How to survive a toxic workplace
If going to work makes you feel stressed or depressed, and/or you experience loss of focus, decreased confidence, stomach pain, headaches, and/or an impaired immune system, then you’re likely working in a bad environment. Surviving toxic work environment anxiety is not easy, but it is absolutely possible.
There is a scientific reason that you feel like you are about to burst into tears at your desk every day. “A toxic environment keeps people in a fight or flight mindset—the constant pump of cortisol, testosterone, and norepinephrine generates physical, emotional, and mental stress,” says Cheri Torres, an Asheville, North Carolina-based business leadership coach and author of Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement. She says you can’t do your best work when you work in a toxic workplace, and your health and well-being is at risk. Monster spoke to experts for some tips on surviving toxic work environment anxiety until you can finally give your two weeks’ notice.
Build a network of trusted co-workers Toxic workplaces are filled with people who are selfish, judgmental, and manipulative. It’s easy to feel like there isn’t anyone who is drama-free, but finding your tribe can help you deal with a horrible boss or a co-worker who won’t listen to any of your ideas because they are “always right.”
How to deal: “One important way you can weather a toxic work environment is to find one or two good friends you can trust in your workplace and offer each other support and a place to vent,” says Raffi Bilek, a director at The Baltimore Therapy Center. “Being able to commiserate and understand each other's frustrations can offer a significant uplift and help you make it through the difficult situation,” he says. Just make sure to choose your friends wisely and only speak candidly with people you trust. That being said, you still don’t want to share certain things at work—even to your work BFF.)
Stay focused on important goals Walking into a toxic workplace can feel like you’re back in high school, where rumors would run faster than the track team and cliques were more exclusive than the varsity cheerleading squad. People love to gossip about everything, whether it’s about the CEO having an affair, how incompetent James from marketing is, or if the impending restructuring will result in layoffs. There may even be entire group texts or Slack channels exclusively dedicated to talking badly about co-workers and pointing fingers.
How to deal: Don’t let workplace gossip keep you from focusing on your work, and definitely don’t join the conversation. “One of the quickest ways to destroy trust among your co-workers is by spreading gossip. Nobody in that kind of environment is willing to be vulnerable and open because everyone’s worried about how that information will be leaked and used against them down the road,” says Piyush Patel, an Oklahoma City-based workplace culture expert and author of Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work. He recommends shutting down unhealthy gossip when you can or simply refusing to participate in it.
Be nice to everyone (even toxic co-workers) Toxic workplaces are often very competitive, making people feel like they have to climb over their co-workers to get to the top. They will lie, cheat, and steal ideas to look better and advance up the corporate ladder. In this type of environment, you always have to be on the lookout for backstabbing behavior, which can make surviving toxic work environment anxiety more challenging.
How to deal: Don’t stoop to their level. Instead, kill them with kindness. “Look for ways to do things for other people and add value to them, even the people who are toxic,” says Connelly Hayward, a Louisiana-based career coach. It might seem counterintuitive to aid your enemies, so to speak, but it can be beneficial. “Eventually, others will value what you provide, which leads to them valuing you. It may take a while, and they still may be toxic toward others, but their interaction with you will change, and that will change your work environment,” he says. Adopt the mantra: “Work hard, be nice.” (Even when other people aren’t.)
Strive for strong work-life balance Your 9-5 feels more like a 24/7 because work has become all-consuming. When you aren’t at work, you’re still working or thinking about work. You just want to throw your phone out the window, so you can catch a break from your co-workers’ incessant string of emails, texts, and calls that are all “urgent.” You usually have to work through lunch, having to cram bites in between filing reports at your desk, or are constantly cancelling after-work plans to stay late at the office and finish up assignments. How to deal: Set some boundaries, so you can have a job and a life. “Having healthy boundaries can reduce the impact that work can have on other areas of your life,” says Tamara D'Anjou Turner, an Atlanta-based psychologist. She suggests always taking a lunch break, not bringing work home, setting clear expectations, having friendships outside of work, and not sharing too many personal details at work.
Know that nothing is permanent It seems like there’s nothing you can do to stop the angry after-hours emails from your boss or relieve the anxiety of being thrown under the bus by your co-workers. Your confidence is shot, you dread going to work, and you start feeling lousy, both physically and mentally. Luckily there is something you can do: Get out.
How to deal: “Understand that the situation is temporary. Proactively look for opportunities to move on. If you are having difficulty believing the situation is temporary, the action of seeking other opportunities will help you change your belief system,” says Katy Caselli, a Raleigh, North Carolina–based organizational psychologist with her own practice, Building Giants.