MARYLAND — Alison Reade knew something was off the moment she stepped through the door to her job interview with the national nonprofit Happy Healing.
Reade, who has lived experience using the public behavioral healthcare system, was applying for an open peer support position. Senior Director Anna Dunbar was delighted to receive her application. “I have no idea why staff turnover has been so high in our peer support roles,” she told Reade as they walked past a row of decked-out executive offices.
However, it quickly became clear to Reade that low pay and a predatory workplace culture were to blame for what Dunbar referred to as a “lack of positive vibes” amongst her employees.
“Our organization does a great job improving the mental health of our community members,” one peer said in front of Dunbar while discreetly handing Reade a Happy Healing pamphlet. When Read turned it over, “HELP” was scribbled in black Sharpie.
On her way to the bathroom, Reade encountered one peer who mumbled under their breath, “Don’t trust how nice the directors sound in their emails.” Before she could ask what they meant, another peer walking by whispered, “Our CEO makes over two million a year.”
Concerned, Reade asked Dunbar to explain more about the organization’s values. “We value lived experience — that’s the term, right?” said Dunbar. “In fact, we strive to give our peer support workers even more anxiety and depression by paying them next to nothing in a system that doesn’t respect them, thus giving them that valuable lived experience.”
“That doesn’t sound right …” Reade said cautiously, to which Dunbar shrugged and replied, “Honestly, I’m not really sure what peer support is, but it looks great to have it listed on our website!”
At the end of the interview, Reade had only one question left: What about the pay? Dunbar gave her a tight smile, as if possessed by the same malevolent spirit that convinces managers that team-building icebreakers are fun. “If you really care, does the money matter?” She pointed to a poster above her head. “Look — that’s our motto!”