Usually when I write a blog or article I’m offering solutions and giving advice on how employers can support their employees or create more happier, healthier more
productive working environments.
Not this one.
This one is different.
This is about my own journey of working in
toxic and unhealthy working environments
and the toll this took on my mental health.
It’s worth mentioning that this was all with no awareness of the fact I also had undiagnosed ADHD. (Attention Defect Hyperactivity Disorder)
I actually hadn’t planned on sharing this initially.
I wrote it for myself because it felt cathartic.
I had been reflecting on Mental Health Day last night sat on my sofa cross legged, deep in the throw of a good old hyper focus.
It was only this morning that I thought perhaps by sharing my story it could help to raise further awareness, in light of mental health at work.
If one person reads this and it resonates or encourages them speak up and break free from their own current toxic work experience then it would be worth the anxiety and vulnerability I’m feeling at the very thought of posting this online.
So, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that I understand how you’re feeling. It feels bleak, like there isn’t a way out and feel it may ever end.
I want you to know that you are NOT ALONE and there IS a way forward and there IS a way out.
As for having ADHD, I see so much posted online about this and yes, it CAN be a super power. It CAN be an incredible talent. IF properly understood and given a safe space to be talked openly in and out of work.
But let me assure you, speaking of my own experience, I can tell you that having ADHD it is NOT all sweetness and rainbows. It is NOT a superpower when you’re spiralling, overwhelmed and on the absolutely brink of burnout and despair.
There are however, many ways you can break free from this and I’d highly recommend initially by talking about it if you are feeling this way. There are so many people that feel the same way and have learnt ways to channel ADHD in really positive ways.
Neurodiversity effects 20% of us and it’s so important that employers ensure they are providing the right tools, space and guidance necessary to support with this. It’s crucial that employers are taking this as seriously as they are when it comes to wellbeing of ALL of their employees.
There is my own raw, first-hand experience of what it has been like growing up and working with undiagnosed ADHD coupled with toxic work environments.
I have not named any businesses or individuals, this is not a witch hunt.
Let’s do everything we can to better support our colleagues (and loved ones) with their mental and physical health wherever we can.
Where it all started
In school I remember I was always considered the ‘naughty kid or the ‘class clown.’
I was often pulled out of class for back chatting, being lippy or being ‘overly distracting’ and being told to stand in the hallway.
I would stand outside and press my face against the window pulling silly faces at the other kids making them laugh all whilst trying to look like I was unfazed and bored at having been made to leave class.
I remember always having found school a bit of a challenge.
I never really worked out if it was because I was just ‘bored’ or if I just genuinely couldn’t focus for prolonged periods on something I wasn’t fully engaged and invested in due to having undiagnosed ADHD.
It wasn’t that I found school a challenge due to getting people to like me, making friends even.
To be honest, I actually got on with most of the teachers, I was quite cheeky with a fairly quick sense of humour so I think this helped me to jumble my way through school
(Except maybe with my Maths teacher – her and I just couldn’t see eye to eye..! Bah, I always disliked Maths anyway)
I think upon reflection it was more than I would have been considered on the surface as fairly intelligent, however as I was often stood outside of the classroom, coupled with a constant struggle of being able to focus and regulate and understand how I was feeling, I only received a handful of decent grades.
No surprise there that they were in subjects I found interesting and when I did, the grades I produced where at the top of my year group.
The rest of my subjects however, it could be considered that I’d failed miserably in.
I remember I also found it hard to feel like I fit in at School.
(Now I know this is pretty typical if you have ADHD, for a number of reasons which I’ll come onto shortly.)
I felt like I was supposed to have been ‘smarter.’
The cool kids at my school were pretty academic so I never really fit in with them, perhaps they saw me as ‘trouble’ and avoided me for this reason. The kids that were in lower sets seemed not to care about school at all so I didn’t fit in there either.
The thing was, I DID care about school and I remember WANTING to do well, I just couldn’t seem to concentrate – particularly in the test environments, doing all the homework or coursework and would prefer to be in the classes in which practical tasks were or activities were the focus.
This is one of the few up sides of having ADHD, when fully engaged and focused – we tend to hyper focus and can spent hours and hours carrying out the task to the very end.
It turns out (another ADHD plus) that adults with it, can be 30% more productive than those without.
I was always very sociable and found it easy to meet people, make conversation and chatter away.
(Those who know me well, will know this is still the case!)
In fact I recently found my old school reports from the 90’s and they all said the same – even from pre-school!
"Chatterbox Kirsty distracting the class, making jokes and being a general nuisance of herself in class. However, on the whole very pleasant and contributes valuably – when she is engaged"…
You see the thing with ADHD and concentration is that there is a real challenge around being unable to control impulses, and keep them under control.
This can leads to all sorts of problems in social interaction at school and later in adulthood.
We can be known to interrupt and make inappropriate remarks. People will say we talk and laugh too loudly or that we tend to talk rather a lot.
Resulting in feedback such as “I just told you that, don’t you remember?” or, “You only care about yourself.”
As you can imagine, people lose patience and the person with ADHD feels dejected.
This can lead to low self-esteem and depression starting pretty early on.
Experts estimate that children with ADHD receive 20,000 more negatives messages in their lifetimes than typically-developing children, and their parents get more negative feedback about their children as well.
(Not a good news story.)
So this continued through secondary school and then I started college. Within three months I'd booked a one way flight to Mallorca.
The thought of spending another 3 or 4 years ‘studying’ and doing ‘tests’ filled me with anxiety and dread. I just could not think of anything less that I wanted to do.
I then spent the next three years accelerating my career in selling overseas property.
I left all that I knew and the few what I would have called close friends and off I went.
That’s when my career really took off.
I quickly became the youngest successful sales rep the company had ever seen in years and was quickly promoted. I moved out of shared accommodation and got my own place, car and the money was coming in thick and fast.
After 2 and a half years I quickly became tired of it all. The long hours, the 6 (sometimes 7) day weeks.
The managers were absolutely relentless and it was an incredibly unhealthy and toxic place to work. We were told to write down during a morning meeting how we 'needed this job' and how 'we wouldn't find anything better'.
I was exhausted and needed some proper structure, so I came back and landed a job in recruitment.
Pretty much the same pattern repeated itself – I showed I was ambitious, driven and capable and I moved up the ranks quickly and easily.
The franchise manager often left the office in my hands (aged 19/20 or so at the time) and we opened a bigger office in town.
My sales figs were making news and I received awards at the works ceremony and began hiring my own team.
Sounds great right? I was starting to make something of myself…
2 year passed and I was burnt out, again.
This time I figured I’d got it. Recruitment just wasn’t for me.
I was headhunted and changed career – almost 3 years later I had made myself ill.
I had completely burnt myself out this time.
The thing was, I was ‘successful’ and I had money in the bank.
I was also completely miserable.
So I took a year off and travelled.
I sold the few possessions I’d got at the time, bought a motorbike and rode across Vietnam, backpacked across Asia, floated on dingys down the Mekong river in Laos and ended up in Thailand. (It was a hell of a year.)
But something was missing.
I didn’t feel I had a purpose.
So, I came home and picked up where I left off.
Made sense at the time to stick with what I knew, sales in recruitment!
I mean I had pretty limited options considering I had only a handful of decent grades, so this was all I had to go with.
‘Gift of the gab’ was what I was told I had going for me.
(That would be a great plan, right? )
I became the youngest branch manager managing their second largest portfolio for one of the UK’s largest recruitment firms and was up to the eyeballs with stress...
There was little in the way of support and all I knew was how to work ‘harder.’ ‘faster.’
(Anyway, you can see where this is going.)
By this point the validation of ‘being successful’ and ‘what good looked like’ was all I had that told me I was doing a ‘good’ job.
The feedback I’ve been getting from my bosses was encouraging me to continue to fire off at all cylinders 24/7.
By this point I had no social life, was working until 10/11pm eating ready meals because I was too exhausted at the thought of cooking (plus my fridge was always empty bar some old milk and a random cucumber) and back early, for another full day of it.
Must. Do. Better.
The next job lasted around 2 or 3 years or so until I burnt out.
I figured this time, if I work in a sector that do something meaningful, something that does some good – surely I wont feel like this anymore? So I tried that and it’ll be no surprise for you to hear that didn’t work either.
I was living to work. Because I cared and wanted to well to keep my bosses happy I would just try ‘harder.
I simply didn’t know any different.
I felt if I let anyone down I was failing and therefore letting them down, so the cycle continued for many years. Now I know this is pretty typical of having ADHD.
By this point I was had incredibly low self-worth, self-esteem, anxiety and particularly sensitive to criticism (even self-criticism) which became almost debilitating.
The trouble is, living with ADHD, in my experience was was living in a state of constant hypervigilance. It was utterly exhausting.
“A state of increased alertness where the individual is constantly assessing potential threats”
The emotional symptoms of hypervigilance – coupled with toxic and or unhealthy working environments can be severe.
Severe anxiety, fear, panic, worrying that can become persistent. Fear of judgment from others, become emotionally withdrawn, experience mood swings or outbursts of emotion.
For me, this was very real.
I started panicking that because I only had 2 or 3 years in posts on my CV before moving on that people would think less of me, that I wasn’t capable.
I hope you will agree from the above – this was far from the case. I was far from incapable.
It is because I was in fact so capable that employers took advantage of this very fact and in some cases sat and watched me literally drive myself into the ground.
Please be mindful when you see a CV with roles carried out for 2 years, please don’t automatically dismiss them without talking to them first.
It can be hugely beneficial for recruiters to also adjust their recruitment plan or strategy to find, hire and retain those with neurodiversity.
Unfortunately, there are still a number of barriers in the recruitment process for so many businesses that are impacting the job opportunities available to those with neurodiversity, from job advertisements to interviews and feedback.
I tried to make changes to escape this world I’d created for myself, but my CV was rejected repeatedly, due to having one skill set (on paper.)
So I told myself this must be the way forward and carried on doing all I knew how.
I was in a catch 22.
Stay quiet, be miserable and continue to be taken advantage of and run myself into the ground. (Literally)
Or leave in the hope of finding an employer who ‘appreciated the efforts’ I was putting in and help me to set sensible, healthy and realistic boundaries and expectations of what was required.
Working out of hours CONSTANTLY, being on call 24/7, excessive travel across the country and working weekends – simply is not OK!
It’s worth noting that when you have ADHD it can be quite common to have a co-condition called RSD.
Those with RSD are extremely sensitive to criticism, often holding on to negative words or actions made towards them for months, or even years.
An ADHD-RSD combination is difficult to overcome, but there are some strategies include focusing on your positive traits and practicing self-compassion or therapy.
The reason I mention this is because I’ve worked for some pretty ruthless managers throughout my career. They did not hold back.
Some played dirty, manipulated and took advantage. (They know who they are.)
I must caveat that I have also had some management that took time to see how they could support me, but often this was too little too late.
I now know that the negativity I received from these individuals wasn’t personal.
People often react in a ‘negative’ manner when coming from a place of shame, fear or vulnerability.
It’s very rarely personal.
What I needed back then was patience, a space to be heard.
When people aren’t properly trained or given the tools, advice or support that THEY need to do their job they aren’t able to give the people that work for them the support or guidance that THEY need.
Then of course there was the physical working environment…
I've always working in Sales. So many of my workspaces were noisy, ruthless, loud, distracting and ruthless environments.
Almost always ‘open plan’ with no space to recuperate or for retreat.
Time is money, so no time to take ‘time out.’
The funny thing is, people in sales are often outgoing, extrovert and very sociable.
I personally, feel this can in some cases be a mask. A façade and not always their true authentic self. Because they didn’t feel they were able to be who they really were.
Perhaps vulnerable, insecure and ‘NORMAL’ human beings.
I see traits of ADHD in lots of the individuals I have worked with over the years in retrospect, particular in this type of ‘salesy’ environments and it’s so unbelievably important that they are given time and space to just ‘switch off’ and recoup for short periods of time.
It was absolutely RELENTLESS (for those of you that have seen boiler room or Wolf of Wallstreet?!)
It’s AS important for businesses to ensure they provide spaces for retreat, recuperation, refuge and focus as it is creativity, collaboration, socialising and activity based working.
The funny thing is; by providing this variety and choice of spaces will actually generate productivity and improve performance.
Time is NOT money in this instance.
Ensuring your employee’s wellbeing is at the top of a businesses priority list is the answer to improving productivity and performance and it is this way a business will generate additional revenue.
Through happier and healthier employees.
I’ve worked for a business where it was required that EVERYONE was at the TOP OF THEIR GAME. Constantly.
You would end up on the infamously named s*** slide at conferences and work related events. (Yep, this as the actual name of the slide)
I’ve seen people in tears, completely ashamed and humiliated all whilst it’s been common knowledge that they’ve had some tricky family circumstances going on and they’ve had a less successful quarter or end of year.
It was all considered a joke and funny.
If you couldn’t laugh about it then you needed to ‘man up.’
You could see the impact and toll this had on their mental health.
Trying all year to keep off that slide was stressful enough.
You’d constantly be worrying if the next job didn’t come in, would that mean you’d be out of a job?
Then you’d begin worrying about the next one, the next one…. and so on.
I never understood why they had the s*** and why this was considered appropriate.
It used to give me anxiety and I’d thank my lucky stars it wasn’t me on that slide and feeling overwhelmingly sorry for the ones that were.
They would then just isolate themselves and hide away with their sales figures hanging around their neck like a noose until they either left or managed to pull in a half decent job to scrape them back off the sh** slide.
Until next quarter.
There was always the next quarter. The next conference.
Just looming in the distance.
The next chapter
The thing is, it would be easy for me to sit here and say how terrible it was and how lucky I am that I made it through it all.
But the truth is, this experience has helped me evolve into the resilient, independent and very capable woman I am now, who is so passionate about mental health and making a difference.
I have learnt so much from all of these experiences, businesses and people and I have used these to carve out my future which is to help others.
Of course, it was far from ideal but the main thing I want you to take away from this is that there IS an end. It can be your beginning.
Two years ago the pandemic hit and I was forced to STOP.
It forced me to take stock, check in with myself and asses, what am I doing with my life.
Why am I enabling and allowing people to treat me this way?
I am worth more. I can DO more.
If you feel that spark in your belly (I know you know what I mean) then that is it. It’s waiting to come out and carve out your next chapter.
“Recovery is not one and done. It is a lifelong journey that takes place, one step at a time”
You CAN do this, you have GOT this. You don’t have to put up with mistreatment or poor working conditions.
WE can DO this. Together.