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Are You in a Toxic Workplace? How to Know If You Are… and What to Do About It

Maggie Graham, M.A., LPC, CPC is a career coach and executive coach with a degree in Career Development. She specializes in helping people get clarity about their life’s purpose, and the skills and strategies to overcome obstacles and create a life they love.

Is Your Toxic Job Impacting Your Mental and Emotional Health?

For those of you so deeply affected by the latest crazy-making experience in your toxic workplace that you’re almost too stunned to type… For those of you sitting at your desk, cradling your head in your hands… For those of you frantically searching co-workers’ faces for clues, wondering if you’re the only one noticing the madness… This blog post is for you.

Rule #1 of Toxic Workplaces: They Make You Doubt Yourself

Are you second-guessing your work experience with questions like:

  • Is it really that bad?
  • Are my expectations too high?
  • What can I do about it anyway?

Here’s the thing: not every work struggle fits the label of “toxic workplace.” Sometimes a job is bad fit for you. Sometimes challenging work experiences may be due to a “boomerang effect,” where you’re dishing out meanness and judgment and that’s what comes back at you. Perhaps the person creating a stench has a hidden diagnosis or an invisible family situation that’s creating a ripple effect with their work.

So, yeah, there may be reasonable explanations and solutions if it feels like toxicity is showing up in your workplace. At the same time, it’s worth getting some key questions and terms defined and clear, to help you determine if you are on a toxic workplace or not.

Signs Your Workplace Is Actually Toxic

A toxic work situation looks as unique as each person, and there are still some conditions that show up make things fall legitimately under the toxic umbrella, including:

  • Harm to people or property
  • Unpredictability is the rule, not just about daily happenings but also about your job’s longevity
  • There’s an unhealthy person with a big ripple or clusters of unhealthy people (this can be leaders, colleagues, or clients)
  • You notice drama, gossip, bullying.
  • Your nervous system is on high alert in more than just a passing way (this can be caused by many variables beyond your work environment, so it’s important to look for the root of this scenario with a professional). Tips that you’re in an elevated state of anxiety:

There’s no set formula for definitively calling a workplace toxic. My rule of thumb is that if my client calls it toxic, I trust their judgment. You might also feel empowered and motivated simply by declaring that your job is toxic to you. No one else has to endorse the term. Unless you plan to pursue legal action, no one else needs to testify that their experience parallels yours. If it doesn’t suit you, let’s make a plan for shifting gears for you.

How to Manage a Toxic Workplace

Key questions I often ask my clients to help them create a survival / action plan if they’re dealing with a toxic workplace environment include:

  • If you remove one person, does the problem go away?
  • What the worst that can happen if you pursue any of the avenues you’re considering and are you willing and able to deal with those worst-case scenarios?
  • What does your support network look like? Can you activate your network to help you through this transition?

In general, the quickest and most efficient solution to workplace toxicity is to find another job. Sometimes that’s not feasible or easy or quick, so we can look at other options, but know that making a switch – either internally if you think the problem will be solved if you’re out of the sphere of one particular person, or externally, if the issue appears to be systemic and entrenched – often takes planning, strategy, and finesse.

Beyond deliberating about whether to segue to a new position, there are some approaches you can take to lessening the immediate impact on yourself, and for me, those tactics are rooted in understanding and leveraging power dynamics.

Six Strategies to Survive a Toxic Workplace, and Take Your Power Back

First, know that it’s useful to recognize what power is. The great civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. defined power as the ability to achieve purpose and effect change. I often review several categories of power with my clients, including:

  • Hierarchical power: an organization’s structure, who reports to whom, who has hire/fire authority, who has the ear of the influential people? Generally, if you’re seeking help with workplace toxicity, this isn’t the type of power you have readily accessible – the good news, it’s not the only kind of power you can leverage.
  • Logistical power: the physical infrastructure of where you work – is there a safe place where you can retreat, can you use buffers to block your line of sight or stay off others’ radars? Can you escape for breaks, outside for a Vitamin D break? Is there a way for you to psychologically indicate to yourself that you’re no longer needing to carry the stressors of work (a mantra when you leave work each day, for example)?
  • Ninja power: your interpretation of the situation – how can you reconfigure your perspective and shift how external stressors affect you? This is where a coach or therapist can really support you using techniques such as mindfulness or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
  • Peer or posse power: banding together with those in the same situation, acting as a block and/or support network. If you plan to cultivate and access this power, be attentive to the structure and know that there’s a risk that you may be perceived as being exclusionary and/or stirring up ire. Proceed with caution.
  • Loud power: fight fire with fire. Give as good as you get. I never recommend this approach because it has aggression at its root. Still, some people believe that you have to call out a bully to get the bully to back down. I admit it – I just can’t go there. I’m only including here because it’s a tactic that I hear often – just one that I’ve never heard used with success.
  • External power: advocacy groups, particularly if you identify your situation as part of a larger societal issue such as racism, sexual harassment, ageism, or other experience that a social justice movement might address. Ask yourself whether you want to part of a revolution that topples existing power structures. If your answer is yes, access the resources of advocacy organizations to support you in your quest.

Tips For Strategizing Your Way Though a Toxic Workplace: Advice From a Career Coach

There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all solution to workplace toxicity, but some tips that I offer my clients include:

  • Play the long game: It’s tempting to seek revenge and/or grab for a moment of vindication that can be costly over time. Know your goal and work systematically towards it. Steven Slater, former JetBlue flight attendant, who quit in a fury triggered a media frenzy by deploying the emergency exit slide, grabbing beer, and cursing passengers. He became a bit of a folk hero, but he also faced serious legal charges.
  • Document, document, document: It not only helps you develop your approach, it grounds you in the truth of what you’re experiencing.
  • Consult your human resources team: Ask for confidential input about your situation if your workplace offers private consultation with an HR professional for employees
  • Seek legal advice: One of the best places to start this process is to research the labor laws in your state or jurisdiction.
  • Read The Asshole Survivor’s Guide by Robert Sutton: Ideas, perspective, and insights – well worth reading.
  • Read Dare to Lead, by Brene Brown: Tips and tools for how to create a positive workplace.
  • Join our “Designing Your Life” online career group, for both support and empowerment.

This topic can be difficult to address, so get support as you navigate the often pothole-filled roads of reconfiguring your worklife to get yourself what you need: fulfilling work in a supportive, nourishing environment. Act on your own behalf. You know you’d advise anyone in a situation similar to yours to do the same.

But Wait, There’s More

I have even MORE advice for you on how to manage a toxic work environment. Listen to my interview with Dr. Lisa on the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast for tips on how to:

  • Identify the signs of a toxic workplace
  • Navigating the stages of toxic workplace healing: Identification, survival, exit, and recovery
  • What you can change and what you can’t
  • How to manage the emotional damage of a toxic workplace
  • How to exit a toxic job and get a new one, gracefully
  • How to spot the warning signs that you might be applying for a position in a toxic workplace

Hope this helps you!

Maggie Graham, M.A., LPC, CPC

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

Is Your Workplace Toxic? How to Tell, and How to Cope.

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success

Music Credits: Beck, “Soul Suckin’ Jerk”

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