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How to Survive a Toxic Work Environment

If you work in a toxic environment, your resilience will erode quickly. Here's how to survive until you can find another job or the cause of the toxicity is gone.

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Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of employees about the types of chronic stress they experience in their lives. Unfortunately, many report that their worst stress stems from having a “toxic workplace,” a work environment that is poisonous, has excessive personal drama, includes mean-spirited leaders or colleagues, and allows destructive behaviors such as bullying and sexual harassment.

Working in a toxic environment will very quickly erode your resilience. While it is advisable to remove yourself from a toxic workplace, that is not always possible. And, while senior leadership should take action to eliminate toxic work environments, the reality is that many leaders do not remove toxic people from the office.

If you find yourself working in a toxic office, here are some suggestions for boosting your resilience until you can leave, the toxic person is removed, or a toxic culture is eliminated:

Establish boundaries. While it is hard to set boundaries and say no, it is critical to do so in a toxic work environment. Write down clear and concise boundaries, such as taking your lunch break, not coming in early or staying late, not working on the weekends, or not responding to your boss at all hours of the day. Remember your boundaries and stick to them.

Create a positive workspace. While you may not be able to control or influence very much in your work environment, you usually can decide how to decorate your workspace. Hang relaxing posters, have pictures of people you love, and post positive quotes. Remind yourself that your job is not everything and that you have a happy life.

Don’t take negativity home with you. While your workplace may be filled with negativity, have a strategy for transitioning to a more positive outlook before you arrive home in the eveningIf you have to work from home, set limits on when you’ll do your work. If you start thinking about work after hours, find something to distract you.

Seek social support. Find a supportive friend who will let you vent and release pent up frustration. Let your friend know that you don’t need a problem solver, just a safe space to talk. Balance time with that friend doing positive activities that involve fun and laughter so you don’t burn out your friend.

Avoid drama. Don’t gossip or get drawn into constant chatter about a toxic employee or boss. If you need to report events to a colleague or supervisor, focus on behavior you observed and not stories you’ve heard. Stay grounded in reality.

Take action. Report inappropriate behavior that you witnessed to appropriate authorities such as senior leaders and/or HR. Even if the people to whom you report the behavior do not take the action you’d like them to take, you’ll know you did the right thing by reporting bad behavior.

Stay true to yourself. Resist being drawn into acting badly. Remind yourself of your core values, remain authentic, and stay on the high road. Resist the temptation to “win” against a toxic employee by compromising your principles. Toxic people often try to manipulate colleagues into engaging in bad behavior in order to have someone to blame later if they are held accountable.

Look for the good. Write down everything positive about your situation and when you are particularly down, read your list. Add to it. Keep your focus on the positive as much as possible.

Remember that your job isn’t everything. Avoid associating your happiness and self-worth only with your job. Your career is important, but so are family, friends, physical health, mental health, hobbies, your residence, and your community engagement. When things are not going well at work, focus on building up the parts of your life outside of work so that unhappiness with work will not dominate your feelings about life in general. 

Protect yourself. Communicate clearly and keep notes of conversations. Keep all of your written communications. Don’t let problems fester but confront them immediately and professionally.

Ask for help. Working in a toxic environment can quickly erode mental health. If you find that you are experiencing characteristics of low resilience that are severe and last for long periods of time, or they interfere with your normal functioning, seek help through your company’s Employee Assistance Program or your own personal physician or mental health professional.

Create an exit strategy. While it may not be easy to leave your job, create an exit strategy and take small steps towards a better future. This signals your brain that your current situation won’t last forever. Remember what you are working towards and what you are creating instead of what is happening right now.

I help individuals and teams thrive in adversity by providing practical skills and tools I developed over several decades as a U.S. diplomat in challenging environments. Visit my website to learn more about how I can help you and your team avoid burnout and become more innovative, collaborative, and productive despite overwhelming challenges, constant change, and chronic stress. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter at @payneresilience.

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