We spend a large part of our lives at work. Even if you think you just go to work, do your job, and leave it behind, I can assure you that your surroundings impact you. Some of those impacts are obvious (i.e. increased stress) and some are subtle and chip away little by little at your mental and physical health. Let’s discuss what a toxic work environment is, who is responsible, and what you can do if you find yourself in the midst of this challenging situation.
What is a Toxic Work Environment
A toxic work environment is an environment heavily steeped in negativity, lack of trust, bullying, infighting, and manipulation. You worry about making a mistake because you know it will likely result in judgment. Basically, it’s a place where you don’t feel psychologically safe. It’s not one or two people, or even one or two leaders, it’s systemic in the organization. You’ll know you are in a toxic workplace because there is little to no trust between employees, everyone is out for #1. If there are work relationships, they revolve around negativity, gossiping, and banding together and against others. People stonewall (ignore), gaslight (make you think you’re crazy), and no matter what you do, it doesn’t feel like it was enough or right. While many people don’t particularly enjoy going to work, if you work in a toxic environment, you may feel physically or emotionally ill at the thought of going to work in the morning. Yikes!
Who’s to Blame?
In all my years of leading and teaching leaders, I’ve stressed it is their responsibility to create an environment that is positive and conducive to productivity, quality, and overall general well-being of the people they serve. Not only are leaders responsible for setting a positive tone in the workplace, but they are also responsible for discipline and termination of those employees contributing to a hostile work environment.
I know many work environments are toxic due to toxic leaders. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. Leaders that blow up, demean, manipulate, and set employees up for failure are unfortunately still leading – often because they continue to get results or have bullied their way to the top.
Yet in some situations, it’s not the leader so much as it is the employees. When employees have been allowed to behave a certain way, it becomes ingrained in the culture. And then other employees believe that is the way they are supposed to behave at work. Every time you contribute or even listen to gossip in the workplace, you are contributing to the toxicity. Listening without sharing is still rewarding the behavior of the gossiper. Every time you make a negative comment about management or another employee, you are contributing to the toxicity. If everyone quit contributing (either complicity or outrightly), there would be no toxicity.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s the leader’s responsibility to deal with negative behavior. That being said, gossip, gaslighting, stonewalling, and manipulation are the most challenging behaviors for leaders to identify and address. Why? Because it’s generally provided second hand and if someone reports it, they don’t want the guilty party to know (for fear of bullying). The thing is, toxic people, get pretty darn good at hiding their toxicity.
What Can You Do?
Being a problem solver, I don’t want to wallow too long in the causes and challenges of being in this environment. You know how difficult it is or you wouldn’t be reading this. Let’s focus on what you can do. First, let me say, you aren’t likely going to change a systemic problem by yourself unless you are the leader and are prepared to start terminating some people. From the employee’s perspective, it becomes imperative that you take care of yourself – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If you are in a toxic workplace, the ideal solution is to get out. That being said, I know some people either aren’t ready to leave or need to stick it out until a better opportunity comes along. I’ve detailed a few tips to help below.
1. Don’t Engage in the Toxicity
When the gossip starts in the breakroom, walk away or better yet, say something positive like “Maybe you don’t know the whole story” or “Maybe we could help him” or “I like to think everyone is doing the best they can.” If you feel the urge to tell someone how another employee or your boss ticked you off, call your mom – don’t do it at work (and to moms everywhere, I’m sorry). As Gandi said, ” . . . BE the change you want to see in the world.”
When you engage in toxicity, you are not only breathing in all that negativity, you are making it a part of the very fabric of your being. It’s now part of you.
2. Build a Better Relationship With Your Boss
Regardless of if your boss is the culprit of the toxicity, building a better relationship with him/her can only help. Learn how to do that here.
Here’s another article specifically on how to build a better relationship with your boss.
If you’ve ever wanted to have a better relationship with your boss, wondered how to get a raise, or wanted to ensure your continued employment – it would be beneficial to ensure you have a great relationship with your boss. Even the most difficult bosses appreciate the employee that makes their life just a little…
3. Develop Stress Coping Strategies
The list of stress-coping strategies is limitless but let me provide a few options to get you thinking.
- Go for short walks during your breaks. While you’re walking, be sure to take a few deep breaths.
- Listen to music, positive podcasts, or audiobooks while working to limit people talking to you (Subscribe below and get a list of books I recommend).
- Invest in a few stress balls or fidget toys (I’m a colossal fidgeter and this helps me focus and deal with stress throughout the day). I’ve included a couple of favorites below.
- Create a few positive affirmations to recite throughout the day and keep you focused on the right things.
- Learn to reframe every situation – When you are feeling judgmental about others, take a breath and think about all the reasons why they might be behaving as they are. I’ve found that finding a way to have empathy for others keeps me from feeling judgmental. It’s somehow easier to think “Wow, they must really be hurting inside to want to hurt others so badly” than to be angry and stressed about the situation.
- Start each day with gratitude. If you can start each day thinking about all you are thankful for, it’ll make it so much easier to deal with the inconvenience and attitude of a toxic person. The bottom line is, when you are thinking of better things, you are giving them less control.
I don’t know about you but the last thing I want to do when working in a toxic environment is exercise. I’m so mentally exhausted from being so guarded all day that all I want to do is grab a bag of chips and some ice cream and watch Netflix. But that’s exactly what we should NOT be doing. It seems counterintuitive but we NEED the good feelings (oxytocin) that can only come from exercise, sex, and being in environments that bring us joy. Don’t take all that toxicity home with you and dump it on your family (or pet). Hit the gym or go for a walk and get those endorphins moving!
5. Create an Exit Strategy
Like I said previously unless you are the person leading the environment, it’s not likely to change anytime soon. And it’s important for you to acknowledge this as it will help you to decide to take action. Even with new or improved leadership, it can take months or even years to improve a systemically toxic environment. Your best bet is to come up with an exit strategy. Brush off that resume and create a plan. Many organizations with toxic environments pay very well. They have to because they can’t get people to work there or stay once they get them in the door. If you have created a situation where you need this additional pay to live your life, start downsizing. Pay off debt. I promise the additional money is not helping your long-term physical, mental, and overall health. That stress is eating away at your immune system at a slow but methodical pace and before you know it, the impact of the stress will have caused illnesses you would have never dreamed of having. Start working on a plan to get out. Create a side hustle. Eliminate some subscriptions. Every day, do something that will get you closer to exiting.
Here are some money-saving tips to get you started.
These are trying times. Pandemics, layoffs, recession, and inflation are reasons enough to make sure you have your financial house in order. Or maybe just the realization that consumerism has left you with no money to fall back on during times of crisis is more than enough of a reason to practice frugality. Even if…
Toxic work environments are dare I say, TOXIC. Just think about that word for a minute. You wouldn’t drink something every day that says TOXIC, would you? And you wouldn’t keep drinking said drinks thinking one day they would no longer be TOXIC merely because you are drinking them, would you? You wouldn’t send your kids to a playground with signs that say TOXIC, would you? And you wouldn’t keep sending them to that playground thinking they’ll somehow become immune to the toxicity if they just keep playing in it, would you? Remember, we become what we are surrounded by and where we spend our time and energy. Just let that sink in and then get busy on your exit strategy.