Stuff They Don’t Tell You — How to survive a toxic workplace
The creative industries are filled with workplaces plastered in neon signs, cutesy brand values, and free coffee. But their laid-back and easy exterior can often mask something more sinister. From bullying to crappy HR, and from long hours to working with “creative genius” bosses, the characteristics of a toxic workplace vary. James Cartwright speaks to those who made it out alive.
All names in this article have been changed for privacy.
Ask anyone who works in the creative industries and they’ll probably absent-mindedly tell you what a friendly place it is to make your living. Despite being vast and global, we’re actually one big old close-knit happy family. Don’t believe me? Just look at a job description for any full-time or freelance gig at a design studio: These guys are all “flexible,” “generous,” “passionate,” and laser-focused on “wellness,” working for clients who are “world-leading,” “forward thinking,” and/or “game-changing.” And that’s just the job ads. Get inside the building and you’ll see from the luxurious soft furnishings, fully-stocked breakfast bar, and brightly-colored slogan murals that yep, creative industries equals non-stop fun.
Except when it doesn’t, which is often. Just like every other industry, ours has more than its fair share of stress, exploitation, bullying, and toxic workplace culture—let’s not forget that in the creative industries unpaid internships are still rife and bullying and harassment are considered “normal.” In 2021, Bectu, the UK’s largest union of media and entertainment professionals, conducted a voluntary survey of over 1,400 of its members and found that more than 70 percent of respondents had experienced bullying, sexual harassment, or abuse. 73 percent of those didn’t think that anything would be done if they raised the issues with senior management. That doesn’t exactly chime with the cheerful, work-hard-play-harder trope that most creative companies trade on.
“The mindset of ‘creative work’ has invaded the home, our leisure time and the most intimate reaches of our personal lives.”
“Against Creativity” Oli Mould
When it happens, toxic behavior in the creative industries is no different to any other: The hours are long; evening and weekend work is expected but rarely fairly remunerated; and the pay is dreadful for as long as you’re young and exploitable. You and your work are treated only as commodities, and most of the noise that’s made about mental health and wellbeing is just that, noise. Rarely have I personally worked for a company that gives proper care and attention to staff experiencing difficulties with their mental health, although there are glimmers of hope that this is improving.
This is not a phenomenon unique to this industry. I’ve spent a long time working in the charitable sector too, and some of my clients there have been unashamedly cruel to their staff. I’ve seen people bullied out of jobs they excelled at to benefit the ego of a “genius” CEO, folks known to have experienced trauma sidelined from decision-making, and months of work wasted when leadership teams in “non-hierarchical” organizations decided to pull rank.
But the charitable sector is cash-strapped and chaotic, and in some instances there are lives at stake. Bad behavior stings a little more when it comes from an industry that’s remarkably lucrative, and in which the stakes aren’t really that high. Creative work may be fast-paced, but as one old boss used to repeatedly tell me, “nobody’s going to die if this work doesn’t get done.”
The pressure doesn’t come from the type of work that’s happening, but from the nature of modern work itself. As Oli Mould writes in his book, “Against Creativity,” “Capitalism forces us all to be agile, competitive, individual, flexible and, ultimately, creative. As a result, the world of work has become more precarious, piecemeal and unstable, but at the same time, all-consuming. The mindset of ‘creative work’ has invaded the home, our leisure time and the most intimate reaches of our personal lives. It leaches the resources that would otherwise be directed towards building relationships, resting, or playing, and redirects them towards more profitable ends.” Being badly treated in this climate is all-consuming.
When you’re on staff at a large company there are at least processes and procedures to go through if you need to make a complaint about how you’re being treated. The HR department exists to champion your rights as an employee. In spite of this, grievances in the workplace are often poorly handled, and sadly in some cases, procedures are used to stifle complaints rather than implement positive change to the culture of a workplace.
If you find yourself working in a toxic environment it can be an extremely isolating experience. When London-based graphic designer and art director Leon was made redundant from his full-time art direction job in June 2020, he took on a freelance role with an animation studio in the US. From the moment he was recruited, he sensed there was something off about the position.
Despite being on vacation, the client insisted he immediately dial into an onboarding meeting in which he was belittled and rudely spoken to, before being told he’d have to spend the rest of his trip creating sketches to present to the team on the morning he was set to travel back. “I was finishing sketches at the airport and had to present them to the client in the back of a taxi on the way home,” he says.
From there it went from bad to worse: “The communication in the team was really bad. They’d demand I deliver work to them at very specific times, but they were working on New York hours, so were making decisions when I wasn’t at my desk. I’d spend my mornings working on a particular direction, only to be told at lunchtime when the New York office opened that I’d wasted my entire morning just because nobody had bothered to keep me updated.”