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.
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.