Office Life: Thar Be Meanies

In Virginia, there’s an esteemed literary magazine called The Virginia Quarterly Review.
There, an editor has committed suicide, and the Review has been shut down amid a new investigation that the suicide was as a result of workplace bullying and harassment.
I found the story fascinating on a couple levels.

Photographer unknown.

One, there’s a strange perception, I think, that these sort of things don’t happen in intellectual/cultural offices, and I think this sheds light on the reality that people can be mean fuckers whatever their aesthetic tastes.
Two, it continues the realization I’ve had since reading William Styron’s Darkness Visible years ago — that is, to be literary is to be predisposed to depression and potentially suicidal tendencies. The “Overthinky Syndrome” comes on something fierce when one is closely aligned with literary pursuits.
Three, I don’t think we really give enough weight to mental health on the job when it comes to the people around us.
A few years ago, as I was descending into the darkest depression I’ve ever had, I was working at an office where I felt put down and distrusted daily. It was a very difficult environment to work in, but I had no choice, I’d run out of employment insurance and had to take something.
Given my declining emotional state, I didn’t really trust my feelings — maybe I just felt like shit. Maybe I was misreading the things said and done around the office.
One day I was sorting through papers and found legal documents relating to a case involving one of the company’s principals and the province’s labour board. Apparently there were allegations of psychological abuse by the company’s principal, made by former employees.
I suddenly felt a little vindicated. It wasn’t just me, this person actually was kind of mean and cruel.
A year later, I was working for another employer who would mentally beat me down now and then because I wasn’t sacrificing myself for the job like she was. (I don’t own the company, woman, and I was told it was 9-5, not 55 hours a week, and I was getting paid for 40. Liars.)
I know what it’s like to have the opposite kind of bosses, too.
I’ve had a lot of employers who’ve been people who stopped me from doing negative self-talk, who told me how valued I was. I’ve had a lot of luck working for good people.
There’s a world of difference between going to that kind of job, where a bad mood is just part of life’s occasional fluctuations, versus one of the jobs where I’d be lucky to make it through a day without some mocking, blaming, or guilting kind of assault happening, where a bad mood would spiral into dread about returning the next day, and more dread about enduring five full days in a row with no escape.
One of the reasons I want to be self-employed is, the good people I was working for are in a precarious part of the film industry and job security is a thing of the past. I’m pushing 40. I could’ve handled that uncertainty in my 20s, but I can’t anymore.  I can rely on myself, though.
Another is, my last experience looking for work landed me in both of the above jobs, and I do blame both experiences in part for the depression I then spiralled into.
I also credit them with making me ANGRY enough to change my life.
But some people don’t get to reach angry.
Some people get beaten down day after day, told they’re stupid, useless, and lucky to even be employed. Management puts hurdles before them they’ll never overcome, and the economy ensures more hurdles.
The hopelessness of being stuck in jobs like that, in the face of an economic climate like we have now, it makes sense it’d be driving people to suicide.
And our dearly departed editor? Well, there’s not really a growing market for literary review editors, is there? If he felt trapped, if the university was looking the other way on complaints just to avoid controversy, if daily badgering and emotional assaults were happening, if he was your typical overly-analytical literary genius, then… tragically, it does compute.
Workplace bullying is as bad as childhood bullying, if not worse.
At least when you’re a kid there are potential adult figures who might ride in and save you from bullies.
When you’re an adult, there’s a veneer of judgment that comes with admitting you’re being bullied at work. Most reactions are along the lines of “Suck it up” or “It’s just a job” or “Hey, just three days till Friday! Chin up!”
When a job becomes your jail, you try shrugging it off. One can logically think “Oh, it’s just a paycheque”, but there’s a toxicity that comes from being exposed to these people on a day-in, day-out basis.
Like a river can passively wear down even the strongest of rocky terrain, just running over the same ground day after day, so too can a person’s soul and spirit erode.
When I quit the job that had me working daily for six months just 10 feet away from the most toxic, negative, and belittling woman I’ve ever known, it took me more than a year to start finding the positivity and hope in myself again — the things I said were just nothing like the person I used to be. That negativity changed who I was.
And I’m a pretty strong chick.
That was six months, just six months of being broken down by intimidation and judgment and belittling.
What about others? How far does that daily treatment go, how much worse does it become over time? How deeply does it seep?
This kind of treatment isn’t business as usual.
It shouldn’t be overlooked.
Employees should have greater rights about how they can expect to be treated, especially if they’re performing good work and delivering results. (Some useless fuckheads who don’t care about their jobs or quality could use a little yelling at, but all within reason.)
If this was just another unhappy Wal-Mart or McDonald’s or city-sanitation type job, the story would’ve been dismissed. “I’d commit suicide if I had that job, too — har-har.”
But all this guy had to do was read and write for a living. These were literary people, they had soul and the ability to communicate well.
And yet, here we are.
Cruelty and harassment knows no boundaries. There is no class distinction. Intelligence isn’t immune to meanness.
We’re supposed to be a kinder, gentler society. Maybe now we can stop with the lip-service and get on with the reality of being better than our predecessors.

5 thoughts on “Office Life: Thar Be Meanies

  1. Derek K. Miller

    I,ve worked graveyard shift at a gas station, and installed wiring for alarm systems in fibreglass-filled attics during a heat wave, but the worst job I ever had was at a magazine with a bullying, belittling, unpredictable publisher/editor.
    It was a small office, fewer than 10 people, but in the eight months I was there at least a dozen employees — especially those directly working for the boss — came and went. At least one went out for lunch on her first day and never came back. Anyone who had been there a long time had built up a mental shield, and learned to circumscribe their behaviour to avoid being blown up at (at least as often). Sometimes that didn’t help: the advertising manager who had been there since the magazine started, and who was my boss, was summarily fired one day. But most people quit.
    I was in my mid-20s and thought I could stick it out, wanting to get some experience in the publishing industry. But being a type 1 diabetic, I has something many other people didn’t: a number that could measure my stress. A normal blood glucose level is between 4.0 and 8.0, or for diabetics below 10.0 is good. High levels are bad, and over the long term can lead to nerve damage, gangrene, kidney failure, and blindness. After a particularly awful morning, I pricked my finger and checked my blood.
    The reading was over 17. I’d never had it that high since I was first diagnosed years earlier. That day I figured out I had to leave, and after a job search, I went to a software company where I stayed for almost five years. I still dread going past the magazine offices.
    What’s interesting is that the magazine is folksy and down-home and friendly. You wouldn’t know from reading it how toxic the work environment is there, and how many people have become disillusioned and, like me, left the industry because of it.

  2. Nil17

    This post completely rings true with me. I worked for an insurance agency for 4 years. A very small company of less than 10 employees. We had one woman who was completely toxic…I became her primary target & that coupled with other life issues sent me into a serious depression that I’m still working through. This culture of suck it up for the paycheck is ridiculous. Nobody deserves that treatment. So sad this editor is gone.

  3. Bruce

    Awareness of the problem is the first step. When I worked for a big leisure operations & holiday real estate corporation in the early naughties, we had a leadership retreat where one of the sessions was about dealing with office bullies. It was called “Tragedy in the Workplace”, and was led by Deanna Beal, a woman who wrote a book on this, and does a lot of public speaking on the topic. It was almost tangible how off-the-reservation having this topic brought up made the room feel. I was in the early stages of a marriage breakup, having relocated back to Canada from the UK, and was under huge stress. That session affected me more than any other, not because I had perceived any bullying in my workplace, but because it echoed what was going on in my personal life, which was just the ongoing stuff of a pretty dysfunctional upbringing.
    Still ongoing recovery, many years later, but at least things are moving along from recognition to recovery. Breaking the cycle is what every single person should be working to do, regardless of how long it takes you, or what effect it has on a “comfortable life”.

  4. Kat

    Its my firm belief that some of the office politics can only be a barrier from being the kind of people we should be. The veneers, pretending, feigning politeness, having to wear a mask so that we can be “appropriate and controlled into a hive mindset”….all of that must wear thin on people.

  5. Cheryl

    I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this subject which caused me to start a new series on my blog called How To Stand Up For Yourself. There’s something unbelievably cruel about bullying people in the place where survival needs are met – meaning we work to earn money plus to feel acknowledged for work well done. How did we end up making it so difficult? Plus, people really don’t like admitting that we can’t handle an interpersonal situation. It’s like you’re never allowed to mention it because you’re probably just complaining. I’m on a mission. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This post was great. Plus I found a reference to an interesting book in the comments above 🙂

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