My experience of a toxic working environment and what got me through

It was supposed to be my career turning point. I felt elated when I got the news. My big break finally… and my family and wife were also delighted for me.

I had been working in my first role in London as an Employment Coach. My results had been good through hard work but felt I wasn’t progressing any further, plus I couldn’t see an area in the organisation to develop. So after about one and a half years I informed my then manager with a lot of notice I would eventually be moving on. Even though we, and the team, had a great relationship she understood and even sent me some links for interesting roles.

I got a call from an agency and they told me about an Employment Advisor role. I said I wasn’t interested in such a similar role, but they insisted it wasn’t a typical advisor role and to take a look at the job spec via email which I agreed to. I opened it, it was a university role, a huge pay increase on what I was on, and almost double my current annual leave! Perhaps they were right.

I agreed to the interview feeling it was worth at least the experience and finding out more so I did some preparation in advance. I was shocked to learn I was offered the role a few days after. I was ecstatic. It felt like my first really challenging role since graduating and opportunity to really progress in an ideal environment of constant learning and self-development. What better place than an international university with major funding!? I had some time off before starting and used much of it to get up to speed on my new role, life was good… or at least it appeared to be going that way.

I came in the first day and was shown to my desk and given some time to get used to the new databases, systems and the open office generally. I was sandwiched between the two older and senior advisors who were part of my interview panel. I remember looking around and after a short time noticing the general quietness and indifference between the office team at their desk. I had been familiar with a previous rumbustious and social environment, but I thought perhaps this was the effect of a more professional environment and would adapt with a little time. These were the sacrifices of professional development I thought.

The first toxic incident took place when one of the senior advisers called on another newbie like myself to follow them to a meeting and very quickly she lost her patience waiting. She screamed profanities across the office, implying for her to hurry up and grab her coat. I was shocked. This would never be tolerated in my old environment, but then my manager was always on the office floor there.

I started with two other new staff at the same time and soon we realised the senior advisers had little time for us, despite the fact we were learning our formal training from them. We were generally shot down at meetings, left isolated at lunch times, lucky if we got a ‘hello’ in the morning, and all made to feel generally unwelcome and especially inferior. It quickly became apparent there was animosity between the senior advisers and office manager, and we were the lambs to slaughter as a result.

The manager was often busy and/or away from her office and so we barely communicated except for the odd scheduled group office meeting. I first decided mentally I had to just give myself time to adapt, and really showcase my abilities. I tried to make efforts to be friendly and interactive with all the staff but soon my happy go lucky nature and self-confidence eroded. As a result myself and the other newbies found ourselves tense at departmental meetings. I felt I was in over my head eventually leading to a decline in basic social skills given the amount of time I spent in that cold office environment. This was our living area of about 40 hours a week, sometimes longer given required deadlines.

The only solace and satisfaction initially was the interaction with students and you could feel the same from the other new members of staff in this regard. I would come home from work consumed with frustration and negativity, I felt trapped and I could see little way out. I had poured out my feelings to my new manager, and her first action was to roll her eyes to the ceiling. I felt incredibly invalidated and hurt.

However, us three newbies became close through this initial suffering and high level of toxicity we all experienced in the office. Without them I may have left in no time rather than stick it out for a year. We came to the manager together as a show of force, and we were then allowed to lunch together. We joked to each other about the situation, trying to make light of it and poking fun at it, but more importantly a special friendship arose from it that we keep to this day.

When you find support plus positivity, and realise you are not suffering on your own, it makes a world of difference. We may not have had the work experience of the senior advisors, but we developed better working relationships over time as we genuinely wanted to work together with others on the team as opposed to see work relationships as a battle of egos. Otherwise we would have contributed to the shared toxicity like the others did.

We shared our difficult situations and comforted each other as a result. We celebrated our small successes together as if all our own and supported each other in our work responsibilities where possible. In my free time I also setup a football group so I could experience more positive social interactions. Free time never before became so essential in being involved in a ‘normal’ and motivating environment. I wanted to ensure I spent my free time doing something I loved and spending time with loved ones.

I view it all now as a learning curve and although eventually starting fresh wasn’t easy, when I eventually left, looking back I would have done the same thing. Learning acceptance and knowing when to leave something negative behind is important. But I’ve also taken all the positives and learning experiences from what was a bad situation and have moved forward confidently as a result.

Darren Kelly
Darren Kelly
A young thirty something from Dublin who recently spent 4 years working as an Employment Consultant in the welfare to work sector in London. I hold a deep passion for contributing towards positive mental health, as per my blog;