The past few years in Ireland have been extremely difficult for everyone. There is not one person who has not felt increased pressure under the weight of the current economic climate, with the most dominant feeling of all being worry – worry about budgeting a limited paycheque; worry about the future; worry about how friends and loved ones are coping.
Maybe those who are employed are lucky to have a job in a climate where so many are struggling to survive on welfare payments, or entire families are emigrating at an alarming rate – even luckier if that job is in their chosen field – yet, it is this sense of “luck” that employers have taken advantage of so ruthlessly and that has caused misery in so many lives. People are overworked, underpaid and abused. It is immense pressure for any person to withstand and yet the saddest thing of all is hearing the snide, condescending, belittling and unfortunately all too familiar phrase, “You’re lucky to have a job”.
Overworked and underpaid – a highly stressful combination that will inevitably manifest in ill health, and yet we don’t take stress-related illnesses seriously, often simply ignoring them. Before we examine the reasons why we don’t take stress related illness seriously however, let’s look at the causes of toxic work environments.
Workplace bullying is a massive, yet often unreported, problem. Of course, bullying is a big accusation to throw around in any work environment, which is why when we think of the phrase we think of heinous acts such as sexual harassment, homophobia or racism. What many don’t realise, however, is that workplace bullying can be much more subtle than these glaring breaches of conduct – it can be as simple as consistent undermining of you or your work.
If a person presents serious and valid concerns regarding their working conditions, only to be told by their employer “That’s how it is in this sector. If you can’t handle it then maybe it isn’t for you,” that is bullying, simply because it is a knowing and measured response to someone with a valid concern, and one born out of confidence that the employee will grudgingly submit. Why? Because employers know that the employee needs the job.
That brings us to another problem connected to a toxic work environment and increased stress. We convince ourselves that we need a job – that we can’t walk away from any form of employment, especially in this environment. The reasons for such a mentality are varied. For one, we need a job for the obvious financial benefit. Debts need to be paid. Families need to be given continued security. Even at a most basic and superficial level, lifestyles and “status” need to be maintained. The most overriding emotions, however, that demand we stay put, much to the detriment of our health, seem to be fear and shame.
The importance of responsibility has been ingrained in most of us from a young age, that we don’t walk away from one job without the security of another. What is this attitude born out of though? Quitting is looked down upon, regardless of the reasoning behind the decision. Instead, people draw conclusions: that the person who “gave up” is weak; too emotional; too soft; not able to handle the realities of working life.
Naturally, no one wants to be viewed in such a way. No one wants to feel like a failure in the eyes of family and friends, so we put up and shut up. The sad reality is that we give precedence to maintaining an illusion of how we are feeling and this is a dangerous mindset to fall into. Many people don’t seem to take work related stress seriously but it is not something to be dismissed. Stress is something that can manifest both mentally and physically.
On a basic level, failing to deal with stress levels effectively can have negative effects on our relationships with colleagues, friends and family. We tend to take out our frustration on those in closest proximity to us when we cannot vent it in the right direction, and this of course can have negative ramifications in our lives as we become a destructive force in the lives of others. On a deeper level, however, people don’t seem to realise that stress can cause actual physical illness. Stress can cause a number of illnesses, ranging from the seemingly harmless (skin rash) to the debilitating (gout). Most frightening of all though is that it can manifest in something potentially fatal such as a heart attack or stroke.
This is why it is paramount to listen to your body when it is pleading with us to stop. We are all responsible for our own well being, and only you can decide what’s more important: maintaining a façade or protecting your health and happiness.
[Image: net_efekt - Flickr]