Toxic Workplace Culture Caused My Mental Health Breakdown

Company Directors and CEOs alike, no matter how large or small their business, all have a duty of care to their employees; many do not realise that they have to meet these obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and to ignore them can result in hefty fines for their business at the very least.  It also goes without saying that a healthy workplace culture results in healthy business productivity, reduced costs and low absence rates.  A toxic workplace culture results in lacklustre business results, poor productivity and a lack of employee engagement leading to high absence and turnover rates.

So what’s my story?  For many years I had worked at a senior level; my role was stressful but was always evolving, and it was a constant, enjoyable challenge. In over 10 years I had only ever taken six non-consecutive days off sick. My work record was exemplary and I had been approached about ‘succession planning’.

A new senior colleague was appointed and this was when my problems began.  Suddenly I found myself in meetings where a collective HR management decision would be made, I would carry out the agreed action, and then I would find that this person denied all knowledge of what had been decided and criticised my actions to staff and, I later found, Board members. As a consequence my confidence was affected and it took me longer to complete simple tasks.

One Board member, who had been a friend and Mentor for some years, was taken in by this person and their seismic change in attitude towards me added to my feelings of worthlessness, contributing to the total breakdown in my mental ill health.  The stress had tipped over into strain – and that’s when my problems started.

By this point, every morning I was sat in my car, hands clenched tightly on the steering wheel, legs static. Eventually I managed to swing them round and, as I stood up, I almost collapsed because they would start to shake uncontrollably. My breathing would start to labour and quicken. By the time I walked into the office building, I was out of breath and feeling light-headed, dizzy and sick.  I went to see my GP, who issued me with beta-blockers and said: ‘You need to take a break from work now before you have a breakdown.’

When I went back to work after my holiday I experienced a severe panic attack – my face went numb, I could not get my breath, my head was spinning and my heart beating so fast I felt like it would burst. I really thought I was having a stroke. The GP signed me off work with stress, but I had three more severe attacks over the next few months that resulted in the paramedics being called.

I was off sick for months, suffering with panic attacks, insomnia, low mood and terrible, uncontrollable, anxiety. It was like nothing I’d ever known before – I couldn’t drive – I wasn’t physically capable. Insultingly and unbelievably I was actually asked if I wanted to take a ‘pay off’ and leave just two weeks into my sickness absence because I was stressed!  Eventually after several months I resigned, having lost all trust and confidence in the organisation’s ability to accept that this situation should never had been allowed to happen.  This ultimately led to an out of court settlement, a course of action no former employee ever wants to take when they have once been so happy in their place of work.

I have watched in total despair and with great sadness as organisations such as this one have turned totally toxic to the point of destroying themselves.  I have witnessed happy and productive employees who become totally disengaged with high sickness absence and turnover rates – all very expensive and very destructive.  You simply cannot put a price on the cost of reputational damage above everything else!