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How a toxic work environment destroyed my mental health

In my first-ever meeting with my boss, I realised I would have to pay close attention to my mental health at work.


After I was offered the job over messenger, we had a short zoom call to discuss the details. Though I was the one asking most of the questions, I remember one specific thing I was asked.


“We really like that you’re so open and write about your mental illness,” they said. “But will it affect your work?”



In other words: having a mental illness is okay, of course. But please don’t show any symptoms.


As I am currently stable and on medication, I had a quick answer ready. But besides it being against the law to discriminate based on mental illness, the very least an employer can do is ask how they can best assist you - not whether it will affect your productivity.


I knew I had to remember this moment vividly, because it could foreshadow a toxic mentality towards mental health.


And that’s exactly what it did. This first red flag was unfortunately yet unsurprisingly one of many.


Writing about mental health

I write about mental health a lot. It’s how my first big story went viral and what I feel confident writing about.


So when I started working, one of my first big tasks was to go through the data of a mental health survey we had done and come up with several article ideas based on that data.


I was always offered the freedom to write about whatever I wanted, which was amazing. But for this project, my boss suggested I would start with a specific topic: mental health in the workplace.


I was obviously useful as a mental health advocate in a company that is rumoured to be horrible for it, and the irony didn’t escape me.


Here I was, admired and hired for writing about my mental illness, in a work environment that was anything but supportive of those struggling mentally.


Working conditions

I noticed how our nine-hour days included an unpaid lunch break on paper, but not in reality. The first week I took my breaks or left earlier if I didn’t do so, but it soon became clear that that wasn’t how things were done around here.


An already challenging 40-hour workweek had now become a 45-hour one, and lunch was to be enjoyed in front of your screen. That’s not a full-time job; it’s a recipe for burnout.


But I still enjoyed the work, so I continued writing about mental health.


At some point, I interviewed people living with depression and schizophrenia. Suffering from bipolar disorder, I am familiar with symptoms of both of these - which meant I could relate, but also that it affected me emotionally.


And while I do believe that’s exactly what makes great stories, I also think it’s crucial for an employer to acknowledge that some things take emotional and mental effort. If anything, the opposite was done.


A similar situation arose when I was asked to read Dear Decision Makers, a publication with about 50 stories of women in Malta who had an abortion, and select the best stories to write a series of articles about.


This was just months after I had an abortion myself, and while I am not emotional about my own experience, these heart-wrenching stories hit extra close to home because of it.


I remember shedding some tears in the newsroom as I spent hours of my day reading about women forced to give birth, overdosing on drugs and alcohol, and the self-harm of pregnant women.


When I decided to leave half an hour early that day (because as usual, I didn't take my lunch break), I was followed out of the office and asked what I thought I was doing. Why was my last article that day at 2.15 pm? I should have easily been able to have written at least one more.


And that was just the beginning.


Working with mental health organisation Richmond, we ran several campaigns for accessible therapy. One of those was their “Kif int?” campaign, which translates to “How are you?” in English.


And I'm all for promoting an amazing mental health campaign that emphasises asking people about their well-being, if it wasn't done by a company where, in all the months I had been working there, I hadn’t once been asked how I was.


I had accepted that having a bad day wasn’t a valid excuse for not being able to write six articles, but even a question as simple as “how are you?” could really change a crappy morning and set the tone for the day.


It was the umpteenth red flag when I had asked for leave months in advance and was told to find my own replacement for certain shifts. I thought that defeated the whole point of leave - being able to take time off whenever you need to, without having to worry about anything work-related.


I didn’t know who the HR person was for most of the time I was working there - mainly because there wasn’t one - but a senior executive had taken that task upon her, so I spoke to her about it.


She explained to me how this had been the company’s policy since the start, and that it had always been run like a frat house, but that she would make sure to change it if I really thought it was an issue. I did.


In that conversation, she said, “We’re like a family here.” I’m not an expert, but according to every single LinkedIn post I’ve ever read, that’s a massive red flag.


If “being a family” means working long hours, unpaid overtime and a lack of professional boundaries, I’d rather stick to just being a team.


I’m not alone

Maybe I wouldn’t have written this if it was just me not being able to keep up with the high expectations and struggling with my mental health.


But I personally know at least two people who sought therapy because they worked there, someone who had to work a part-time job to pay his bills, and plenty of others who were not coping well.


And it makes sense.


You’re hired as someone with no experience, and no idea of what to expect from an employer. After a few weeks of fun and freedom, you need to start pumping out six articles each day, present the news, and take on other projects.


You are expected to work around the clock. “To live and breathe the brand,” I was told.


That means coming up with at least six story ideas in your free time, after work, even if you finish a night shift at 10 pm. There is no excuse to not have ideas in the 9 am editorial meeting.


Writing six articles in a day comes down to 1,5 hours per article - that is, if you indeed don’t take your unpaid lunch break and don't have to present the news that day. There is simply no way you can speak to people, do proper research and write up and edit your piece in that time.


To make sure everyone was hitting the targets, we would get a regular overview of how many articles we had all written and how many clicks we had attracted per person. We were pushed to write for clicks, and it was more than clear that it was always quantity over quality.


Boundaries

Fine, that’s their business model. But that did mean I resorted to my personal blog to take time for the things I really wanted to write about.


One day, when I was on leave, I got a call from work. I had written about my abortion on my blog. “Could you send us your posts before you publish them on your blog?” they asked. “Just in case they would be interesting for us to share on our platform.”


I should have spoken up there and then. I wrote up personal pieces in my scarce free time, which I published on my own blog, that I had been running for years before I started working with them.


Now I was being asked to give them the content I wrote in my spare time for free before I could express myself on a platform with an audience that I had built by myself.


Despite their expectations, I wasn’t going to work around the clock if I wasn’t going to be paid to work around the clock. It simply wasn’t worth losing my peace for €8 per hour (or €4,50 in the first three months).


I found a better opportunity, which was a great reason to leave.


But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have left otherwise. If anything, I found another opportunity because I knew I couldn't stay in this work environment for long.


I am going to say this, and if I must, I will shout it: work is never worth your mental health. Neither are your studies or your career.


If you mess up your mental health, you lose so much more than just everything you’ve ever worked for. Nothing is worth losing your peace.


I decided to write about this not to name and shame the company I worked for, but because these are the experiences that shape me and this blog is the space I get to share my thoughts about them.


There might be people in similar situations who are afraid to speak up or step out, and mental health is harming more of us than we dare to admit.


As we are living through a pandemic, which has affected all of us mentally over the past two years, work is the last thing that should ruin anyone’s mental health.


Have you experienced depression or anxiety because of work? Have you ever been discriminated against because of your mental illness? Or are there simply practices at your workplace that you cannot imagine do wonders for anyone’s well-being?


Please reach out to me. These stories are worth sharing. There are more of us going through it than you would believe at first glance.

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