Are you working in a toxic environment? Here’s what you can do about it.
However driven your ambitions are, a career is always a pretty organic thing.
It’s rhizomatic, in that the roots and branches of your success grow in not always predictable ways as part of a complex system. And it’s very literally organic in that micro and macro decisions and behaviours that shape your development are made by the human animal.
Your colleagues, clients, customers, and bosses are all complex beings, who are further complicated by the sometimes inexplicable chemistry that occurs between them.
Unfortunately, it is not rare for such chemistry to become toxic. All too many workplaces are tainted by collective mismanagement, a culture of negativity, cliques and bullying, and/or discouragement and distrust.
It really takes just one bad apple to sour the atmosphere (particularly when it’s a figure of authority). But the awful thing is that when the wrong personalities come together, they can multiply each other’s undesirable tendencies.
All too many workplaces are tainted by collective mismanagement, a culture of negativity, cliques and bullying, and/or discouragement and distrust.
It’s referred to as a toxic work environment because it can literally damage your health. The increase in stress hormones while you cope with such surroundings over a sustained period can damage almost every part of your body. In particular, your risk of heart attack or stroke rises with your blood pressure and the inflammation of your blood vessels.
Your mental health suffers also:
“As the levels of psychopathy and narcissism increased among leaders,” writes Abigail Phillips, whose PhD in organisational psychology involved a series of studies across a variety of industries, “so too did the prevalence of workplace bullying, counterproductive work behaviour, job dissatisfaction, psychological distress and depression among subordinate employees.
“Workplace bullying emerged as a mediating mechanism, through which leader psychopathy and narcissism seemed to affect employee job satisfaction, wellbeing, depression, and counterproductive work behaviour.”
These physical and mental health risks are a major concern in themselves. But in terms of that organic career path, rot can soon set in. Negativity (not to mention physical and mental suffering) saps your motivation. You lose the power to resist or to escape.
Simply put, without a dedicated effort to remedy the situation, things are likely to only get worse.
Alternatives to quitting
You wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to just walk out of such a role. In fact, if you are in a position to do so, it is not necessarily a bad idea. You can waste a lot of years waiting for a toxic work environment to get cleaned up, and it certainly isn’t your job to wade in and sort it out yourself.
However, there can be lots of reasons to hold on to your current position. Maybe you can’t afford to leave. Or your job could be providing valuable experience, training, or networking opportunities that you want to see through in order to strengthen your prospects for the future.
Or you could just be stubborn: if you like the fundamentals of your job, why quit it because of a few negative individuals?
A more creative approach is to try to ignore them the best you can and concentrate on yourself and the rest of the workplace community. On the one hand, exploit your employment for all the development possibilities you can take for as long as you have to be there.
Take opportunities to work off-premises, especially when there are networking opportunities at stake. Jump at the possibility to take training courses, make client visits, and attend seminars, as long as it doesn’t mean being stuck in a car with an emotional vampire colleague for three hours at a time.
Figure out which of your skills need the most work, and build your confidence in that area to further equip yourself to make leaps and bounds with your career.
On the other hand, work hard at being better than the bullies and blamers. Remain neutral towards the toxic figures in your work environment, but redouble your efforts to be supportive, tolerant, and friendly to your friends and colleagues, who may be dealing with the same feelings as you.
Concentrate on keeping your desk or area bright, organised, and positive, and try to turn a blind eye to the naysayers – except where a colleague needs your support against bullies or harassment.
And keep a private record of incidents of bullying, harassment, negativity, idea-stealing – anything that can support your case if the issue should come to a head and you or your toxic colleagues end up in a tribunal.
Taking care of yourself
Whatever balance you find in the workplace to cope with the toxic elements, don’t neglect to take care of yourself in your personal time, either. You can gain a better sense of control and positivity (and protect your health) by achieving small, satisfying ‘wins,’ from making your bed to helping your kid with their homework, from hitting the gym to taking a stroll in the woods.
That’s how you can best nurture the organic elements of your career that are most in your control: your own health, positivity, and self-determination. For more ideas how to encourage growth in those areas, read on through the below visual guide to dealing with a toxic work environment.
About the author
G. John Cole is a writer-researcher at NeoMam Studios.