TravelGuides – ‘I burst into tears. Then went back to my desk’: dream jobs that are nightmares | Work & careers

TravelGuides – ‘I burst into tears. Then went back to my desk’: dream jobs that are nightmares | Work & careers

I was on the receiving finish of quite a lot of tantrums throughout the 5 years I labored in promoting, however by far probably the most memorable was the day a senior inventive govt threw a e book throughout the room in the course of one among his common tirades.

I used to be an account supervisor in my early 20s, working at a number one advert company. My colleague levelled a stream of expletives at me, tossed the e book and stormed out, curious heads coming out of different places of work to gawp at my misfortune as he continued to rant.

My crime? I’d come to ship consumer suggestions on a poster he’d created for an advert marketing campaign. (They had requested if we might make the solar rays “more sunny”.)

Shaking, I made it to the lavatory earlier than bursting into scorching, embarrassed tears – then I went back to my desk. Though I advised my supervisor what had occurred, the colleague in query confronted no repercussions. It turned out to be one among many occasions throughout my 5 years within the business once I endured dressing downs and explosive rants from senior employees, together with numerous racist slights. I figured it was simply a part of the job: unhealthy behaviour went hand in hand with the advert business’s superb of “creative genius”; who was I to kick up a fuss?

After all, such outbursts aren’t uncommon within the business. Grace, a twentysomething promoting inventive, describes the “intolerable” ambiance created by the manager inventive director of the company the place she labored shortly after graduating. He would steadily scream at staff for transgressions as minor as emailing him work, somewhat than printing it out and placing it on his desk. “It was humiliating,” she says. “I worked in fear of being shouted at. Once during a meeting, he yelled at a colleague that if she ‘didn’t like it here, she could fuck off back to [a competitor ad agency]’. She left the meeting room in tears and we sat in there while he justified his behaviour to us.”

Despite the frequent portrayal of the inventive industries as freewheeling utopias, every time I swap tales with associates working in additional company environments, it’s the anecdotes from my personal business that most commonly elicit open-mouthed horror. From intensely lengthy hours and rampant drug-taking to sexual misconduct and unfeasibly low wages (that’s in the event you’re fortunate sufficient to be paid in any respect – unpaid internships are nonetheless rife), lots of the most extreme examples of worker mistreatment I’ve encountered through the years have occurred inside the inventive sector.

But latest occasions – the pandemic, and the in a single day pivot to distant working that got here with it; the wave of staff who publicly took employers to activity for his or her racist behaviour within the wake of final summer time’s Black Lives Matter protests – have demonstrated that lengthy-established office norms are not as intractable as we as soon as thought. Workers throughout all industries are starting to problem expectations of what employers can fairly demand of them, more and more turning to unions and social media to make their voices heard. This month, 61 former staff of craft beer model BrewDog launched an open letter criticising the “culture of fear” the corporate had created, describing it as a “cult of personality” and demanding they take steps to handle a poisonous tradition that had left some employees affected by psychological sickness. “Being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given,” it learn. The firm apologised and supplied to interact with the previous staff over their considerations.

Earlier this month, present and former employees on the Barbican Centre in London collated practically 100 testimonies describing racism and discrimination they’d skilled on the organisation, as a part of a collective effort to strain administration to handle a tradition the marketing campaign’s contributors described as “institutionally racist”. In the US, a wave of unionisation efforts have swept throughout the media business, with more than 100 Condé Nast employees staging a protest outdoors the Greenwich Village townhouse of world content material editor and Vogue figurehead Anna Wintour,to battle for truthful pay, extra job safety and a greater work-life stability.

Could this be a valuable alternative for a office reset? When we return to the workplace, will the temperamental poisonous bosses who’ve lengthy dominated inventive industries return to their outdated methods?


Fashion, media, promoting and TV are extremely aggressive and comparatively glamorous industries, the place employment is usually seen as a privilege. As a outcome, those that are fortunate sufficient to get their foot within the door face fixed reminders that they are simply replaceable.

“There was an element of ‘a million girls would kill for your job’,” says Rebecca, in her early 30s, who spent six years working within the vogue business in a wide range of design assistant roles earlier than leaving it for good in 2017. She tells me she had to clear up after her boss’s canine throughout her time at one vogue model. “There was a little bottle of spray and kitchen roll especially for the job. I’m not easily grossed out but it was disgusting and happened all the time. I was constantly checking the office for little ‘accidents’.”

Hannah, a mid-20s documentary producer who describes “pretty much every workplace” she’s been in through the years as poisonous, agrees about this expectation of gratitude. “Knowing the television industry is so hard to get into, you feel guilty if you’re struggling, and senior people feel as if you almost owe them because they’ve given you a chance. I’ve been in edits at 10.30pm, working late for no reason – and when asked why I looked miserable, I responded that I was knackered, and was told I should be grateful as ‘this is what it’s all about’.”

As in TV and vogue, so with theatre – Brian, a younger producer who began his profession working within the West End of London, credit the low pay many entry-degree inventive jobs provide to this tradition of gratitude. As a manufacturing assistant, his beginning wage was £18,000: £3,000 under the London Living Wage. “Because these jobs are so competitive, you feel disempowered when it comes to asking for more money or flexibility, as you’re constantly reminded you are expendable. I was told that these jobs typically had several hundred applicants.”

Counterintuitively, another excuse why inventive workplaces so usually foster poisonous dynamics is their comparatively casual cultures. This could also be a part of the enchantment for a lot of who select to work in them, however all too simply permits for inappropriate conduct. Vice Media, the place I briefly labored, used to require its staff to signal a “non-traditional workplace” agreement acknowledging that they could be uncovered to extremely express and doubtlessly disturbing materials throughout the course of their employment, and agreeing “to hold Vice harmless from any and all claims I may have based upon Vice’s workplace environment”. This was understood to be as a result of the corporate was infamous for protecting excessive matters (from strip golf equipment in Atlanta to neo-Nazi gatherings), however when media studies of a tradition of widespread sexual harassment at Vice Media emerged in 2017, the New York Times reported that “some employees said they took the agreement to mean they could not complain about issues of harassment”. Vice Media now not requires new staff to signal the settlement.

The advert company the place I encountered the e book-thrower was additionally an intensely hierarchical atmosphere. This isn’t uncommon – whether or not you’re on the high of the meals chain or the underside of it, everybody in an advert company is aware of their place, and acts accordingly. Creative administrators and strategists rule the roost, whereas account managers – particularly junior ones – are what a former colleague as soon as likened to the company equal of a septic tank, in that we “had to take shit from all angles”. While working there, I as soon as acquired a late-night time electronic mail from my supervisor requesting that I come into the workplace at 7am the subsequent morning to print out a 100-web page PowerPoint and stick each web page up on the partitions for a consumer assembly. When I recommended different, extra typical, methods of sharing the presentation with our shoppers – for instance, on a display screen – and identified that I had a protracted-awaited coaching session scheduled early that morning I didn’t need to miss, he added breakfast duties to my checklist of obligations, instructing me to choose up pastries and smoothies for our shoppers on my approach to work. I used to be by this level a senior account supervisor – not probably the most senior place, however not precisely an entry-degree worker both. Of course I did each, although the meals went untouched and the 100 items of paper I’d meticulously pinned up went unremarked upon. It felt like his request had had little to do with any sensible necessity, and extra to do with him demonstrating his energy over me.

Otegha Uwagba
Otegha Uwagba: ‘I figured the book-throwing was just part of the job.’ Photograph: Ollie Trenchard

The extent to which you’re uncovered to behaviour like this will depend on the place you rank within the totem pole of energy. TV author Julia, 38, explains that inside the TV business, her standing gives her with a level of safety. “As a writer, I’m treated more like a precious idiot savant, so don’t receive the worst of it. The ‘talent’ always gets off more lightly.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Brian, who suggests that a lot of the toxicity inside the theatre business will be attributed to the mandate to accommodate star expertise, usually on the expense of manufacturing employees’s wellbeing. He recounts a manufacturing he labored on the place a lead actress started to bully him, holding him answerable for points that had been usually unrelated to the manufacturing itself – upkeep points together with her flat, or issues at a restaurant she was consuming at. “She and her agents would call me at all hours of the day and night, bypassing the usual channels, and would often shout at me or threaten my job if I was unable to resolve things. I received no support from senior colleagues, and was told that I just needed to ‘take the hit’.”

At each advert company I labored at, even comparatively junior creatives had been idolised on account of their supposed genius, whereas the remainder of us had been anticipated to coax work out of them with compliments and flattery – and generally simply booze. A good friend who labored as an account supervisor in her early 20s recollects commonly having to traipse to a pub close to her workplace to solicit work from senior creatives who’d arrange camp there for the afternoon.

As in lots of industries, office abuses are usually intensified in the event you’re a girl or an ethnic minority (or, heaven forbid, each). At one firm the place I labored, colleagues had been stated to rack up strains of cocaine at after-work pub journeys, which I used to be neither invited to nor wished to attend. Once, a male colleague quietly talked about that he’d been given a quickly-to-be-introduced promotion, although after I congratulated him he responded, “Yeah, well, I hope it actually happens – we were all pretty coked up when it came about.”

At one other advert company, I had the pleasure of sitting by means of a gathering the place one senior male govt made offensive jokes to one other about lesbians and little folks. As a younger girl on a contract contract, I didn’t really feel I used to be able to name out two of probably the most senior folks within the company, so as an alternative I made my excuses and left the assembly early, which later earned me a telling off from one of many males concerned. I’ve since questioned what kind of jokes had been made about Black folks once I wasn’t within the room, although at different firms I haven’t had to marvel – the racism at one company was sufficient to ultimately immediate me to give up; jokes about Nigerians supposedly “eating rats” had been dropped into dialog as casually as feedback in regards to the climate.

Nearly everybody I converse to tells of the toll these environments have taken on their psychological well being, with some counting on antidepressants and remedy to cope, and some reporting having had to take medical go away due to stress. The expectation of brutally lengthy hours is a significant factor, and the pandemic has been removed from useful. In the UK, staff working from residence are now clocking two hours a day greater than they had been earlier than 2020. Rafael, a senior artwork director at a worldwide media company, whose crew was slashed in a single day on account of Covid-related redundancies, tells of a “business as usual” expectation from his bosses, regardless of the corporate’s drastically decreased headcount. “I’ve been doing absolutely everything myself with no support, and the company is expecting the same results and demanding we hit the deadlines as if we were still a five-strong team. I spent one bank holiday working 18 hours a day to avoid missing deadlines.” He suggests that although many inventive companies have been vocal about worker wellness and psychological well being throughout the pandemic, a lot of that concern is merely performative. “They talk about mental health, but they fail to recognise that their expectations aren’t in sync with the new reality.”

For Rafael, an elevated workload and the shortage of help from his employer has been brutal for each his private life and his psychological well being. “It has put a massive pressure on my marriage and family. I overheard my four-year-old telling one of his friends that his dad has no time to play with him. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything that painful before in my life. I broke down in tears.”

Sarah Jaffe, a labour journalist and creator of Work Won’t Love You Back, tells me that these intensified working situations could be the tipping level for a tradition change. “I think the pandemic has pulled the veil away from the brutality of everyday working conditions. That’s spilling over into all sorts of resistance and debate about work: do we want to go back to the commute? Should we be paid for commuting time, if so?

“Workers in a lot of white-collar fields are turning back to organising, digitally to start, which then often leads to unionising,” she continues, giving examples of unionisation drives happening inside the arts, the charity sector and academia.

“Of course a lot of this isn’t just the pandemic, but a confluence of already declining standards for lots of white-collar work, and Black Lives Matter drawing attention to racism in the workplace, plus #MeToo from a few years ago. There’s a combination of forces pushing people to recognise the way their working lives aren’t living up to the promise of the ‘dream job’.”


For documentary producer Hannah, the pivot to distant working has alleviated the worst of the behaviour she beforehand had to tolerate, by creating bodily distance from her harder colleagues. “Their egos and temperaments have less of an impact on me because I just shut my laptop at the end of it all now. Being in the vicinity of some of these people was often worse than the challenges of the job. Now the stresses of my work are confined just to the work, instead of managing egos.” Much unhealthy behaviour is for present and doesn’t resonate in the identical approach on a Zoom name.

My personal answer to poisonous conditions was to stroll away from them totally, shifting to working from residence full-time. I shifted to self-employment, first as a model guide and ultimately as a author, in 2016, and don’t have any intention of ever returning to a “proper” job if I may also help it. Though the expansion in self-employment has partially been a response to shrinking full-time job alternatives (in 2019 there have been over 5 million self-employed people within the UK, up from 3.2 million in 2000), I’ve a number of associates who turned to freelancing for precisely the identical causes I did, looking for an escape from the tyranny of unhealthy bosses and workplace politics. Still, self-employment is on no account a magic bullet to the ills of the office: freelancers have few of the labour rights full-time staff are entitled to, no HR division to flip to with their grievances, and infrequently have to take care of a litany of abuses, from late fee to mental property theft.

Occasionally, I lookup a few of my former colleagues to see what they’re up to now. A couple of have left the business totally, which I’ll confess makes me really feel quietly smug. But others – the bulk – appear to have gone on to higher issues, gaining promotions, heading up departments; the colleague who made jokes about Nigerians consuming rats was nominated for an business award. The unlucky actuality is that many poisonous folks do in some way maintain thriving.

Yet, all around the world, staff are starting to assert their company, teaming up to name out unhealthy behaviour and push back on unfair working situations that they’d beforehand simply accepted. Things do appear to be altering – the times of the poisonous boss may simply be numbered.

Names have been modified

We Need To Talk About Money by Otegha Uwagba is revealed by 4th Estate on 8 July at £14.99. To help The Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs could apply.

TravelGuides – ‘I burst into tears. Then went back to my desk’: dream jobs that are nightmares | Work & careers