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‘I burst into tears. Then went back to my desk’: when dream jobs become nightmares | Work & careers

I was on the receiving end of more than a few tantrums during the five years I worked in advertising, but by far the most memorable was the day a senior creative executive threw a book across the room in the middle of one of his regular tirades.

I was an account manager in my early 20s, working at a leading ad agency. My colleague levelled a stream of expletives at me, tossed the book and stormed out, curious heads popping out of other offices to gawp at my misfortune as he continued to rant.

My crime? I’d come to deliver client feedback on a poster he’d created for an ad campaign. (They had asked if we could make the sun rays “more sunny”.)

Shaking, I made it to the bathroom before bursting into hot, embarrassed tears – then I went back to my desk. Though I told my manager what had happened, the colleague in question faced no repercussions. It turned out to be one of many times during my five years in the industry when I endured dressing downs and explosive rants from senior staff, along with countless racist slights. I figured it was just part of the job: bad behaviour went hand in hand with the ad industry’s ideal of “creative genius”; who was I to kick up a fuss?

After all, such outbursts aren’t rare in the industry. Grace, a twentysomething advertising creative, describes the “intolerable” atmosphere created by the executive creative director of the agency where she worked shortly after graduating. He would frequently scream at employees for transgressions as minor as emailing him work, rather than printing it out and putting it on his desk. “It was humiliating,” she says. “I worked in fear of being shouted at. Once during a meeting, he yelled at a colleague that if she ‘didn’t like it here, she could fuck off back to [a competitor ad agency]’. She left the meeting room in tears and we sat in there while he justified his behaviour to us.”

Despite the frequent portrayal of the creative industries as freewheeling utopias, whenever I swap stories with friends working in more corporate environments, it is the anecdotes from my own industry that most regularly elicit open-mouthed horror. From intensely long hours and rampant drug-taking to sexual misconduct and unfeasibly low wages (that’s if you’re lucky enough to be paid at all – unpaid internships are still rife), many of the most severe examples of employee mistreatment I’ve encountered over the years have occurred within the creative sector.

But recent events – the pandemic, and the overnight pivot to remote working that came with it; the wave of workers who publicly took employers to task for their racist behaviour in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests – have demonstrated that long-established workplace norms are not as intractable as we once thought. Workers across all industries are beginning to challenge expectations of what employers can reasonably demand of them, increasingly turning to unions and social media to make their voices heard. This month, 61 former employees of craft beer brand BrewDog released an open letter criticising the “culture of fear” the company had created, describing it as a “cult of personality” and demanding they take steps to address a toxic culture that had left some staff suffering from mental illness. “Being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given,” it read. The company apologised and offered to engage with the former employees over their concerns.

Earlier this month, current and former staff at the Barbican Centre in London collated nearly 100 testimonies describing racism and discrimination they had experienced at the organisation, as part of a collective effort to pressure management to address a culture the campaign’s contributors described as “institutionally racist”. In the US, a wave of unionisation efforts have swept across the media industry, with more than 100 Condé Nast employees staging a protest outside the Greenwich Village townhouse of global content editor and Vogue figurehead Anna Wintour,to fight for fair pay, more job security and a better work-life balance.

Could this be a precious opportunity for a workplace reset? When we return to the office, will the temperamental toxic bosses who have long dominated creative industries return to their old tricks?


Fashion, media, advertising and TV are highly competitive and relatively glamorous industries, where employment is often seen as a privilege. As a result, those who are lucky enough to get their foot in the door face constant reminders that they are easily replaceable.

“There was an element of ‘a million girls would kill for your job’,” says Rebecca, in her early 30s, who spent six years working in the fashion industry in a variety of design assistant roles before leaving it for good in 2017. She tells me she had to clean up after her boss’s dog during her time at one fashion brand. “There was a little bottle of spray and kitchen roll especially for the job. I’m not easily grossed out but it was disgusting and happened all the time. I was constantly checking the office for little ‘accidents’.”

Hannah, a mid-20s documentary producer who describes “pretty much every workplace” she’s been in over the years as toxic, agrees about this expectation of gratitude. “Knowing the television industry is so hard to get into, you feel guilty if you’re struggling, and senior people feel as if you almost owe them because they’ve given you a chance. I’ve been in edits at 10.30pm, working late for no reason – and when asked why I looked miserable, I responded that I was knackered, and was told I should be grateful as ‘this is what it’s all about’.”

As in TV and fashion, so with theatre – Brian, a young producer who started his career working in the West End of London, credits the low pay many entry-level creative jobs offer to this culture of gratitude. As a production assistant, his starting salary was £18,000: £3,000 below the London Living Wage. “Because these jobs are so competitive, you feel disempowered when it comes to asking for more money or flexibility, as you’re constantly reminded you are expendable. I was told that these jobs typically had several hundred applicants.”

Counterintuitively, another reason why creative workplaces so often foster toxic dynamics is their relatively informal cultures. This may be part of the appeal for many who choose to work in them, but all too easily allows for inappropriate conduct. Vice Media, where I briefly worked, used to require its employees to sign a “non-traditional workplace” agreement acknowledging that they might be exposed to highly explicit and potentially disturbing material during the course of their employment, and agreeing “to hold Vice harmless from any and all claims I may have based upon Vice’s workplace environment”. This was understood to be because the company was notorious for covering extreme topics (from strip clubs in Atlanta to neo-Nazi gatherings), but when media reports of a culture of widespread sexual harassment at Vice Media emerged in 2017, the New York Times reported that “some employees said they took the agreement to mean they could not complain about issues of harassment”. Vice Media no longer requires new employees to sign the agreement.

The ad agency where I encountered the book-thrower was also an intensely hierarchical environment. This isn’t unusual – whether you’re at the top of the food chain or the bottom of it, everyone in an ad agency knows their place, and acts accordingly. Creative directors and strategists rule the roost, while account managers – especially junior ones – are what a former colleague once likened to the agency equivalent of a septic tank, in that we “had to take shit from all angles”. While working there, I once received a late-night email from my manager requesting that I come into the office at 7am the next morning to print out a 100-page PowerPoint and stick every page up on the walls for a client meeting. When I suggested other, more conventional, ways of sharing the presentation with our clients – for example, on a screen – and pointed out that I had a long-awaited training session scheduled early that morning I didn’t want to miss, he added breakfast duties to my list of responsibilities, instructing me to pick up pastries and smoothies for our clients on my way to work. I was by this point a senior account manager – not the most senior position, but not exactly an entry-level employee either. Of course I did both, though the food went untouched and the 100 pieces of paper I’d meticulously pinned up went unremarked upon. It felt like his request had had little to do with any practical necessity, and more to do with him demonstrating his power over me.

Otegha Uwagba
Otegha Uwagba: ‘I figured the book-throwing was just part of the job.’ Photograph: Ollie Trenchard

The extent to which you’re exposed to behaviour like this depends on where you rank in the totem pole of power. TV writer Julia, 38, explains that within the TV industry, her status provides her with a degree of protection. “As a writer, I’m treated more like a precious idiot savant, so don’t receive the worst of it. The ‘talent’ always gets off more lightly.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Brian, who suggests that much of the toxicity within the theatre industry can be attributed to the mandate to accommodate star talent, often at the expense of production staff’s wellbeing. He recounts a production he worked on where a lead actress began to bully him, holding him responsible for issues that were often unrelated to the production itself – maintenance issues with her flat, or problems at a restaurant she was eating at. “She and her agents would call me at all hours of the day and night, bypassing the usual channels, and would often shout at me or threaten my job if I was unable to resolve things. I received no support from senior colleagues, and was told that I just needed to ‘take the hit’.”

At every ad agency I worked at, even relatively junior creatives were idolised on account of their supposed genius, while the rest of us were expected to coax work out of them with compliments and flattery – and sometimes just booze. A friend who worked as an account manager in her early 20s recalls regularly having to traipse to a pub near her office to solicit work from senior creatives who’d set up camp there for the afternoon.

As in many industries, workplace abuses are often intensified if you’re a woman or an ethnic minority (or, heaven forbid, both). At one company where I worked, colleagues were said to rack up lines of cocaine at after-work pub trips, which I was neither invited to nor wished to attend. Once, a male colleague quietly mentioned that he’d been given a soon-to-be-announced promotion, though after I congratulated him he responded, “Yeah, well, I hope it actually happens – we were all pretty coked up when it came about.”

At another ad agency, I had the pleasure of sitting through a meeting where one senior male executive made offensive jokes to another about lesbians and little people. As a young woman on a freelance contract, I didn’t feel I was in a position to call out two of the most senior people in the agency, so instead I made my excuses and left the meeting early, which later earned me a telling off from one of the men involved. I’ve since wondered what sort of jokes were made about Black people when I wasn’t in the room, though at other companies I haven’t had to wonder – the racism at one agency was enough to eventually prompt me to quit; jokes about Nigerians supposedly “eating rats” were dropped into conversation as casually as comments about the weather.

Nearly everyone I speak to tells of the toll these environments have taken on their mental health, with some relying on antidepressants and therapy to cope, and a few reporting having had to take medical leave due to stress. The expectation of brutally long hours is a major factor, and the pandemic has been far from helpful. In the UK, employees working from home are now clocking two hours a day more than they were before 2020. Rafael, a senior art director at a global media agency, whose team was slashed overnight as a result of Covid-related redundancies, tells of a “business as usual” expectation from his bosses, despite the company’s drastically reduced headcount. “I’ve been doing absolutely everything myself with no support, and the company is expecting the same results and demanding we hit the deadlines as if we were still a five-strong team. I spent one bank holiday working 18 hours a day to avoid missing deadlines.” He suggests that though many creative agencies have been vocal about employee wellness and mental health during the pandemic, much of that concern is merely performative. “They talk about mental health, but they fail to recognise that their expectations aren’t in sync with the new reality.”

For Rafael, an increased workload and the lack of support from his employer has been brutal for both his personal life and his mental health. “It has put a massive pressure on my marriage and family. I overheard my four-year-old telling one of his friends that his dad has no time to play with him. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything that painful before in my life. I broke down in tears.”

Sarah Jaffe, a labour journalist and author of Work Won’t Love You Back, tells me that these intensified working conditions may well be the tipping point for a culture change. “I think the pandemic has pulled the veil away from the brutality of everyday working conditions. That’s spilling over into all sorts of resistance and debate about work: do we want to go back to the commute? Should we be paid for commuting time, if so?

“Workers in a lot of white-collar fields are turning back to organising, digitally to start, which then often leads to unionising,” she continues, giving examples of unionisation drives taking place within the arts, the charity sector and academia.

“Of course a lot of this isn’t just the pandemic, but a confluence of already declining standards for lots of white-collar work, and Black Lives Matter drawing attention to racism in the workplace, plus #MeToo from a few years ago. There’s a combination of forces pushing people to recognise the way their working lives aren’t living up to the promise of the ‘dream job’.”


For documentary producer Hannah, the pivot to remote working has alleviated the worst of the behaviour she previously had to tolerate, by creating physical distance from her more difficult colleagues. “Their egos and temperaments have less of an impact on me because I just shut my laptop at the end of it all now. Being in the vicinity of some of these people was often worse than the challenges of the job. Now the stresses of my work are confined just to the work, instead of managing egos.” Much bad behaviour is for show and doesn’t resonate in the same way on a Zoom call.

My own solution to toxic situations was to walk away from them entirely, moving to working from home full-time. I shifted to self-employment, first as a brand consultant and eventually as a writer, in 2016, and have no intention of ever returning to a “proper” job if I can help it. Though the growth in self-employment has in part been a response to shrinking full-time job opportunities (in 2019 there were over 5 million self-employed people in the UK, up from 3.2 million in 2000), I have several friends who turned to freelancing for exactly the same reasons I did, seeking an escape from the tyranny of bad bosses and office politics. Still, self-employment is by no means a magic bullet to the ills of the workplace: freelancers have few of the labour rights full-time employees are entitled to, no HR department to turn to with their grievances, and often have to deal with a litany of abuses, from late payment to intellectual property theft.

Occasionally, I look up some of my former colleagues to see what they’re up to now. A few have left the industry entirely, which I’ll confess makes me feel quietly smug. But others – the majority – seem to have gone on to better things, gaining promotions, heading up departments; the colleague who made jokes about Nigerians eating rats was nominated for an industry award. The unfortunate reality is that many toxic people do somehow keep thriving.

Yet, all over the world, workers are beginning to assert their agency, teaming up to call out bad behaviour and push back on unfair working conditions that they had previously just accepted. Things do seem to be changing – the days of the toxic boss might just be numbered.

Names have been changed

We Need To Talk About Money by Otegha Uwagba is published by 4th Estate on 8 July at £14.99. To support The Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.