to have one. I could go ahead and make posts about my past experiences, and keep up with real-time healing.

        You are helping me so much by being a voice for me, if my blog helped me, and then, bonus, even one other person feel understood, it would be worth it.

        Reply
      • Kali

         /  November 14, 2013

        I didn’t respond to your Reiki question–I have had the first Reiki training, and I have been practicing with family and friends. The most powerful sessions I have done have been with my neighbor. We both feel like we’ve had a Valium after our sessions. I get more out of giving it than getting it, so I’m very glad I did the training. I’ve been wanting to do higher-level training but I always seem to be out of town when it’s offered.

        Reply
        • I so wish I was your neighbor right now Kali! There’s a theme going on here—I met another reiki practitioner today. She was this wonderful red-headed kooky woman with the most childlike energy and a full, full heart. Anyway. I’m glad you did the training too, sounds like you have a gift. As always am honored to be a blog you’ve found voice through. Yeah blogging has been very therapeutic for me. If you had one, I’d certainly read it! But I know it’s not for everyone.

          Reply
  6. I hope the next few weeks fly by and you can enjoy some time off before finding something better. It is excruciating going to a toxic job each day. I did it for years and still have flashbacks! Ugh…

    Reply
    • We’ve had a few, um, hiccups in recent days and am striving to be my best self! It. Is. Haaarrrd. But keeping telling self am doing the best I can in a trying circumstance. Sorry for your flashbacks, sister. Ugh is right.

      Reply

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