We Need to Talk About Toxic Work Environments

An alarming number of women have come forward and shared harrowing experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace since the second wave of #MeToo movement gained momentum in India in late 2018.

Around the same time, an erstwhile colleague said, “Today people are finally talking about sexual harassment at workplace. Someday there will be a #MeToo movement directed at mental harassment at the workplace.”

The colleague in question used to suffer from nervous breakdowns at work, more often than not provoked by her seniors.

You identify a toxic work environment the moment you step in.

It’s almost instinctive – a gut feeling, which no matter how hard you try to ignore, keeps coming back and messing with your meals and sleep. Deep down, you know that you don’t fit in. You get early morning jitters in the form of nausea or anxiety attacks. You wake up with a start, panicking that you have to reach office in the next one hour and deal with obnoxious people throughout the day.

Ten hours pass in a blur, and the moment you escape, you remember nothing of your day. Your mind goes into a panic mode imagining the next day. You brood over the mistakes made and tasks left incomplete in office. You keep checking your phone, expecting a rebuke from your boss or a taunt from a colleague.

When you get neither, you almost switch off your phone but for that late night call from a worried mother wondering if you have eaten all day.

“Yes ma, I had some baingan ka bharta with rotis.

“No ma, I could not buy fruits last week.”

“I have night shift all this week. I am also working on Sunday. I’ll probably sleep all Saturday.”

“Office was fine, ma. Goodnight”

Just when you’re about to switch off your phone, your WhatsApp notification pops up. Some news has just broken about frogs getting married in Karnataka to invoke rain gods. You have to take a wire copy, please. Do it from home but get it up by 11 pm. It does not matter if you are heating your dinner. The story has to break now.

But that’s a journalist’s story.

Even engineers, lawyers, cartoonists, doctors and teachers identify a bad job the moment they start it. My friend, a junior engineer by profession, has been working in a reputed IT firm for over a year now. Workplace bullying is constant in his department. Seniors would get away by justifying their behaviour as a common way of bonding over cheap humour. The bullying got worse as he grappled with anxiety issues, losing sleep and appetite.

“What’s worse is that my bosses would justify their tendencies by saying that it is a norm in the industry. Even they were bullied as freshers,” he said.

He started losing weight and had repeated instances of low blood pressure. This is when he started going to a counsellor.

His counsellor, a nice and jovial woman, failed to understand “why millennials suffer from unrealistic expectations at workplace”.

Maybe the counsellor was right.

Maybe we do have unrealistic expectations from our respective offices. Coming from privileged upper-middle class backgrounds, we were never warned by our over-protective parents that people won’t exactly praise their little muffins at the drop of a hat.

Or perhaps, as millennials, we are far more exposed to issues like workplace harassment, both sexual and mental. Hence we can identify bullying, take offence and choose to not keep quiet.

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Another friend, who is a Mumbai-based corporate lawyer, had taken a week-long privileged leave after almost a year. Her flights were booked till Shimla via Delhi. On the night of her journey, she was forced to stay back in office till 2 am. She missed her flight and vacation.

“They promised to compensate my leave in the coming week, but I refused. I felt dejected,” she said.

It is hardly ever about the odd hours or hectic work schedules. It is about being forced to do what you never signed up for. It is about the heinous behaviour of senior colleagues who never for once understand that juniors are just starting out.

Perfection requires practice and practice requires time. It is about that one quick chai break with your only friend in office, abruptly cut short by a phone call from your boss. It is about getting wasted and throwing up at weekend office parties to forget work for once and all.

Quitting a bad job and toxic work environment is difficult. You are constantly scared about your next job being as bad, if not worse. You are scared of staying unemployed forever. You are apprehensive because there are bills to be paid and chocolate donuts to be bought.

Not to mention, flight tickets to Ma.

But a bad job takes care of it all. It either pushes you to an extent of putting down your papers or it makes you so demoralised that you are tagged as “unresourceful” and eventually dumped by the company.

Life after a bad job is uneventful and bland even.

But it is required for healing, as much as a bland diet and ample rest are necessary to recover from a prolonged illness. Soon, you see yourself hale and hearty, walking to your next interview, signing a new offer letter and taking a cab ride to your first day at a new office.

This new experience might even be far better than the previous one.

If it is not, you will always identify a bad job the moment you start it.

Prerna Chatterjee is an editor at a publishing house and a part-time freelance writer based in Kolkata. 

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty