Coping in a Toxic Work Environment

Do you wake up to get ready for work thinking about faking your own death and running away? Does thinking about going to work give you anxiety and tremors? Then my friend, you work in a toxic environment.

We have all been there, the boss that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, who criticizes just about everything you do. It could even be the coworkers on your team who disrespect your every move. I have worked in rather small organizations since graduating college and some of them have been very challenging. For me, I had to grapple with the fact that I loved the work I did, but could not tolerate the working environment. Since the organizations I worked for were small nonprofits, they did not have an adequate Human Resource department. For the organization that had a toxic environment, there was no one to talk to and the relatively small staff could only commensurate with each other. Furthermore, we were all dealing with a “bully boss” who would micromanage everything and picked on everything we did. I personally value constructive criticism, because I view it as a chance to learn, grow, and hone my skills. Bullying is not constructive criticism, it is just a way for that person to make you feel like crap because they are unable to emotionally handle the issues they are grappling with. I suspect that many people are in the same boat I was in, but it may not be a bad thing. I have come to realize that out of the toxicity something wonderful can blossom, but in order to do that you must be willing to take action.

First, it is important to make the distinction between the feelings of working in a toxic environment and the feelings of simply disliking your job. According to Business Insider,  a toxic working environment can lack consistency, and adequate communication. A toxic work environment will also include toxic people who bully their team members and offer negative communication. All the elements of toxic work environment will begin to negatively affect your health and well-being. While you can thoroughly dislike and dread your job, it is important to make the distinction between toxic and disliking. Both these scenarios warrant you leaving your job, but a toxic work environment will have far more negative effects. So, before you are able to leave your job, the steps below will help you cope with your toxic working conditions.

Evaluate your situation

It is up to you to decide whether you want to temporarily cope with a working environment until you can find another position or wait for problems to clear up. I would only wait out a situation if you are aiming to change your position in the organization, or waiting for the close retirement of a poisonous person. While you’re playing the waiting game, I suggest you read Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, from Paul White to give you an in depth guide on how to Rise Above the toxicity. My article is but a game plan on how to cope. You must also consider your option within human resources. Does your organization have an HR department? Can you trust that person? Do you think there will be effective conflict resolution? These are important questions to ask yourself before going to the organization with your grievances. Going to the human resource department will document any problems that you need addressing, which will only bolster any evidence you have for your grievances. However, it does not always mean that there will be a resolution.

Here are a few considerations in navigating a toxic workplace. 

Don’t let negativity dictate your life

I know this is easier said than done, but you really have no other choice. When you are away from your work environment, focus on all the wonderful things in your life. I have learned this lesson time and again: you can’t control every situation, but you can control how you react to the situation. Believe me, this is not an easy thing to do. The easier path to take is to throw a big pity party. I know, I have thrown many a pity party for myself and they kind of suck. Sure, they are somewhat cathartic, but at some point you need to breath and take control of your emotions. It is also important to learn that you don’t have to be in this alone. Chances are that there are several of your team members who feel the same, find support in them. I will offer one caveat: act professional and do not find yourself on the same level as your poisonous peers. You may want to designate a few minutes of your evening to vent about your situation to your partner, friends, or family members. I would suggest you limit your venting to no more than 15 minutes, as you’ll be a drag and no one will want to talk to you (I’ve been there people).

Find an Outlet

It is important to spend your time outside work in a productive and stress-free environment. I am fully aware that most people have to juggle several components each evening and a stress-free environment may be difficult to come by. In order to guarantee some stress-free productivity, you must ground yourself in something you like to do (watching television does not count). The point in finding an outlet is to “do” and create, which will give you a positive sense of purpose. I really found solace in yoga, meditation, baking, crafting and reading. I would aim for one hour each night, after work hours permit. This outlet may not change anything at work, but it will take your mind off of the chaos for an hour or so. One stress-free hour every night can help ease your emotional association with work, so you can go into work level headed.

Keep on top of your work

It is so difficult to produce your best work while navigating the different landmines that a toxic work environment produces. Juggling several tasks is already difficult; when you have a bully boss or coworker that picks apart and micromanages everything you do productivity is further diminished. In order to meet all your goals, organization is essential. Create to do lists and a game plan for tackling them. Should your manager or team require additional tasks, I would suggest emailing the team to clarify the priority of each task. In a positive work environment we could do this with a quick conversation: “I was just given the Hendricks file and since it’s urgent I am going to tackle that first.” However, in a toxic workplace written correspondence and confirmation may be necessary to combat any miscommunication (that would probably be used against you). Take it from me, you should document as much as possible should conflict resolution or workplace retaliation be an issue. It seems like it would be difficult to think about all these moving parts in an environment which gives you anxiety and copious amounts of stress, but it is a necessary aspect of the job. I tried to compartmentalize aspects and tasks at my job in order to make the transition out as seamless as possible.

Know when to get out of there

It always seems like the time to leave a toxic work environment is as soon as possible, but there is a right and wrong way to go about it. If possible, try not to burn any bridges if you want a reference. If you play your cards right, the job search will take about six to nine months (I know it can feel like an eternity) but you can be out of that environment after your two-weeks notice. It may be so bad that you need to leave sooner rather than later, just be sure that you have enough savings in reserve to live off of at least six months. In addition, I would suggest giving yourself a timeline to follow. You do not want to be in a toxic environment more than you have to. It is important that you do not become accustomed to tolerating and accepting abusive bullying, by managers or your peers. To quote the insightful words of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” and we must each remember these words when we feel inconsequential and defeated. You are so much more than that, know that you can do anything and do not let anyone stand in your way (especially yourself)!

Although the few years out of college working in a toxic environment were not ideal, I try to view that time as a learning experience. When I look back at the situation, I would have done things a lot differently. Being that I was just out of college, I lacked the experience and confidence to stand-up to my workplace bully. I certainly would have done things differently back then, but the experience has helped me build my confidence. In addition, I made some great friends in many of my coworkers and I learned a great deal of information to put on my resume. To be honest I would not alter that experience, as it taught me a lesson on resilience. I am also happy that it happened earlier on in my career, because I now have the experience and self-worth to demand respect by peers and managers.

Thanks for reading,

One thought on “Coping in a Toxic Work Environment

Add yours

  1. Terrific advice, Chelsea! Working in a toxic environment can sap the life and enthusiasm right out of you and can’t always be avoided so thanks for the tips to make it more bearable!


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