Surviving toxic work environments

We’ve all been there, whether in our own experience or when someone close to us has spends a lot of time talking to us about their work problems, and nine times out of ten the response you either give or get is something along the lines of ‘hang in there’, but what exactly does that mean? I say it, in the first instance to be supportive, but because I know that glib statements are rarely of any actual use, I’ve had a think about what ‘hanging in there’ might look like in practical terms and surprised myself by coming up with some answers. The first thing to say here is no, I’m obviously not a qualified mental health expert and I’m not saying that this post will magically change your life, so there’s my disclaimer. Some of what I’m going to say will probably sound obvious, because unsurprisingly, I’m writing from experience, and I’m sure it’s a very common experience. However, I think I may have stumbled upon a few useful insights which have certainly enabled me to become more resilient over the years, the realisation of which may also help others, so I still think they might be worth sharing, so here’s my three-point survival plan:

1. Leave

As soon as you can. Sounds like a no-brainer, but so many people stay in jobs they hate for years and years, for a whole host of reasons, most of which are self-imposed in reality. Challenge your thinking – are those barriers real, or have you created them in order to justify not having to push yourself? Let’s face it, putting up with a horrible working environment can seem easier in some ways than jumping through all the hoops of finding a new job – filling in countless tedious application forms which don’t usually pay off, and even when they do there’s still the horror of an interview which might even involve a test of some kind. Or worse still, trying to come up with a business plan to do something yourself and the challenges of moving out of your salaried comfort zone make it easier to tolerate miserable or incompetent managers, futile projects and daily frustrations…right?

2. Strategize

Even if you decide to leave, more often than not it’s a process that is going to take some time. You need coping strategies for the meantime. Break the issues down into their component parts, and work out what you can do to reduce their impact on you. In toxic work environment, common factors are poor management, unreasonable workloads and demands, unreliable colleagues, general lack of organisation or established effective processes and seemingly pointless tasks and projects. There may not be ways to tackle these things but there are ways to ensure that you are less affected by them whilst you are at work:

The chances are you won’t be the only person feeling this way, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find others to share your frustrations with, one of the best things you can do for yourself and others is to form alliances. It’s surprising how much tension can be released simply by venting over a coffee or lunch; this kind of support is one of the principal ways to help both parties to feel that their sanity is still intact. It’s certainly a strategy I have used time and time again and I’m grateful to the colleagues who have given me that crucial bit of support that has made all the difference to me during difficult times. I’m also glad to say that they remain good friends of mine and can be the one positive thing you will take with you after you’ve made your escape.

If you are not motivated by the things you’re working on, there may be another area of work that might interest you more, perhaps in a different team or department. In many of the jobs I’ve either been so thoroughly bored of my work or not actually had enough work to do that I’ve reached out to colleagues and managers in other parts of the organisation and found ways to involve myself in other projects. I have never experienced anyone refusing an offer of extra resource.

Work around obstacles whenever you can. And by obstacles, I mean managers. In a dysfunctional organisation, the usual scenario is that those who have successfully risen to senior positions are there because they have either been promoted well beyond their capacity in order to minimise the damage they were doing on the front line, or promoted by a weak and insecure hierarchy who wish to be surrounded by unthreatening, unchallenging people. What this means is that your entire hierarchy is toxic, and therefore the usual escalation procedures are unavailable to you. I have unfortunately found myself in this position several times throughout my career, indeed I’ve actually worked in the office of a chief exec of an organisation and yet still found myself actually being bullied by my line manager and couldn’t do anything about it due to the fact that this person had been given the job because he was no threat to the chief exec. I managed to find ways to work around him by developing direct relationships with colleagues across the organisation, rather than allowing him to be the gatekeeper of my work and contacts. I actually lucked out in this case as he became severely ill with terminal cancer a few months later (despite which he continued to harass me on social media from his deathbed). I like to think his hatred of me was one of the few things that kept him going towards the end. Again, in a toxic work environment, managers who are insecure will lash out at those they feel threatened by, so as soon as you’ve sussed the situation out, operating under the radar is vital.

Build your credibility – try to remain positive, proactive and professional at all times. This can be very challenging, and a lot of people in toxic work environments simply give up and resort to letting their frustrations bleed through into their interactions and their work output. It’s important to remember that your personal brand is going to be your most valuable asset as it’s the best way of finding an exit. Make sure everything you do is done to the best of your ability, and ensure everyone is aware of that, both inside and outside the organisation. Use your social media network to raise your profile, write posts or articles that others will find interesting and valuable and hopefully they will get shared. This will also help you to preserve your own sanity and keep your self-esteem intact, by helping you to reinforce your professional values and remember what your skills are.

3. Have a life

And focus on it. Minimise the impact of a toxic work situation by limiting your exposure to it. Does your organisation have flexible working policies? Then make the most of them. Reduce the amount of time you physically spend there, by going in as little as possible. Work from home whenever you can, reduce your hours, and ensure that you have no contact with work when you are not there. Instead, focus on your interests, hobbies and relationships. Your interests are far batter served investing your energy into other areas. Once you stop attempting to draw any kind of self-worth or validation from your job you will start to become more resilient and feel better.

Finally, and most importantly, there is one thing you must absolutely not do, and that is…

Fight

On no account should you try to ‘fight the good fight’. It can be tempting to think you may be able to influence things, especially if the role seemed promising at first. But whistleblowing, grievances, Unions, going to the top – just isn’t worth it. A toxic work environment is a sign of a deeply dysfunctional organisation, and having worked in a few of those now, I can guarantee that trying to kick against it is only going to wear you down and ultimately lead to depression. Don’t expend your energy on things you have no hope of changing. The best wisdom I’ve ever been given in this situation is that the organisation is always going to have more of an effect on you than you will have on it. If that’s not something you can accept, then hopefully this guide will have been a worthwhile read.

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