I wish workplace mental health initiatives were more about helping people to understand the psychology of burnout and less about getting people to do yoga. The benefits of therapeutic lifestyle activities cannot be dismissed but bear with me here.
Like all modern careers, mine has had ebbs and flows of stress – some at reasonable levels, but sometimes, well beyond that and for prolonged periods of time. Some of the most serious stressful times have been influenced by the environments I have been in and their response to my identity.
Now, at risk of setting myself apart as a special snowflake, I do want to emphasise that I have seen all sorts of people suffer in highly toxic workplaces.
I have watched people work through lunch hours, compete dog-eat-dog style with colleagues for permanency, become attached to their devices 24/7, and give up weekends with their family for extra-curricular activities. I have watched some of the best and brightest people burn out in my midst.
It sucks. I know, I used to be there myself.
One workplace I was a part of hired a ‘wellness guru’ for a day of professional development. As part of the activities, we were asked where we would rate our wellbeing on a scale.
When he saw my minus number, he stopped and said, “Yeah… I can’t really help with that. You should see someone.” It was an awkward exchange.
I was a minus four, not just because of the weirdness towards my identity, but because I was also giving my whole self to my job with no breaks. I was working within an environment where everyone had to have their needs met, to the highest standard, with no let-up.
Demands had to be met, no matter how unreasonable or time-sensitive.
Sometimes, the comment would be, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t do so much’ but it would always be followed with another expectation involving weekend time to complete it or another exercise in reinventing the wheel, to maintain the marketing pitch.
We’re innovative here. Look at our employees go. #GrowthMindset!
You see, some leaders tick the wellbeing box by outsourcing to gurus with buzz words and platitudes. They arrive with their Pinterest boards about scented candles, mindfulness, and trail mix.
But none of that shit works if your whole working life is out of whack. I have seen many people suffer under unrealistic workloads and toxic culture. No amount of wellness Band Aids will heal your mind if you cannot take five after a long day.
The whole idea of wellness is in creating a life that you don’t have to escape from.
I wish someone had explained that some jobs just won’t improve your standard of life, even if they provide you a living. It is not a backwards career step to cut free from a negative, unsuitable environment as an act of self-care.
Fostering an inclusive and healthy workplace culture is much more important than wellness days. It is really all about fostering a workplace where you’re not shamed for setting boundaries. It is about tempering the expectations of excellence to a place where you can achieve it without burnout. It is about feeling supported to set boundaries with demanding clients so the expectations don’t get out of hand.
Finally, it is about knowing that you are valued for who you are and what you bring.
These tones come from the top and they are what matters when it comes to employee retention. But – unlike the Pinterest boards and wellness guru days (which always seem to be catered by Subway) – these measures take hard work and strategy.
Maybe it is about time we start holding our leaders accountable for it.
Leaving wellness and inclusion to chance runs the risk of burning out some of our best and brightest – gay, straight, or otherwise.
In my experience, many people are fairly coachable when it comes to matters of wellness and they take responsibility for it – but the environment they work in needs to support that, too.
As for toxic workplaces – Namaste? Nah, I’ma go. And I’m taking a free box of paperclips with me.