How To Stay Sane in A Toxic Workplace

Are you ready for an alarming statistic? Over 75%. of US workers and more than half of UK workers have experienced bullying in the workplace. This means that either we or someone we know has or is currently dealing with the emotional, physical, and mental stress that often accompanies working in a toxic environment. 

Like many others, I have worked for respectful and collaborative leaders who nurtured my skill set instead of being threatened by it, and I have worked for small-minded managers who micromanaged and pitted employees against one another and enjoyed stirring up negativity and chaos. Both leadership styles create energy. One inspires the team, individual, and business and the other infects it. When dealing with the latter, work and even the anticipation of it becomes needlessly exhausting -I once worked for a boss and with a team so negative that I would wake up dreading Monday on Saturday mornings – and your well-rested mornings are a thing of the past and days begin with a moan and end with the misery of knowing you have to wake up and do it all again tomorrow. 

While many articles will tell you to leave (and this one will too), but that’s not always possible to do immediately (especially in a pandemic). If any of this sounds familiar, here are a few things to help you navigate until you can make your move.

First, Reframe

This might sound a bit self-helpy but that’s OK because that’s exactly what you need to do: help yourself understand that you are bigger than this job. You were a talented and skilled professional before you started it and you will be even more skilled when you walk. Remind yourself every day that your value and skills are not defined by the words or actions of others and that you are in a moment of training where you are learning how to draw boundaries and disengage – two important skills that will help you succeed in your next role.

Keep Notes

If your workplace turns a blind eye to a condescending boss, bullying, or blatant mistreatment that doesn’t mean that you need to. Write everything down with dates and times and in what context. You may or may not use this to go to HR or even to pursue legal action, but you can hand it over at the end of your exit interview at the very least in the hopes of protecting/supporting someone else.

Speak Up

Standing up for yourself can be scary but bullies count on people’s silence and fear as protection. Make a commitment to speaking up every single time someone crosses the line. You can do this without being aggressive or unprofessional. Simply ask “what do you mean by that?” and “why are you speaking to me this way?” when someone makes an inappropriate comment or speaks to you in an unprofessional tone.

Depersonalize The Situation

While it’s nice to be friends (or even just friendly) with colleagues and your boss, the reality is that you’re not going to vibe with every person you work with. This can be a good thing when you work in a toxic environment. The more you steer clear of personal chat and recognize that your boss is just a person who is paid to manage you (and not your parent or someone who has authority anywhere else in your life) the more you’ll be able to keep things in perspective. Communicate through email as much as you can (paper trail) and whatever you do, don’t nibble on the bait they throw your way. This could be passive aggression, purposely excluding you, giving someone else credit for your work or whatever childish tactic they use. In fact, making a joke of the situation in your own mind can work wonders to relieve stress. Write a list of their most common behaviors and yourself a point score for each one they pull where you don’t react the way they want you to. Once you hit a certain number of points, reward yourself. Work to overcome your fear of clowns so that you can laugh at them.

Stay Close To Your Values

Trying to maintain your dignity and do the right thing while working with sneaky, lazy, or otherwise unsavory people can be stressful, and it’s tempting to throw in the towel and start behaving badly yourself. Don’t. The one thing that will pull you through any situation is anĀ ironclad reputation, grace, intelligence, respect (for yourself and others) and a commitment to excellent work . The’s are all virtues that make you untouchable in the long run.

Invest in Yourself 

This one is a biggie. Working in an environment where you are constantly devalued can wreak havoc on your self-esteem, leaving you with a warped sense of your abilities and skillset. Make sure that you protect yourself as much as possible by investing in your skills and reinforcing your expertise outside of your job. Whether volunteering, taking classes, speaking on panels, attending workshops, or joining local industry-related Zoom or Facebook groups, engage in behaviors that consistently remind you of the fierce, smart, creative, and capable person you are. This will ensure you’re polished when you get that dream job interview that will be your key out of where you are!

Take Actionable Steps Forward

This could mean spending a few hours a week working on your LinkedIn profile and various resumes (you need to align your experience with the role) or reaching out to someone you admire for an informational interview or advice. Perhaps it’s putting a portfolio together and creating a template for your cover letter. Once you are set up for success, don’t wait; start applying for jobs!

Finally, Protect Your Mental Health

There’s no getting around it: working for/with shitty people sucks. That said, talking about it (or dwelling on it) every hour of every day is not going to do anything but amplify the negativity. Allot yourself a specified amount of time to complain but then force yourself to talk about things you’re interested in, grateful for, and feel good about. Research has shown that negative thoughts narrow thinking. This causes the brain to cut off options (Think: fight or flight) whereas positive thoughts will increase brainstorming ability while enhancing skill-building and resourcefulness.

Signs Of A Toxic Workplace

  • You feel bullied or belittled
  • There’s no sense of structure
  • Anyone in the office is yelled at or spoken to in a disrespectful tone
  • There is a lack of transparency and a high level of secrecy
  • You feel you are being “set up to fail”
  • Everyone seems miserable or has a bad attitude
  • People are pitted against one another
  • You’re overworked
  • Your deliverables are unreasonable
  • The goal post is constantly changing
  • Your company does not follow through on promises
  • You’re not given room to grow or develop
  • You constantly feel you need to defend your work/position
  • You feel run-down, sick, or depressed as a result of your work environment

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