How to survive a toxic work environment (infographic)

Maybe you’re super-ambitious and hot-to-trot on your way to the top of your particular specialism in the digital world. Or maybe you’re passing the time, trying to get through the working day so you can pay your rent and one day find time to dream about what you really want to do and start taking steps towards it.

Either way, you deserve to work in an environment of respect, trust, and mutual support. Anything less is not a good work environment. And if there’s any combination of bullying, lying, extreme employee turnover, pessimism, and mutual suspicion, and it’s making you dread showing up each day, you can class it as toxic work environment.

Why is that important? Shouldn’t you just put your head down and get on with striving towards promotion/the end of the day?

Simply put: no. It is bad for your health and your career to soldier on through such circumstances, even if your plans and livelihood depend on it.

Toxicity at work causes stress. Stress causes heart attacks, strokes, and more. Psychological distress boosts your chances of getting depression – which is also bad for your physical health. And you will find your motivation draining away, worsening the other effects and seriously compromising your ambition and good intentions.

There are two causes of a toxic work environment: people and the system. Both may sound insurmountable, but the wonderful thing is that when people work together with positivity they can change the negative people and even affect the system. The system, with its emphasis on profit over process and the funneling of those profits to the greedy people who work the furthest from the nucleus, wants you just sedated enough to work on through it without complaining or getting big ideas.

But once you learn to care for yourself and act with tenderness and support towards even the most toxic colleagues you can make your own contribution: not to the world of business but that of the togetherness which is our curse and blessing on this troubled rock we call home.

Before you go to work

Coping begins with yourself, and it starts before you go to work. Indeed, one of your priorities should be to create as clear a line as possible between work and non-work.

That means not starting work until the allotted moment. It also requires guarding against the ‘semi-work’ that we do when off the clock, whether through pressure from the boss or just bad habit: checking emails, updating the business social media (unless that’s part of your contract), taking calls, finishing reports, ‘getting a head start’ by working through stuff at the breakfast table or on the train.

In fact, it’s best to log out of your work accounts altogether on any devices you have at home. Notifications raise your stress levels and prevent you from ever fully relaxing. You need to rest and relax if you’re to be strong enough to deal with the difficulties to which you’re being subjected at work.

You can take this sense of strength from modest achievements at home – moments of reconnecting with yourself by making the bed, meditating, talking with your kids, making love with your partner(s), helping a neighbor, or being proudly unproductive. Wins like this soon add up, with each one contributing to your sense of positivity and self-determination, which you’re going to need as you plot the revolution.

You might also sit down with a pen and paper to plan out what you’re going to do after work in your leisure time. This can help you to avoid coming home and slumping onto the couch, depressed, unable to motivate yourself to do anything outside of the structure of work-consumption-work-consumption.

On the way to work

Greet everybody. Nod, smile, say Hi, thank the bus driver, wish the garbage collector a good day, give a sandwich to the homeless woman. Whatever you’re comfortable with. Regardless what happens at work, you live in a community. Look after those around you and you can encourage that sense of mutual responsibility and care that slowly feeds back into society.

While you’re at work

Precisely how to cope on a scale of ‘quiet tolerance’ to ‘revolution’ will depend on how desperately close to rent day you are and whether you can afford to jeopardize your position. But even when carrying out small acts of non-dangerous industrial sabotage, hold kindness in your heart and act with love.

Slowly begin to distance yourself from the people at work who make you feel bad. The emotional vampires, the scapegoat-seekers, the jobsworths, the bullies. Meet negativity with a smile and remember the human inside the other person even as you make your excuses to go make a cup of tea. (Heck, make them a cup of tea – at least it will keep their mouth busy for a while.)

Meanwhile, slack off work a bit to think about those people who you’ve underrated. Who are the kind and supportive people at work? Who makes you laugh? Who sees through the toxicity as clearly as you? Become friends with these people and offer them support and positivity through the dark times. Be careful not to become cliquey – that, in itself, can become toxic. But be open, warm, and communicative, and your network of strength will begin to grow. Even eye contact or a smile or nod can help lift the mood and signal solidarity if you or they are not the ‘small talk’ type.

On a more formal level, it is important to keep track of the toxic behavior around you so that you can build a case if you want to take things to the next level, or defend your behavior if the revolution is defeated. Keep the act of documenting things, and the documents themselves, private: this reduces the chance of provoking bad will, paranoia, or espionage among your colleagues and bosses.

And all the time, work on improving yourself. This will make you feel better and also equip you to get promoted or headhunted out of your awful position. Work on becoming kinder and delivering constructive feedback; take courses and development opportunities inside and outside work; keep your mind and body ticking over, but do so for yourself and your community rather than misguided loyalty to a greedy boss or a corrupt system.

And take control of the situation by remaining positive. Create a work area that pleases you and makes you feel in-control. Take a deep breath before responding to negativity or troubling events, and then respond with positivity or rage, depending which is politically appropriate.

And then go home because it’s the end of the day and you don’t owe the system a minute of your free time.

Home time

So hopefully you already made plans for this evening before your day was rotted by self-interested management and insecure workplace bullies. Well done!

If not, use this opportunity to look after yourself: get some exercise. Have a bath. Get out of your work clothes. Hug your parents.

And set aside some time to make a new plan. Because nobody should have to work in a toxic environment. It’s just not on.

Ready to get calm and plan your escape? This visual guide to dealing with a toxic work environment is the first tool you need!

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This guide offers 12 practical, research-backed tips to help readers deal with a toxic work environment.

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