I have felt invisible and been treated indifferently in the workplace, and the anxiety it caused me was crippling, in that it made me question my self- worth, the purpose of the work that I was doing, and ultimately negatively impacted on my wellbeing, making me feel strangely apathetic. I say strangely there, because lacking in enthusiasm is not usual for me, as those who know me will attest.
It was while I was working in Japan, teaching English as a foreign language in a highly academic Japanese high school. I was the only non-Japanese in a teaching staff of 80. I have good Irish skin with blonde curly highlights and bright blue eyes. My appearance therefore marked me as different from day one. That wasn’t a problem though, merely a fact of genetics.
No Harm Intended
The problem lay in the attitude towards me from the other teachers. And the source of this attitude lay in the value they placed on the subject I was enlisted to teach, English as a foreign language. In my school, it was a subject that wasn’t taken very seriously. They had Japanese teachers teaching English, with even a whole separate weekly class on English grammar. They saw more value in the theoretical understanding of the language rather than in the practical application of it. Which meant that my classes were seen as a nice break from the seriousness of the students academia. As such they were cancelled at the drop of a hat for more important school lessons frequently.
Chipping away at my self-worth
Which meant I was left alone in a bustling staffroom, with nothing to do, and no-one to speak to. Whole eight hour days passed like this. Some might say ‘weren’t you lucky to have so little responsibility’ or ‘I’d have loved being able to doss on the job so freely’. But what it did was it chipped away at my sense of purpose, and therefore my self-worth. What was the point of my being there at all? I had nothing to contribute. No one saw any value in my presence, or my experience. I wasn’t taken seriously. It didn’t matter that I was getting well paid to ultimately do nothing. What mattered was that I became invisible, pointless, useless.
I started to feel as though I was in the way of everyone else who clearly had much more important things to do. And so I tried to make myself physically unobtrusive, taking up as little space as possible so as not to be in anyone’s way. In the end I just stayed at my allocated desk in the staffroom for the day, feeding my invisibility and amplifying my feelings of pointlessness. This state is ultimately what led to my sense of apathy, my lack of enthusiasm for the day, and a lack of energy to do anything to jostle myself out of this apathetic state.
A worrying state of apathy
I used to leave the school at the end of a day of being invisible, and all I wanted to do was go home to my apartment, sit down, and speak to no one. Feeling like this frightened me. I am a naturally very sociable person. I will literally strike up a conversation with anyone. I thought that my reaction to speaking with not a soul for eight hours would be to rush out and find the first person I could to grab and talk to, subjecting them to all the conversation I had been suppressing in those silent hours. But I felt apathetic about this too.
Self awareness saved me
My awareness of how unhealthy it was to feel like this saved me. Instead of going home alone as I wanted, I would force myself to head to the gym, where I knew three of my friends who taught in other schools would also be after the school day. I would head in, and speak with no one for the first fifteen minutes, until the exercise sent serotonin through my body and I began to feel more like myself again, and more enthusiastic.
The damaging disconnect
This disconnect from human contact is not healthy. And yet, it is a disconnect that is becoming increasingly commonplace in today’s busy and technology driven workplaces. Companies are reporting worrying levels of disengaged employees, absenteeism is rife, anxiety and loneliness are the new social ills of our time. It is too simple to merely state that conversation is the cure. But it is crucial to point out that human beings are social creatures. We crave social interaction, we need it to thrive, and indeed survive. Loneliness has been found to be more dangerous to your health than obesity as you age.
Conversation can cure
Workplaces are social institutions. Employees are people who rely on connections and relationships to feel they belong, are supported, are seen and heard and have value and purpose. Workplace culture should place conversation and connection as it’s core values, the very foundations upon which all other values are built upon. We need to start with conversation. It is as simple, but not easy, as that.