All images by Stephanie Lee for RICE Media
It seemed like a particularly high-strung day at the office. A member of the upper management, a mobile phone glued to his face, screams into his handset as if a louder volume conveys his point better.
Employees in the vicinity who had the misfortune of coming into the office that day have tolerated the shouting for a good half an hour. They can’t concentrate. Each time they’re about to settle into their work, the yelling picks up—enough to dispel any productive momentum in the office.
Those in the middle of video meetings, embarrassed about the commotion, scramble for a reason to explain away the noise. Those on the other end of the video calls (clients, commercial partners, etc) raise concerns about why they’ve decided to hold the virtual meeting in what sounds like a wet market.
Others take advantage of the open-concept office, shifting to desks in the farthest corners. The manager’s howls can’t possibly span the entire floor plan, they hoped.
It seemed like a particularly intense day at the office. Except for the fact that the white-knuckled work environment is business as usual for Ashley*, who was employed with her former company for slightly more than a year.
She tells RICE that the deafening commotion was a common occurrence. At least once a week, her boss would find himself locked in a shouting match for half an hour. When concerns were raised, colleagues were encouraged to accept and normalise the behaviour. The aggression, they were told, was simply part of the “fast-paced” working environment.
Fast Pace, Cheap Thrills
An office describing itself as ‘fast-paced’ seems like a given these days. After all, a high-octane working environment appeals to job-seekers—especially fresh grads—looking for a stimulating job. If you’re going to be spending thousands of hours in an office, why not make the workplace a little more electrifying?
But a company calling itself a ‘fast-paced’ environment has grown cliche. Most companies allude to a fast-paced working environment in their job descriptions; a term that essentially says the job can get challenging. And no workplace could be more synonymous with a fast-paced environment than tech companies and startups—many of which hold that term as a point of pride.
But really, name me an office or workplace in Singapore that isn’t fast-paced. (Unless you work in a library, but even then, I have my doubts.)
For Ashley, it seemed like anything problematic could be justified by the office’s ‘fast-paced’ working environment. Ashley’s manager was not ‘shouting’. He was getting his point across, expediting the conversation along the pipeline. He was not throwing stationery out of frustration, but centering and recalibrating his thoughts.
Aside from frequent disruptive tantrums, Ashley found herself frustrated at the lack of feedback and scheduling. “We once received instructions to complete a project within 24 hours. It’s a lack of understanding about the effort needed to complete the project.”
Adriel*, a colleague who was employed with the same company for about a year, tells RICE that apart from the shouting and unreasonable deadlines, he also witnessed unruly behaviour.
“Once, colleagues got too trigger-happy with the alcohol at an office gathering. There was some shoving and aggressive behaviour.”
It’s office environments like these that make workplace bullying and toxic practices so difficult to pin down. Any issue you might have is brushed away as overly sensitive or justified by the fact that it was done in the name of fostering closer office relationships.
Other times, employees with concerns about valid issues will simply be labelled too weak to handle the fast-paced office. Shunning ensues.
In 2019, then Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo revealed in a written reply to Workers’ Party Chief Pritam Singh that 2.4 percent of Singapore’s resident labour force reported having personally experienced harassment or bullying—comparable to similarly-low rates in European countries.
But that raises the question. Does this mean that workplace bullying is harder to report in Singapore than it is in other advanced countries? According to experts interviewed by CNA, workplace bullying here happens more commonly than you think.
No matter how adept someone is at setting work-life boundaries, you might still carry the burdens of workplace bullying into your personal life. Until we’ve figured out how to surgically divide our memories between work and life (Severance-style), it’s almost inevitable that one will seep into another.
The impact is tangible.
“I found myself doing minimal work during office hours. I would go to bed early, waking up every few hours panicking that I had lost my job,” Ashley recalls.
Her daily professional life became so overwhelming that Ashley decided to seek professional help. It was the first time she ever sought help from a mental health professional.
“There was minimal feedback and communication between me and my bosses. It created this sense of foreboding and anxiety. Like I was going to lose my job at any moment.”
Adriel tells RICE that he offered his car as a private space for fellow employees to vent their frustrations about the workplace. He estimates that over the course of a year, about eight employees used his car as a temporary retreat from the office—eight employees too many.
On two separate occasions, his colleagues ended up crying in the car because of the mounting pressures of their workplace. The ‘fast-paced’ environment also brought about paranoia.
“Individuals didn’t feel safe enough to express their feelings, even in cafes or coffee shops. You never know who’s listening in on the conversation,” he explains.
Adriel shares that some of his colleagues were doubtful about sharing their concerns with human resources, often seeing HR representatives as being on the side of the company rather than siding with workers.
It’s why fellow employees turned to each other to exercise solidarity and support. They vent and complain about their bosses among trusted colleagues. The redeeming, sanity-restoring power of office gossip cannot be overlooked—at the end of the day, it serves to relieve the pressures of working in an abnormal workplace.
Breaking The Cycle
But who decides what is normal or abnormal office culture today? Companies that perpetuate and normalise a toxic workplace culture raise a generation of workers who hold unhealthy expectations and place unrealistic work demands on themselves.
“I think my younger colleagues don’t have the lived experience to identify the red flags with the company. They ask me whether this is normal,” Ashley explains.
“Speaking as someone who has worked for a decent number of years, it’s okay to call these things out. It’s not normal, and something needs to change.”
With how much we attach our self-worth to jobs, we tend to let work form a large part of our identity. That makes it all the more difficult to separate personal life from a career, one is seen like the other. Perhaps that’s why some people tend to turn a blind eye when a workplace has some dubious practices. It’s selective perception.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell when a workplace environment is harmful to your well-being until it’s too late. The former employees we spoke to have since found employment in companies with better working conditions.
Adriel, for example, hopes that by sharing his story and experience, others will be brave enough to take a leap of faith and find greener pastures in their professional lives. It’s the only remotely positive takeaway from his time at his former company.
“The only thing necessary for evil to thrive is when good people do nothing.”