I’ve been career coaching in Washington, DC for a few years now.
We’re a notably Type-A bunch, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for our overall sense of balance and well-being. According to Psychology Today, having a Type-A personality is associated with “hostility, impatience, difficulty expressing emotions, competitiveness, drive, perfectionism and an unhealthy dependence on external rewards such as wealth, status, or power.”
Not great, right?
I see this personality trait play out most when I am working with clients who have an objectively terrible boss. A boss who torpedos their team’s work, who sets no clear expectations or is constantly changing priorities, who yells, who creates perverse incentives for colleagues to undermine one another. Or worse.
It’s not that Type-A personalities are the cause of this type of unacceptable behavior, but I have a hunch these behaviors feel more acceptable in environments dominated by unchecked Type-A personalities.
These clients of mine — who are consumed by the toxic work culture engendered by their bosses — are negatively impacted on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. We work hard to find small ways to bring them a sense of day-to-day well-being; to help them focus on solutions within their control, and how to create distance on issues where they have little.
I compiled the following set of strategies based on years of working with employees in this situation, and share it in hopes that many more people can benefit.
Problem 1: You are Multi-Tasking on the Regular
Do you ever have those moments where you almost literally feel your brain breaking because you catch yourself trying to focus on so many different things at once? Your workday flies by in no time, there’s never enough time to complete your tasks, everything was ALWAYS due yesterday, and it somehow never really feels like you are ever getting anything done. You exist in a frantic state, are totally spent by the end of the day, and have little to show for it.
For example, It’s 11AM and you’ve already been furiously working away at your desk for 3 hours. Your boss pops by to tell you they need this OTHER assignment to be done, and it’s a priority, so please have it complete by 4PM. You feel panicked and overwhelmed in the moment, and are short and reactive for the rest of the day.
Strategies to find balance:
Do your best to respond to requests such as this in the moment. I usually recommend that clients take these opportunities to force their boss to prioritize. Would they prefer you continue the work currently underway, or stop this work to begin new tasks. The important point to reiterate is that all tasks cannot happen by the imposed timelines. You need your boss to give you clarity on the priorities, and decide for themselves which tasks are most important to them.
Depending on your comfort level, you could take a more or less assertive approach to your language. Here are two examples:
- Less Assertive: “I am happy to take this on, though it means I will not get to X, Y, and Z today. Is that okay with you?”
- More Assertive: “Is it critical that I am the one to take on this assignment? It means that X, Y, and Z will not be completed on time, and I understand those tasks to also be priorities. Can we sit down for 30 minutes to have a quick discussion about how I can best address these competing priorities?”
If you try this out and it works well for you, consider setting up a 60-minute meeting with your boss for the following week. Review your responsibilities to get a clear sense of how to prioritize your work. Bring suggestions (and justification!) for delegating some work to colleagues who are better suited to those tasks.
Problem 2: You are Drowning in Responsibility
Here’s the scene: you have tremendous responsibility. Easily more than one person’s job. You have tons of institutional knowledge and the whole place would probably crumble if you left. You have no room to breathe, and the weight of the responsibility is oppressive and keeps your from thinking about anything BUT work.
I really feel for people in this situation. I’ve been in similar situations in the past, and it is fully overwhelming to work in a place where it feels like so much is riding on your shoulders, without the support, authority, access to information, or appropriate level of recognition.
Strategies to find balance:
If you find yourself in this situation, it’s of paramount importance to start setting boundaries and advocating for yourself. This can be done in small ways that add up to a meaningful difference. Consider the following options:
- Get up. Right now. Five minutes. Walk around the office, go drink a glass of water. GIVE yourself a few minutes of downtime. Don’t wait for someone to offer it to you.
- Eat lunch anywhere but your desk. And please eat lunch. And a snack. Preferably somewhere away from your desk and your email, and outside on a nice day.
- Implement the 52-17 Rule. 52 minutes focused on one task. 17 minutes taking a break. Repeat. Studies show this is THE most efficient and productive way to work.
Problem 3: You are Stuck in Toxicity
This one hits me straight to the heart. Everyday is a different kind of drama. People are yelled at. Meetings make you incensed. The staff is practically trained to undermine each other as a matter of daily operations. Distrust everywhere. You are left out of conversations and key decisions for no reason. No accountability, no transparency. Your career is plateauing because you’re not using your skills effectively. You are just so over it.
Strategies to find balance:
When this description matches your day-to-day work environment, it’s important to acknowledge that this is likely a dysfunctional workplace at the structural level; in other words, you’re in a toxic work environment. This means you cannot single-handedly fix the problems. What you can do is take care of yourself, and help your colleagues do the same for themselves. Here are some options:
- Don’t take it personally. Easier said than done. Maybe you ask a simple question of your colleague, and they give you a snappy, condescending answer. Keep in mind, in a toxic environment, remember that everyone is generally at their worst. This response is likely not about you, and while it’s inappropriate for your colleague to treat you rudely, firing back a quip is unlikely to make things better. Say something like “Thanks for your response. I hope everything’s okay, you sound pretty stressed.” Then take a breath and a walk.
- Be selective about your engagement. This may not be a place you can really trust people. Keep it professional, do not engage in drama, and save your energy for deeper relationships that exist outside work. Keep email records of interactions that make you feel uncomfortable.
- Advocate for yourself. Sometimes it takes just one person to start changing the dynamic for others to see that they too can self-advocate. Get comfortable saying assertive responses to inappropriate behavior, such as “I do not respond to being yelled at. Let’s reconvene on this when we’re all more settled.” Then get up and walk away.
- Enlist support. In this situation, you are likely to benefit significantly from mental health support. Consider contacting a qualified mental health professional in your area to help you deal with persistent issues of this type.
This is just a sampling of the many options you have to gain a better sense of balance and well-being in a stressful work environment. While you cannot control everything that happens in your professional life, you do have control over how you respond. Keeping your own well-being as a top priority will help you develop a healthy and assertive approach to self-advocacy in the workplace.