“I got my first death threat just after a month, and being young, it hit me hard.”
My last job was as a Senior Dispute Resolution Manager with a big insurance company.
My job was to resolve disputes with customers – mainly defending the company to the financial ombudsman.
I wasn’t particularly focused in high school, there was a lot going in my family – mom was often away, dad had depression. That made studying difficult, and I ended up with a low score that limited my choice of university courses. I chose to do a course in writing, which I actually enjoyed.
I completed the course in 4 years. We were writing short stories and movie scripts. By the end of the course, however, I realized how hard it was to have a writing career. Not many Aussie authors, especially of short stories, were or are published today.
I was about 22 when I moved out of home. Finding a job was hard, but I ended up with two. I was a pizza chef in a restaurant in Ivanhoe, that was a lot of fun.
I also stacked shelves at Safeway. That got me really fit – I lost 25 kilos in 6 months.
After about 2 years, I got my first ‘real’ job as a state trustee. My mom worked in a similar area and encouraged me to apply.
I got a job helping people with disabilities, proved by the government to be incapable of managing their finances. We worked with people who’d get into a lot of debt through gambling or mental disability, or would spend their pension in a day, if unsupervised. Courts appoint administrators for such people – usually friends or family.
State trustees are the last resort.
Normally consultants would have a base of 120 clients – people in nursing homes, assisted living, some living independently. And the consultant would need to budget for them; give pocket money, pay their bills directly so the clients wouldn’t spend anything extra.
My job was in special needs, I had only 30 clients – but the most difficult ones on the books. Some were people with serious mental illnesses, homeless clients coming in for 10-dollar-a-day allowance; some called every day and got abusive.
I got my first death threat just after a month, and being young, it hit me hard.
Unfortunately, I didn’t last past the probation period. I guess I didn’t really understand how to act in a corporate environment, and was too arrogant, trying to challenge the other staff, and stepped on a few toes. So that taught me a lot about how to pull my head in and not be too arrogant.
After that, almost as a reaction to being dismissed, I took a job in a factory in Croydon, folding sheet metal. It was the most boring job I’ve ever had. The boss was horrible, a bully.
But I stayed there for 3 years, because my self-esteem took such a hit after loosing the state trustees job. I sort of thought I deserved this kind of environment and this kind of a boss after getting fired.
It got to a stage when my friends started saying, “What are you doing? You are smarter than working in a factory”.
A friend suggested a job in insurance, as a way to get professional experience in a stable industry.
Being around 28, I started working for an insurance company as a service consultant in a call centre. The job was mostly just answering questions from customers regarding policies and services. First 18 months were great, I learned the products and the customers, got a really good handle on it and was loving it. Then I was promoted to a coach, training other consultants.
Afterwards I got some additional training and became the database consultant, solving issues with the company database. Then I moved up to retention calls, which were trickier – talking to customers wanting to leave and convincing them to stay.
You had to talk up the product, and undermine the competitor’s – without saying anything directly about them. I enjoyed the challenge and the team I worked with.
I narrowly missed out on a team leader role. Again, the reason was my habit of challenging people. The thing is, I don’t challenge other’s ideas just to tear them down! I question things to clarify them in my mind, find out how exactly they are going to work, or if there are flaws there that can be fixed from the outset.
But in these very corporate environments, you are seen as being negative when you do that in a meeting, with something your boss says.
Then I got offered a job in customer relations. I didn’t want it at first, as I’ve already done some internal disputes and didn’t like it. They convinced me it’s different because I’d be dealing with the ombudsman.
It turned out to be really interesting. It was quasi-legal: we had to read the legislation and the law, but didn’t have to be lawyers. We had to understand how the company worked and how the whole dispute process evolved before it came to our team.
I dealt with the customers who had already gone through managers and the internal team, and were still unhappy, so they went to the ombudsman.
It wasn’t as much as proving the company was right, but finding an outcome that the customer would accept.
For example, here’s a case I lost, worth $250K. Customer had a 110-years-old house with brick walls that cracked after a flood. The claim got off to off to a bad start at the outset when the company tried to deny it – so already the customer had to fight to get the claim accepted. Already they didn’t trust us, see.
Then the builder we hired recommended to replace a brick wall with a strong timber wall; otherwise they would’ve had to tear down most of the house and take off the roof to do the job. But the customer thought we were just trying to rip her off, as there was a $100K difference in the final bill.
We went to the ombudsman and lost, even though the ombudsman agreed we were offering the better option, construction wise, that would’ve been better for the client. But the client insisted on brick, and we had to comply with the policy terms. So due to that early disagreement, it ended up being a lose-lose outcome.
In most cases we sided with the company, because the company was right. But occasionally the customers were right – their claims had gone on too long, we dragged them out unnecessary.
At times it felt good to win, especially with abusive customers, throwing around personal insults.Naturally, I followed the protocol and did everything right, but it felt good to prove them wrong when they tried to be dodgy.
The downside was that I felt like I was constantly saying “no”: “You’re not covered for that, nor for that”.
It was all according to policies, but I had so few happy outcomes for the customers. That was hard for me, being a people person. Besides, the environment was very stressful, with high workload.
We were working at a corporate lawyer level, but not getting the same pay. We were also expected to work overtime every day: if you headed home in time, you were suspected of not having enough work or not doing it properly.
And because it was essentially a judgement-based job: if your boss had a different opinion, it was hard to argue, and you could be made to appear to not be diligent enough. The only way to avoid it was working extra hours.
The job was made harder by the fact that during my time there I developed depression.
The illness really affected my concentration and ability to take on information – I wasn’t really operating at full capacity. And that was exactly the sort of environment where I couldn’t allow myself to not be 100% switched-on and focused. So after two and a half years in this rather toxic environment, I just cracked under the pressure and resigned without another job offer.
It has been a struggle since, and sometimes I think I should have stuck it out and found another job first. Leaving made me much happier, though. After I left, I’ve become much more relaxed and had the time to heal.
In this time I also got a lot of support from foundations like Beyond Blue and R U OK. During this time I’ve been looking at mental health advocacy and see how often mental illnesses are perceived the wrong way.
In most workplaces mental illness is treated like something you can just get over. For instance, just before I left the insurance company, they started talking about giving people resilience training.
Of course, I questioned this new buzzword, ‘resilience’. Let’s say, you do the resilience training and learn all the methods to feel better and cope with stress. That can be helpful, but still, the causes for mental illnesses can run deeper than that.
If you still develop depression, there is a double feeling of failure. Not only did you get sick, but you failed your training. Then the managers just send you for more training, because you are not resilient enough! Seriously.
So my experience has given me a real passion to look at this area. That’s the next step for me. I’d love to get into mental health advocacy, raising awareness in organizations and companies about how mental illnesses have physical and emotional effects, influence brain chemistry.
In the long term, I’d love to become a minister in the Uniting Church.
I’ve been religious all my life. When my siblings and I were 13, our parents let us decide for ourselves whether to keep going to church. My siblings stopped eventually, but I kept going. I’m grateful to my parents for letting me make this decision; I guess it made me think about it and commit myself. Now I go to church every 3-4 weeks.
Becoming a minister has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. But this is a job I have to grow for.
It is very pressure-filled: as a minister, you become a centre of the community, the leader of the congregation, everyone looks up to you.
So I have to make sure I’m well enough to be able to take on that focus.
To become a minister, you have to do a four-year degree. There is a theological college at Melbourne University and the church puts their ministers through it. The church pays for students to get through, but it’s limited support, so I’d need to get some savings behind me. There is a very rigorous selection process, too: they don’t want people with weak faith, those who can quit or break down under pressure.
I don’t think I’d do anything differently in life. Though I had many struggles, I wouldn’t be the person that I am without going through them. And I like who I am right now. I say that with surprise, because of the self-esteem issues I’ve had. So it’s great to realize that that’s where I am now, and that all that has happened up to this point has been for a reason.