It was some years ago now that I left a toxic work environment; one that wore me down every single working day, one that tried very hard to erode my self-worth, one that put me in a vice and continued to squeeze me until I had nothing left to give. This toxic workplace almost destroyed me, my lowest point came when I was curled up in the fetal position on my bed feeling complete desperation, completely vulnerable.
Rewind a few years… I have always loved working, I enjoy the challenge and the mental stimulation. I had a very successful career, climbing the corporate ladder, I knew exactly where I wanted to go and I worked hard to earn the promotions I needed to get me there. With the change in titles came the pay-rises and increased responsibility – I felt alive, I was passionate about what I did and I thrived. The team I built around me was supportive, we met and exceeded our targets and although we were committed to our jobs we made sure we enjoyed the ride… we worked hard but we knew how to have a laugh, celebrate our wins and enjoy the camaraderie.
I’ve always believed if you put trust in people and you give them the tools, the resources and the support then they will deliver if they feel appreciated and valued. We would look at another department with its clock in and clock out mentality, with the manipulation and mind games and be thankful we operated in isolation. My job was to deliver results – to meet our monthly targets and yearly budgets and as long as my team delivered and worked hard when we needed to work hard, they were rewarded with a level of autonomy and flexibility around personal commitments.
Because I was use to fostering a positive work culture with the people I managed, my world came crashing down around me when I returned from my first maternity leave into a new position within the company. Ironically I found myself in the same department I’d always looked in on from the outside with distain, the department that clocked you in and clocked you out, the department that micro-managed and rather than empowering and inspiring you it liked to control, manipulate and intimidate. I traded in my autonomy and a position I was passionate about for the opportunity to spend another day with my daughter, to work a 4 day week instead of 5. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make…it was a decision that almost destroyed me but I consciously chose not to let it define me, as difficult as it was.
There had always been a person in management who had never warmed to me, I could only put it down to the fact I never subscribed to the `click’, I always compared it to the popular group at school that wanted you to feel left out if you weren’t part of the pack. But rather than wasting energy trying to infiltrate the group, I often went out of my way to avoid it. The leader of the group didn’t have my undivided attention, I didn’t pander to them and they hated it.
I spent 18 months muddling my way through in a suppressive culture, no longer passionate for what I did, no longer thriving in my work environment. It became a job that paid the bills, in my mind I only had to put up with it for 4 days before I got a 3 day reprieve. With my second pregnancy came the relief of knowing I had 12 months off, not having to attend unproductive meetings and my success being measured on the hours I spent at my desk instead of my actual work output.
Prior to returning from my second maternity leave, there was a considerable change in senior management and those who knew my work ethic and valued my contribution had left, the person who remained was the one who had always felt threatened by me and they took this opportunity to come after me with all guns blazing.
Before my return to work, my gut instinct kicked into overdrive. I have a very strong intuition and I always listen to it, along with the support of my family that is what ultimately got me through a soul-destroying ordeal. I knew I was in for a rough ride, I buckled up tightly, I put my game face on, I got supporters in my corner who could provide me with a fresh perspective and who would prop me up when I was knocked to my knees… and I got knocked to my knees on many occasions. I’ve always been a glass half full type of person, I don’t like to dwell on the negative, I tend to look for the positive, if I fall over I pick myself up and dust myself off but I had days where I felt complete desperation, weighed down heavily, I’ve never experienced such bleakness and vulnerability.
You might be thinking, why not just leave and find another job? It was the middle of the global financial crisis, companies were laying people off not hiring, a year earlier we had completed major renovations accompanied by a big mortgage and we needed my salary. Friday’s, my day off with my daughters became sacred to me I made the decision I would tough it out because I had done nothing wrong. Throughout the ordeal I made sure of one thing, that at no time did my work output suffer even though I was, I continued to cross my T’s and dot my I’s. I didn’t deserve the way I was being treated and I wanted to set a good example for my children that if someone treats you badly you must stick up for yourself and stand by your values.
Through mental toughness, being thorough, well prepared, having a plan and fighting smart not dirty, I was able to navigate through a minefield and come out the other end with my head held high and my reputation in tact. I spent 6 grueling months pushing back, I’d seen how others had been discarded when no longer required and I vowed I wouldn’t make it easy this time around. It was not the easiest route to take, it was damn hard, I put myself under a lot of pressure and created a lot of stress by choosing to fight back. I came out the other end completely exhausted but I emerged from it with an appreciation of how strong the human spirit is.
People bully because of their own insecurities, they use power and dominance over others to make themselves feel better. I learnt the best way to handle a bully is to be the smarter person, to act with integrity, to have a strong resolve when facing them and to only show your vulnerability to those who you can lean on for strength and support.
I did end up walking away but I did so on my terms. I left the corporate workplace as I had always known it, vowing never to be an employee again, to never put myself in a position of vulnerability, to always be in control, to live my life on my own terms and by my own design – and for that I am thankful. I live a much more fulfilled life now, I live with passion and purpose and my work fits in around my personal commitments.
This experience left me with the realization that with every negative there is a positive and opportunities come to us not just through the good times but also the bad. This experience fueled my desire to work for myself and to create an opportunity for other women to work for themselves, it gave me the drive to help share my learnings to inspire and empower other women.
Susan Stevens is the founder of New Zealand-based Meme & Co, a jewelry and accessories company with an innovative, woman-centered business model. She has over 18 years experience in sales, marketing and advertising, she climbed the corporate ladder and was committed to her career but her priorities changed when she had her children. Life became a struggle, trying to find a balance between wanting to retain her worth and independence in the workforce without compromising her ability to be a present and attentive mother.
Then, Susan made a terrifying leap – leaving a six figure income to no job and a big mortgage. With a very strong resolve never to go back to the corporate world, and through commitment, perseverance and a passion to succeed, she found as one door closed other doors opened. It was this journey that gave her the motivation and the drive to create an opportunity for other women who want to be in control, who value their independence, who want to be empowered. Her drive to keep a balance between work and family life ultimately resulted in `taking a leap’ into the unknown and embarking on a personal journey of self reflection, new challenges and growth.