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Survivor’s Guide to being in a Toxic Workplace

When leaving isn't an option, you need to protect your mental health

In an interview on BBC’s Newsnight, the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s private secretary, Angus Sinclair, has revealed a working environment of bullying and intimidation. Whether this turns out to be truth or not, this extreme example of a toxic work environment may not be all that rare. 

Most people can empathise with this: we’ve all worked at some time in an environment which drags us down.  It could be the company ethics, physical conditions, work colleagues, hours – the list goes on.  In most cases we feel stuck, disempowered and unable to change the ‘now’ due to financial pressures, location, age, lack of other options.  Whatever the reason we feel unable to move on, even though we know this is not a healthy place to be. 
And it’s subjective: one person’s toxic environment is another person’s ideal… some people positively thrive in a target-driven atmosphere but others find it paralyses them.  Or a culture of fun and high jinx might make the office a livelier place to be, but for others this might be perceived as a bullying culture: if they refuse to take part they look like a killjoy or even singled out by management as a problem, not a team player, so the pressure is there to fit in and not make a fuss… 

And partly this desire to fit in drives many of our decisions. As we developed from cavemen to our modern incarnation we learned that living in groups ensured our survival, we were more vulnerable to predation or starvation on our own in the wild, so we developed social hierarchies and behaviours, and at the root was the desire to belong.  As well as safety we also seek love, companionship, respect, shared experiences, a sense of belonging… and these inherent human drivers are still with us today.  

We might not be dodging wild animals but we still need to live within social groups for our well-being. 

But when we spend a large proportion of our time in a toxic environment it has a great impact on all areas of our lives, it’s bound to affect our character and leak into home, work, etc.  So how can we cope, how can we learn to live with this?  Assuming there are reasons not to leave we can have some coping strategies up our sleeve: 

7/11 Breathing This is a simple technique designed to calm the fight/flight survival mechanism we all have. It can be used as a preventative to centre yourself (before leaving the car and entering the workplace) or as a way to calm yourself when already in an emotionally aroused state (after an argument).  

Take a deep slow breath in through the nose all the way down to your belly, counting from 1 to 7 – pause a moment before breathing out slowly through the mouth, counting from 1 to 11 – this letting go through the mouth is similar to a long sigh, it might even give a greater sense of release to make a noise when breathing out 
Repeat the cycle 6 or 7 times, counting each cycle.  This technique has physical impacts: 

  • the act of counting calms the mind the deep slow breathing calms the nervous system, slowing the heart rate and encouraging breathing back into a normal pattern
  • it breaks the tension, takes you out of the situation, allows a heightened emotional situation to defuse
  • it distracts the mind, we cannot focus on 2 things at once so concentrating on counting gives your brain a break

Find a Friend Being able to talk about the issues with someone also in the same situation can be a huge stress reliever.  It means you can ‘dump’ on each other, with someone who understands the people, work involved, environment without needing to explain characters or nuances.  It also means you are more able to leave the problem at work and not feel the need to off-load at home – to a partner who may also have had a trying day or who doesn’t understand the dynamics of your workplace. 

You’re not looking for solutions here, simply being able to get it off your chest and perhaps have a laugh at the situation, not wallow in it. 

Build a Buffer We often move straight from work into home life without allowing ourselves time to adjust, to switch gears from the work ‘you’ to family/father/mother ‘you’.  It is a very common scenario for a working parent to come through the door to be faced with a tired/stressed out partner who just wants to throw an over-tired child at them – the desire to turn around and run is not as uncommon as you might think!  And this doesn’t make the working parent (or home parent) a bad one, they just need to put a little space between work and home – a buffer zone to prepare mentally for the shift in pace.  

This could be created by going to the gym on the way home, or sitting for 10 minutes in the car listening to music or a relaxation audio, a stop on the way home for a coffee or walking home from the station… whatever works in your life. This could make the difference between a tired, stressed mum or dad walking through the door, and one ready to wade straight into family life to take the overtired child and calm them, allowing the partner a little space, a buffer zone of their own. 

Try Some Therapy Imagine in your brain you have an area where all your stresses, problems, worries go, a stress bucket.  If you’re under a lot of pressure or worry, the bucket fills and eventually overflows which is when we see symptoms such as depression, panic attacks, under- and over-eating, turning to alcohol, smoking, poor sleep, etc. 

There are two ways to control your stress bucket: 

  • limit the amount you put in your bucket
  • empty it 

Talking therapies such as CBP, NLP, counselling and Hypnotherapy are all useful ways of dealing with your stress bucket.  This doesn’t necessarily mean huge changes like moving jobs (although it might give you the confidence to leave that toxic place), it could simply give you the tools to cope with your situation better.  By ensuring your stress bucket is not full you allow yourself ‘spare capacity’ to deal with problems or situations arising that would overwhelm you otherwise. I

Live your Life Invest in your life outside the workplace (or outside home if that is where the issue lies). Enjoy your friends, family, hobbies, pets, etc all those reasons why we get up to go to work in the first place: ‘Work to live not live to work!‘ 

By ensuring we enjoy times outside work we can give ourselves a reason for enduring the time in work and try to bring the home ‘you’ to work, not the other way around – don’t let a negative workplace influence the person you are. 

Being mindful, or present, is an important part of enjoying that time – that is living your life in real time, not through a mobile video upload, or Facebook posting. Look at the people surrounding you, talk to them, laugh with them and create memories that you can re-play in your mind – just the act of remembering a happy time floods the body with Serotonin, the happy hormone, which can lift your mood.

And if you are stuck in a toxic workplace, home life, school or other, bear in mind that reality is often less painful than our imagination would have us believe: we think we won’t find a new job so it’s better to stick with the devil you know, etc. In reality we can deal with the situation, whatever it is, as it happens. Fear of the unknown is far scarier than actually facing those demons – they usually turn out to be whimps!

If you would benefit from addressing stress in the workplace,   visit www.mind-yourbusiness.co.uk to start the conversation

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