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'I felt completely worthless': Singaporeans share their toxic workplace experiences, from trauma-induced memory loss to cyberbullying

'I felt completely worthless': Singaporeans share their toxic workplace experiences, from trauma-induced memory loss to cyberbullying
PHOTO: Pexels

The recent Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) affair has both gripped the entire nation and sparked a wave of discussions surrounding toxic work environments

In case you've been living under a rock, NOC co-founder Sylvia Chan has been accused of bullying NOC employees and fostering an unhealthy work culture. 

Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incident. From Big Tech to the non-profit sector, a number of local companies have been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. 

In hopes of making this topic less of a taboo, we've rounded up some stories from Singaporeans who have bravely come forward to share the unfortunate experiences they've had in the office. 

'Hours of just scolding and shouting': Nabs*, 25

I did content creation in a creative agency. My boss was extremely manipulative and bullied anyone who made the slightest mistakes. If we didn't do our work the way he wanted us to, he would belittle us. It made me feel completely worthless, even when I knew that whatever work I put out was decent. 

It wasn't a productive work environment either and meetings could consist of two to three hours of just scolding and shouting. Additionally, I had to stay late after those long meetings just to clear any leftover work — it was an endless cycle!

As I cry very easily, I didn't speak up much. The very few times that I did, it just made everything worse. My boss' excuse was that my reasoning did not make sense and he would just tell me that I was not working hard enough.

There is a trauma coping mechanism where a person blacks out and doesn't remember much of a traumatic experience. That happened to me a lot. When friends or family asked me what happened at work or why I was crying, I couldn't answer them because I didn't even remember what happened.

I wasn't the only one — everyone in the company had their own set of problems with the boss, so we would all stick together. In the five months that I was there, I saw at least 10 people come and go.

I think it's hard to get out of any toxic relationship, especially when it's a job and contracts were signed. Some people may also have to worry about not having a stable income when unemployed. If you find yourself in such a pickle, I advise you to always remember that your job does not define your self-worth.

'He went as far as to sexually harass a female employee': Erin*, 38

I worked in regional marketing in the automotive industry. The managing director and senior executives would perpetuate sexual innuendos, comment on female colleagues' body parts, make racist jokes, poke fun at the accents of colleagues in regional outposts and curse in a variety of languages and dialects during large company meetings and Zoom calls.

The calls sometimes host more than 70 employees regionally and those that were regularly the target would simply have to do and say nothing as these comments were made by the head of the company. These incidents are never addressed and even the head of HR would smile or laugh along with the so-called jokes.

The managing director went as far as to sexually harass a female employee — he attempted to kiss her after they had a meeting in his office (that had no security cameras) and after she rejected his advances, he forced her to kiss him a second time by cornering her and locking her in an unwanted embrace. Though these sexual advances were known to HR and even the female employee's manager, they were not addressed.

Everyone could not show their unhappiness or speak up for themselves at the risk of getting fired. Personally, I was sickened by the culture.

Even after leaving the company, I was severely depressed and emotionally overwhelmed by all that I had experienced. It is still something I'm attempting to recover from.

'When you need help, they ignore you': Samuel*, 28

I work as a pharmacist in a hospital. The management calls you "family" when they need you to do something, but when you need help, they ignore you. Often enough, they'll leave you to fend for yourself when you're struggling. Overall, I feel like I've been blackmailed.

I have spoken up about these issues but I'm always met with no response. Everyone knows about the situation but nothing is being done about it since the boss is "queen".

What is mental health? It was gone years ago.

If companies want to ensure that bullying doesn't happen, I feel like they should eradicate hierarchies and allow us to provide feedback about our bosses.

For those of you who are in a similar situation as me, I suggest speaking up — don't stop trying.

'I saw a Facebook post that was targeted at me': Bryan*, 30

My direct supervisor was the bully. Long story short, there was a misunderstanding that occurred while we went out for drinks. A mutual acquaintance, and a friend of my supervisor, insisted on paying for everyone's drinks and refused my attempts at paying her back.

However, somehow, he had the idea that I didn't want to pay and singled me out despite everyone getting free drinks. He didn't approach me to clarify things either, and I was none the wiser until the next day when I saw a Facebook post that was targeted at me.


It was very indignant and painted me out to be someone who was stingy and selfish.

He didn't reveal my identity but it was very clear that he took offence at what happened. He was also prone to use his Facebook account to share instances of wrongdoings so it wasn't out of the ordinary for him.

I broke down and cried after reading the post because it was really a punch in the gut and his post was worded very intentionally to draw blood and evoke emotions and reactions from netizens.

It was made worse by the fact that his Facebook friends are very active and I had to see them making attacks on my character and using curse words on me. I distinctly recall one that said I wasn't raised right — while I may not always have the best relationship with my parents, I didn't think they needed to be brought into this.

I spoke to a few close colleagues but ultimately stayed quiet. It was my first job; I was new and didn't know any better. I needed the job too and I figured I could minimise interaction with him somehow.

I became very reserved in the office. I basically didn't talk to almost anyone in my team and withdrew from them because I didn't know who I could trust. I barely spoke to my supervisor who didn't bother to reach out and clarify things. I didn't sit at my desk, since it was unfortunately located right next to him and we didn't have cubicles. So I spent a lot of time doing my work in other places in the office like meeting rooms and the pantry.

I was in shock most of the time as well as very demoralised. My work also suffered and I was penalised for it. 

'We were constantly subjected to guilt-tripping': Charlotte*, 25

I worked in a non-profit organisation in the communications team. Although the team members were all super nice and easy to work with, we were constantly subjected to guilt-tripping and shaming by the CEO.

He would use our Monday morning meetings as a pretext to guilt-trip us into working harder or putting in more hours. He would also always hint that my younger colleagues were not working hard enough or were entitled.

During the circuit breaker, he tried to exploit all possible loopholes to make us come back to the office to work as he believed that working from home is equivalent to slacking. We were also expected to use a timer so that we could clock our working hours from home.

When I finally handed in my resignation, he used the Monday meeting to guilt-trip me, saying that I was a dishonour to the organisation. He even used the Bible to imply that my family would be cursed because I was "leaving [the company] in the lurch".

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety during that period and despite being very upfront about my mental health condition, it was perceived as me being a "strawberry" millennial.

I feel that companies should foster an open culture so that junior employees don't feel intimidated or scared when they want to speak out. I also think it'll help if mid-level employees are committed to helping those under them grow within the company.

And if you're someone who is currently in my position, I suggest finding someone that you can trust to speak to. Otherwise, just quit. A toxic workplace isn't healthy, no matter how good the pay is.

'I was just a lowly intern': Emma*, 27

This happened while I was still in university. I worked part-time at a tech start-up and it was a very male-dominated environment. The company was expanding, so they had listings on various job sites. One of my duties was to download and consolidate the resumes for the different positions before sending them to the boss.

When it came to the resumes for one software engineer position, I remember that my boss straight up told me, "Don't need to forward the women's ones to me. The other engineers on the team aren't comfortable working with women."

At the time, I didn't know better, so I simply did as I was told. But looking back, it was definitely messed up that so many qualified candidates were overlooked simply because of their gender.

I didn't speak up because I was just a lowly intern. It was, however, an open secret.

'She calls us every day at every hour': Lily*, 35

I work in public relations. When I first joined the company, one of the heads of department (HOD) was notorious for her temper and was always screaming and shouting at her staff. She would also send messages past working hours — sometimes even at 2am — and if you don't respond within minutes, she would get angry.

This HOD eventually quit, but she was replaced with the current HOD, who is unfortunately quite similar to the previous HOD. She doesn't respect boundaries too and expects us to work when we are on leave. We also get messages and emails way past working hours. And in the morning, before work starts, there will be a follow-up message regarding the previous emails waiting for us.

She doesn't give clear instructions either and tends to just forward emails and messages, expecting us to know what to do. However, when we don't understand what's going on, she gets upset.

The circuit breaker period was the worst and till today, she does not trust us at all and assumes that we are slacking off. She calls us every day at every hour just to check up on us

This causes many of us anxiety and the work environment has gotten even more toxic. It makes you doubt your own capabilities. The HOD also doesn't take the advice of people with their own niche in their field like me, and thinks she knows better — there's no respect in that sense.

HR has not done anything about previous bullying cases either so there is no reason for us to voice out the issue.

I've been in the industry for quite some time and I'll admit that there are good days here, but these are slowly being outnumbered by the bad days.

What a professional has to say

When faced with such issues, it's easy to feel like there's nothing you can do, but organisational psychologist and founder of The Art of Career Eileen Seah tells us that there are options. 

Sadly, Eileen also reveals that many of the concerns raised above are "all very, very common" and she has come across similar stories in her line of work. 

While she acknowledges that it can be frustrating, she says it may be worth taking a step back and looking at the situation from the bully's point of view. 

"All bullies are bullies either from learned behaviour or they have once been bullied before," she says. 

Eileen further elaborates that the bully could have held their position in the company for many years, so someone who is smarter, younger and more competent than them may be considered a threat, hence the behaviour. Either that, it could simply just be an unfortunate personality clash. 

Whatever the case, she encourages the victim to reflect on what's within their control and out of their control, as well as to learn more about the bully. 

"The more you know, the more you can make an informed decision," she explains.

For those of you who have colleagues or superiors who tend to abuse their position and power, Eileen brings up two points — awareness and courage. 


"When it comes to awareness, people need to be aware that they have the right to speak up and this can be tough when it comes to someone of high authority," she shares. 

"Whether you're a full-time, salaried employee, a contractual staff or even an intern, you have the rights to be aware of what you can do and what you should do." 

She also encourages victims to muster the courage to tell the bully to stop. 

"You cannot give up your power to the bully as that will only encourage the bully to grow stronger, widen the boundaries and try new things. Because their courage came from you not speaking up," she elaborates. 

However, it's understandable that some people find it harder than others to speak out because of fear. 

For such cases, Eileen suggests that your first point of contact should be the company's HR department. 

If your HR department tends to sweep such matters under the rug, Eileen encourages victims to go up the ranks to find out if there is anyone who is willing to deal with the matter. Either that or you could look for the internal counsel, which is an in-house legal counsel. 

When it comes to start-ups and companies out there that are too small to have an internal counsel, Eileen suggests approaching the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep). 

*Names have been changed 

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