Recently I had the opportunity of sharing our plans on Sourceable.net for supporting the Construction industry towards achieving enhanced mental health wellbeing in 2021 for all.
By way of my own specific ‘back story’ I now feel compelled to share the events that led to my ‘disablement and incapacitation’ due to being clinically diagnosed with depression, as a direct result of anxiety caused by being exposed to ‘toxicity’ in the workplace:
April 2010: Initial concerns regarding the Head of Sales, (aka Toxic Manager), as raised by his group of 10 Senior Sales Managers; (8 x Australia and 2 x New Zealand).
We were advised, in general discussion, by our Head of Sales, alongside the Head of HR, of the way in which our performance was to be measured from here on. In short based on a regime of ‘fear and intimidation’, as opposed to the current, highly regarded values of empathy and professional development. (This regime of values later returned to at the request of the Managing Director).
As there had been no mention or discussion with us prior to this announcement, it was received as a virtual ‘bombshell’, becoming a catalyst for all previous concerns as to the leadership and management style of the Head of Sales to boil over.
At this same time one of my Australian colleagues alongside one of my NZ colleagues were under ‘mental health wellbeing duress’ as a result of ongoing conflict with the Head of Sales. The colleague from Australia having to go on sick leave, while the colleague from NZ suffering with emotional stress and episodes of anxiety. Both soon becoming 2 of the 4 casualties terminated by the Head of Sales, collaborating with the Head of HR.
May 2010: First attempt at my termination – Allegations of ‘bullying and harassment’ were made against me by the Head of Sales alongside the Head of HR. Outcome-Unsubstantiated.
June 2010: Second attempt at my termination – Alleged ‘lack of commitment’ by me towards a recently launched Global Sales Leadership initiative, alleged by the Head of Sales in cahoots with the Head of HR. Outcome – Unsubstantiated.
July 2010: Meeting initiated by the Head of Sales alongside Head of HR, with 3 of the 5 aggrieved Senior Sales Managers, one being me, to discuss ongoing issues associated with the Head of Sales. Outcome – Head of Sales will work hard on Inclusivity.
December 2010: Termination from the business by the Head of Sales alongside the Head of HR of 4 of the aggrieved Senior Sales Managers, being two from Victoria, one from NSW, with one from New Zealand. These 4 becoming the first casualties of the ‘Toxic Manager’. As the last one still standing, the pressure of intimidation lay firmly on my shoulders.
As a result of this unsettling experience, in relation to the unjust treatment of my colleagues, I became increasingly anxious and depressed, and although on a constant daily medication, with an active ingredient being escitalopram, (an antidepressant in a group of drugs called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), so as to assist in the management of a previous anxiety related condition as identified in late 2004.
I also found it necessary to recall the strategies for coping with my anxiety, as recommended by my psychologist at that time, including breathing, meditation and relaxation exercises. I then went about my usual business.
As we moved into 2011 our team had been reduced from 10 to 6 Senior Sales Managers, (5 in Australia, 1 in NZ), supported by a small team of Sales Training Supervisors.
In the lead up to Easter 2011 the Head of Sales, along with the Head of HR, instituted proceedings relating to alleged unethical practices on my behalf as a Senior Manager.
These allegations were escalated to the Company’s Global Ethics Committee, located in the United Kingdom for review.
At this point I was firmly of the understanding that this was the only avenue remaining on which the Head of Sales, along with the Head of HR, could bring about my termination, albeit wholly fabricated.
As a result, my workplace Mental Health Well Being suffered dramatically, culminating in a complete breakdown, my second since late 2004.
I was too incapacitated to attend work, and even if I were not, my mental health professionals advised it would be unhealthy for me to return to my workplace while the Head of Sales was still present, or at least as my direct superior. My medication was doubled to 20mg, which remains in place to this day.
It was at this stage that I engaged the services of a highly recommended Workplace Lawyer, who in turn guided me to a successful outcome in terms of the alleged breaches, as well as securing the resignations from the business of not only the Head of Sales in late July 2011, but also the Head of HR not long after, being found to be complicit alongside the Head of Sales.
For future reference the three defining moments in this very sad state of affairs were firstly a simple email from my GP noting ‘reasonable adjustments for my return to work’; secondly an email from my Lawyer to the Head of HR reminding her of the current Disability Discrimination Act, which at the time did not form any part of the Company’s HR Procedures Documentation; and thirdly the official findings from the Global Compliance investigation Team as shared with me by the newly appointed Head of Sales:
- To whom it may concern: ‘This letter is to confirm that Mr Hill will be fit to return to work on 25th July 2011. He should not report to the Head of Sales. He should commence a graduated return to work 3 days per week for 4 hours per day to be reviewed after one week. He is also fit to undertake the investigation for compliance issues but should be given the questions in writing. Yours sincerely Dr ——- (Dated 22/7/2011)
- Dear Head of HR, Further to our telephone conversation on 26th June 2011 I would like to confirm what we say are both Charles’ and your Company’s rights under the Disability Discrimination Act. Firstly there can be no doubt in our view that at this time, Charles has a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (“the Act”):
- Section 4 of the Act defines Disability as: (a) total or partial loss of the person’s bodily or mental functions; (g) a disorder, illness or disease that affects a person’s thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement or that results in disturbed behaviour; and includes a disability that: (h) presently exists.
- Under Section 5 of the Act, Direct Disability includes the failure to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that Charles would be treated less favourably than, for example, someone who is returning from maternity leave. ‘Reasonable adjustment’ is defined by the Act as ‘an adjustment to be made by a person is a ‘reasonable adjustment’ unless making the adjustment would impose an unjustifiable hardship on the person.
- The Certificate from Charles’ doctor suggests reasonable adjustments which may be made by your Company for Charles to assist him returning to work, one such adjustment being the request that he should not report to the Head of Sales. We note, however, that this is no longer, as the Head of Sales has been made redundant. Yours sincerely —–(Lawyer) (Dated 1/8/2011)
- Dear Charles. As per your request I am attaching the summary of findings from the Global Compliance Committee. This process has been finalised and the overall conclusion is as follows: ‘There was deemed to be no breach of conscious or malicious intent to undertake unethical work practices on your behalf’. Yours sincerely, Interim Head of Sales (Dated 21/11/2011)
Sadly, the Company were unable to officially recognise the part it played in this traumatic turn of events, no doubt in fear of lawsuits and damaged reputations.
All they had to do was say ‘Sorry’.
As Elton John, or was it Bernie Taupin, famously penned, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”.
HINDSIGHT & LEARNINGS:
In terms of my own ‘mental health well-being’, the primary learnings from this experience were, that just as with all mental health issues, a lack of awareness (aka ignorance) and an abundance of stigma, act as effective barriers to acknowledging and recognising toxicity in the workplace. In hindsight:
- My colleagues and I should have taken affirmative action, involving an independent employment law specialist/Ombudsman/Fair Work Australia, much sooner
- I should have consulted with my GP, proactively as opposed to reactively
- I should have re-connected with my psychologist from my initial breakdown in 2004
Remember these events took place over 10 years ago and it has only been during 2020 that I have been able to return to my files and documents so as to revisit this most traumatic of occurrences. For the benefit of my own mental health well-being, I physically buried the events above, however 10 years on I feel compelled, by a deep responsibility to so many Employees, Employers, Management Groups, Employee Groups, Executive Groups, Company Directors and Shareholders, to share my experiences, in the hope that we can ‘eradicate this toxicity from the workplace’.
In those 10 years I have certainly moved on. In fact on a happier note, in August 2011 I was ‘welcomed’ back into the Business, returning to my Sales Division in the role which I was able to enjoy and successfully contribute to until February 2014, at which time it was decided at the Global Business level, that it was time to make redundant all non-Executive Group staff with 20 or more years continuous service. So it certainly wasn’t personal, as over 600 staff across the Global Business were provided with redundancy packages.
At the time I had been with the Business since September 1989, (albeit starting in a casual role in December 1988), so with 25 years association it was ‘sayonara!’
The redundancy process was handled with maturity, compassion and dignity, which is how I remember the Business to this day.
Above I used the phrase, ‘eradicate this toxicity from the workplace’. In short, this eradication process belongs to us, we own it!
We can choose to ignore workplace harassment, intimidation, bullying and toxicity…or we can join together… just as we do when something is not ‘right or just’ in our local community, reinforcing acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, in turn protecting all our inherent human rights.
It’s always going to be hard, but then again, anything worth fighting for is!
Food for thought:
- ‘Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces’ by Manuela Priesemuth; Harvard Business Review, June 19, 2020: https://hbr.org/2020/06/times-up-for-toxic-workplaces
- ‘Soaring’ (Chapter 16- Leadership Gone Wrong) by Ant Meagher: https://ghfc2020profiler.org/f/soaring—the-toxic-workplace
- Fair Work Australia Ombudsman: https://www.fairwork.gov.au
- Australian Human Rights Commission: https://humanrights.gov.au
- Recently I published an e-book book covering the complete version of events as above, a copy of which can be ordered for FREE (however with a donation of $4.99 required), by clicking on this link: ‘Ten Years On’ Ebook by Charles Hill | Blurb Books Australia . All proceeds from GHFC e-book Sales being donated to the mental health well-being charities supported by ‘The GHFC’, notably Black Dog Institute, Beyond Blue, RUOK?, Gotcha4Life and Lifeline.
- The ‘Ten Years On’ e-book has now been recorded as a series of 3 x 12 minute Podcasts which are available at https://glasshalffullcom.podbean.com/
Should You or Anyone you know need immediate help, please call:
- Mates in Construction (construction workers specifically): 1300 642 111
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
- Lifeline: 131114
Should you or someone you know just need to talk about mental health well-being, please consider the following organisations:
- Mates in Construction: https://mates.org.au/
- Black Dog Institute: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
- Beyond Blue: https://www.beyondblue.org.au
- RUOK?: https://www.ruok.org.au
- Gotcha4Life: https://www.gotcha4life.org