Below is an account of a time when other people’s poor communication, and my lack of understanding of myself, led to me having to leave a job for the sake of my health.
Workplace bullying isn’t restricted to autistic people, but it is very common. A perfect storm of social expectations, misunderstandings and being misunderstood, can make for a hostile environment.
There are other issues and barriers to work, there were plenty of other sensory struggles that I’ve not covered here as I’m focusing on the social side.
Here is my story. It’s nothing big or flashy, just a slow decline to the point of being unworkable.
A few years ago I worked in an office. One day IT sent out a request asking everyone to try to use their Messenger system, instead of email, to reduce storage demands.
I didn’t just agree out of duty, I was pleased. A lot of my work involved being on the phone. I find this exhausting and draining. I can’t work out people’s speech as well if I can’t see their lips move. I often ask for repetition, it makes me feel incompetent. It makes me a worse communicator.
So being given an instruction to use a system that suited me perfectly was great.
I started using it.
Being a rule-follower, I used it for work. It became a great way to get information from people. I found myself communicating better with those I worked closely with, but who were based in a separate office.
Then one day my manager appeared behind me. I hated that. I’d be focused on work and would always jump when torn away from what I was doing. My work also involved confidential information, and not knowing who was there, made me panic that they might have seen something they weren’t allowed to see.
She peered over my shoulder. “I see you’re using Messenger.” She said, “That must be nice.”
Then she walked away.
I was confused by the exchange. But then, people say strange things in the name of small talk, so I promptly forgot about it and got on with my work.
I always made a point of working when sat at my desk. I didn’t join in the talk about soap operas and Strictly Come Dancing. I’d try to in my breaks, even though I had no interest at all. But at my desk I was working. I had an excuse not to.
Time passed, duties changed, I took on extra work as the business expanded. I was happy to do it. But soon it became clear that my work load was too great.
I didn’t see this as a judgement. It was just a fact. All the work was new, there was no way of quantifying it until it started. So I did the sensible thing and asked for a meeting with my manager about it. I was on flexi-time, and was steadily accruing hours as I kept on top of the workload. But I was also a parent working full-time. I couldn’t keep taking from my own time indefinitely.
The meeting didn’t go well. I was accused of shirking work I didn’t want to do. I was told that I was often seen chatting on Messenger instead of getting on with my job, “You didn’t even stop using it after I pointed out I had noticed your usage!” She said.
So there it was. She had been bubbling away, fuming at my insubordination for months. To my mind I had obediently followed all requests. Her assumptions about my use of the work systems and her assumptions that I had the ability to understand that saying, “I see you’re using Messenger” was not a statement of fact, but an instruction, left me completely confused and shocked by the whole scenario.
I managed to respond that I used Messenger for work-related requests for information. I offered to pass on work that I enjoyed, rather than work that I knew was less important (which is what I had logically suggested), but I could see all the signifiers of anger and she clearly wasn’t listening to me.
Dismissed, I left her office utterly confused. I had been told to “find the time”. That was the solution to my increased workload.
It wasn’t a logical one. At least not for me.
I really tried. I tried to stay on top of everything. I came in early. I hit all my deadlines for the important things. I prioritised my work.
Outside of work I was a shell. I’d get the children in bed as early as I could and then climb under the covers myself and hide. In the quiet and the dark I would recharge for the following day’s battle. That’s what life had become, a battle. All spare time was wasted on preparing for the next onslaught. There was little joy.
After I dropped the children at school and daycare each morning, I would cry my way to work, then try to hide my tears. I had a lot of “out-of-season hay-fever” that year.
There were two things that I would look out for on my commute. The first was a man who was always out walking as I drove in along a quiet country lane. He was tall and frowny, with grey hair and a gnarled walking stick.
After passing him hundreds of times, I had started waving. It seemed odd not to recognise a fellow human I saw daily. He would wave back, or lift his stick in salute. Sometimes his face would uncrease and smile. Not often, but sometimes. It became one of my few positive daily social interactions.
The second was the sea. I would drive past the sea, and the morning light would bounce off it and into me. It would settle me before the hostility. I would breath deep and sigh. Then drive on.
It wasn’t long before I got called in by senior management. Again I stated (as a fact) that I did not have the time to do certain tasks. I listed off the additional work added to my role since I had begun. He seemed surprised by the amount of it, but it didn’t change his view. I was being awkward and rude by saying that I didn’t have the time. I had to find the time.
He then told me there had been complaints about me. About my lack of “team-playerness”, about my curtness, about my arrogance. I left hollowed.
I could do no more. The next day a doctor signed me off as utterly burnt out. I had let my children down by destroying myself for the sake of a job.
My mind slowed. It stayed slow for a month. It hurt. I couldn’t make sense of the logic of any of it. I was completely lost. My work had always been right. People from outside my department praised my accuracy and hitting of targets. They told me personally that no one in that role had been as consistently productive as me.
Yet my own management disliked me and liked me less and less the more I did. One of the criticisms levelled at me in the weeks before I left, was that my voice was too low, and they couldn’t always hear what I was saying when I was speaking to other people. Not to them, but when they were trying to eavesdrop. That was a fault of mine.
I never went back. I handed in my resignation and was lucky enough to find a new job very quickly. I was exhausted. I was broken. But the new place was kind and supportive. They embraced what I could do. They were careful about workloads. They listened to me and smiled.
A little while later I heard that the person who got my job was off with stress.
Shortly after that they turned my role into two full-time posts.
It was a dark time for me. There were concerns that I had missed due to taking things literally. That was combined with poor management and communication. It all happened pre-diagnosis.
My fault lay in assuming that people are as honest as I am. I assumed that it was my work that mattered most, and not my interactions with those around me. I assumed that I would be believed if I asked for help. I assumed that if there was an issue, I would be told outright that there was an issue. They’re all fair assumptions. If the world was built for me they’d be the truth.
It was hard walking away. I felt like I was letting everyone down. I felt like a failure.
I felt slightly less bad when (still signed off with stress) a colleague from another department contacted me to say that the work was just piling up on my desk, waiting for my return. That’s no way to treat an employee who is ill.
My new manager later told me that no job is more important than the person doing it.
I still wonder if my man with the gnarled walking stick noticed I was gone.