When your professional life gives you lemons

Redundancies, being fired, workplace bullying, crashing from stress, leaving a vocation you love through no fault of your own, dealing with strained environments, being surrounded by a toxic culture or people- all these situations impact us negatively in our working lives.

Things don’t always go to plan. Whether it’s your personal or your professional life, things can impact how we feel about ourselves and in turn, how we respond and react to work.

You can always count on someone to spit out clichés about tomorrow being another day, that you can always change jobs or the value of making lemonade when you’re handed life lemons. Sometimes though, things aren’t that black and white or simple.

There are moments in our career where options are limited by economics or job insecurity. Other times, we know we’re going to have to weather a rough patch before things return to a positive state. It can be that you don’t have the mental fortitude to make a change at that particular point. Or that people rely on you for financial support you wouldn’t be able to provide elsewhere.

Whatever reason, there are certain situations where our professional choices are limited.

And we all know the only real thing we can have control over is how we respond.

But how do you get up to face the situation when you’ve just received a kick to the stomach? Whether it’s internal or external, hard times hurt like a bitch and we’re not always able to jump in with a sunny grin.

However, you can help your recovery process by keeping a few of the following ideas in mind. Here’s how

Can a crisis be an opportunity?

Any Simpsons fan will tell you that the Chinese word for crisis is apparently the same as opportunity. You can almost hear the dim echoes of Lisa explaining this to Homer and Homer shouting “crisitunity!” as I type.

But all goofy pop culture references aside, sometimes the things that cause us the most heartache can be the greatest opportunities for learning or improving. It may be a life lesson, an opportunity to learn about the world at large, or it may be appreciating the depth of our mettle. It could even turn out to be a better situation than the one we had in mind. Or it can teach us not to be so invested or attached to a working situation. Which believe me, isn’t always a bad thing.

Whatever the case, I don’t believe bad things happen for a reason. To believe too heavily in the need to have a reason for each and every thing minimises the pain and suffering of others. It takes away our true ability to understand a situation for what it is.

As Sheryl Sandberg so eloquently put with the sudden death of her husband “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

There doesn’t have to be a rhyme or reason for a painful event to happen and there doesn’t have to be a reason for a toxic situation to be in your life necessarily. But we can minimise some of the suffering in recovery through facing the reality and accepting life in all its thorny randomness. And we can find a way to deal with a situation until it either improves or we can choose another situation that is an improvement elsewhere.

Why is this happening to me?

The sad fact is we only really have two choices when dealing with shitty situation.

You can either go for the chance to retain some sort of dignity through using it as a positive process to drive you forward.

Or you don’t.

And if you don’t, the best you can probably hope for is the ability to spot the danger before it happens in future. Even that is questionable.

We may not always contribute to our own misery. It may be visited upon us from places we never expected. But we can move forward if we want to. And that is the one thing we can count on.

My working life hasn’t always been easy. But I have always been confident in my ability to make the right choices for me.

When I was in my early 20s, I started working as a manager at a pasta shop. It was my first experience with workplace bullying and unfortunately, the bully was the boss.

The workplace bullying invested boss would berate me in front of customers, mock me in front of staff and belittle everything I did. It was a period of time where I had left a job and sent out over a hundred letters to get jobs only to hear back “no thank you” from 19 of them. The rest didn’t respond.

I took that job on the basis of an introduction from a friend. I suspect he knew I was in a precarious position and he took advantage of it.

At the time, I lived alone in a small studio, was putting myself through uni and had bills to pay. Working for the evil bastard’s pasta shop seemed like my only option.

Three weeks in of this nightmare job after the boss had again abused me, one of the other managers comforted me in the freezer as we loaded new stock in. She said something that made my brain click.

“You get used to it after a while.”

The spark of my former self ignited.

No one, whether in a professional or personal relationship, should get used to being abused and made fun of. No one should accept that level of abuse and most definitely not as workplace bullying.

The boss pulled me into a meeting later the same day and told me he was “breaking me down so I can rebuild you into a better manager.”

I wasn’t buying that tripe, either.

The next morning, I was vomiting from the fear of going back to that pasta shop. As I walked in the door and saw the rabbit-in-headlights eyes of the other manager who was used to her lot in life, I made my decision.

I walked past the counter and into the back room. I told the boss I was worth more respect and that I would rather lose my studio than my dignity. And I told him that bullying people didn’t make them into great managers. It just made them feel horrible.

I told him where he could stick his apron and his crackpot theories.

And I left.

The guy sold pasta, not the keys to the universe!

Because I was vulnerable due to my financial situation, it was an extremely tough decision to make. But I have never regretted it.

I took a job selling charity memberships on the street and sucked at it. I did odd jobs I didn’t like. I watched my savings shrink even further and I started collecting boxes to pack my studio.

But there was no way I was going to put up with cruelty.

And you shouldn’t either.

I eventually got a job in a call centre that lead to me having my career. I found myself at a company that fostered staff from junior levels into career paths.

Yes, I was incredibly lucky. But I think the pasta shop also taught me to be hungry as opposed to complacent in the new workplace. I loved that job and threw everything at it because I’d tasted hell before it.

There was no way I was going to settle for something like pasta shop hell again.

This is by no stretch of the imagination the only time I have had to make some super tough decisions regarding work.

I think we’ve all got a few horror stories from workplaces and policies, lecherous workmates, the vaunted office sociopath and of course, the modern problem of being over worked and exploited.

It’s painful. There’s no pretending it isn’t. But you can change the impact it has.

You do have to remember that people will take advantage of you if you don’t stand up. If you do stand up, they may even back off.

And if you can’t stand up just yet, sometimes you can work it out that when the time is right, you can.

Looking for lemonade in a lemon flavoured situation

Some stuff in life is going to hurt and the only thing we can do is recover from it the best we can. Work is sometimes one of those events.

But there’s a difference between weathering a storm and putting up with situations that are bad for us. And looking for the opportunity and thinking about how you face calamities as they arise can really help.

So too can working on your resilience so that when situations occur you have a buffer is your best defense.

And that’s where we’re going next- to resilience as a learned concept. Because it is resilience that helps you cope with all kinds of blows.

Even crazy workplace bullying situations.

Want help reinvigorating your workplace culture? Or with some support and coaching on how to deal with difficult clients or workplace bullying? Get in touch. 


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