I’m starting this post with a dangerous and seldom-realised fact. There is no such thing as a work-life balance. Work is part of your life—a significant part—but not a separate entity. If anyone tries to convince you otherwise, you seriously need to consider their motives.
To escape what some people think are ills associated with large companies, they take refuge in smaller ones. Sadly, toxic work environments permeate small businesses as much as they do large ones. Sometimes that toxicity may not be as obvious, though. They often bury it beneath a facade of ‘flexibility’, after work braais on a Friday, and coffee time chit chats. Burnout may sneak up on you without you even realising it.
People will sacrifice a lot for a pleasant work environment. You’re prepared to give up some perks in order to gain new experiences, develop latent skills and talents, or even just escape a claustrophobic, chaotic atmosphere. Enter the small business with a position you have been looking for: Flexible hours, close to home, remote work allowed, no bureaucratic red tape and hoops. Sound too good to be true? It probably is!
I’m not saying that all small businesses are honey traps, nor am I saying that you can’t be perfectly happy and fulfilled in a large organisation. What I am saying is that you need to ruminate any career move, especially when it involves a radically different ‘culture’ or ethos.
Want to work for a startup? Great–how much research have you done on them? How much of that research has been country specific? Want to work for a corporate your friends are raving about? Great–what do other employees (who aren’t your friends) say about it?
No matter how enticing an offer, think about what you want before making the leap.
If you already work for a small company and aren’t sure whether it’s toxic, here are some telltale warning signs:
- You work longer hours, or take work home with you. While it’s true that this happens in large companies too, it is perhaps less obvious in smaller organisations. Your workload increases incrementally until you feel pressured to take on more because the company is chronically understaffed.
- Rules apply to some people, but not others. If this is happening, get out fast. No matter what you are told, you are there to fulfil a purpose. You’re a human resource in the truest sense, and you’re assumed to be too stupid to know it.
- The ‘be grateful you have a job’ mantra. This is a company-wide refrain used to shut you up. Burning out? Be grateful you have a job. Not getting an increase because sales are poor? Be grateful you have a job. Can’t take time off? Be grateful you have a job. You get the point. Gratitude is not a means to exploit people. You shouldn’t be used to achieve other people’s goals.
- Time slips away from you without you even knowing it. Stuck in endless, pointless meetings? Do you have incessant email and DM pop up notifications? Is everything urgent? These are all signs of dysfunctional, unstructured, and poorly organised company systems. Oh, and let’s talk about the Friday-afternoon-drinks-after-work tactic. This is a bribe which is costing you more time away from your family. It also distracts you from feeling burnt out.
- Your boss or manager doesn’t give you the time of day. Not only should you be grateful that they ‘gave’ you the job in the first place, but also be grateful that they are steering you along. They “pretend to care about employees”—and this is an actual phrase I heard coming out of a business owner’s mouth—but do nothing to support you, and/or dismiss your ideas.
- Nepotism is a thing. You have just been told that they cannot promote you to a position with no real, workable explanation given (and sometimes, just for their own amusement, your employer may use this opportunity to berate you). Two weeks later, you find out your boss’s best friend has the job (She has never worked for the company and has no experience for that position). Hey, you aren’t paid to think, so put your head down and get back to work.
If you work in a toxic company, get out fast. In smaller companies an exit interview is sometimes overlooked, and, while unfortunate, it is not your responsibility to convince management that they are treating their staff poorly. If they didn’t listen to your concerns while you were in their employ, they are unlikely to listen to them when you leave. You might want to tell them to shut the front door before you go, though.