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Work Sucks: The Toxic Workplace Survival Guide

Your alarm goes off on Monday morning and you groan, dreading the day and week ahead. Maybe you hit the snooze button a few times, wanting it all to be a dream. Eventually, you drag yourself out of bed and start your morning routine. Maybe you sit at the end of your bed contemplating calling in sick again. “I just CAN’T go back there,” you think to yourself. You know you’re going to go, however, because you have bills to pay and you can’t just up and quit your job. This is how every morning feels when you have a toxic workplace.

I know firsthand how miserable a toxic workplace can be and how hard it can be to leave. I’ve almost had a complete nervous breakdown from a toxic workplace and from feeling stuck in that position. A lot of advice out there is “just leave!” but we all know how unrealistic that is. Sometimes, due to the economy, there aren’t many jobs available for your position. Other times, you have to wait a few months for the right thing to come along. Not many people are able to just quit a job with nothing lined up, so leaving is just sometimes not an option.

work sucks: the toxic workplace survival guide

What is a toxic workplace

Are you unhappy at work, and not because of work itself, but because of the way you’re treated? Do you find yourself completely burnt out, crying, or feeling sick when it’s time to go to work? Is there a high turnover rate and frequent miscommunication coming from the top down? You may be in a toxic workplace. Even if the organization isn’t toxic from the top-down, it can be allowing toxic behaviors to happen which doesn’t make it any less horrible.

To me, any workplace that is toxic is one that wears me down on all levels. Sure, there are deadlines out there and working overtime is sometimes necessary. That’s to be expected with most jobs. Is your workplace abusing your dedication to the work? Does it have no regard for you as a person or your livelihood? I love work and to do a good job, but toxic workplaces will make you feel like you’re never doing a good enough job and that you need to be working more, sometimes past your breaking point.

Another huge indication of a toxic workplace is the way information is communicated (or not). Are there constant rumors flying around? Do you not feel safe speaking with coworkers, managers, or the higher-ups at all? Are there frequent instances of gaslighting? If you feel like your workplace makes you feel like you’re losing your mind, you might have a toxic workplace. This has been consistently true with workplaces that either don’t have an HR department or an HR department that you can’t feel like you can trust. A toxic workplace will make you feel weak and alienated, ultimately disconnected from your coworkers.

The cycle of a toxic workplace

The biggest problem with a toxic workplace is the negative cycle it can create. Toxic workplaces can really be hard on your sense of self and your self-esteem. They can make you feel worthless, like a cog in the wheel, and that you are not talented or good at your job. It can be extremely defeating and can create a spiral.

When I was in a toxic workplace, for example, I stopped learning and creating. I have always enjoyed learning new things and, as someone only a few years into my career had started out eager to learn. Due to the negativity of my workplace, however, I stopped caring about my career and learning new skills. My workplace even discouraged people from learning! Even worse, I stopped my creative endeavors outside of work. Stress can be extremely damaging to creativity. Instead, I would come home, cry, and watch t.v. most nights. “Is this my life now?” I often thought.

Okay, my workplace is toxic but I can’t leave (yet), what now?

Once you have identified that yes, your workplace is toxic, it can be a little overwhelming to think about. How has this happened? What can I do about it? It can feel like too much to realize your workplace is toxic. We spend most of our days at work, and being in an environment like that adds so much unnecessary stress in our lives. Furthermore, the stress of finding a new job can add to the existing stress and can feel almost impossible to leave. Most people can’t just up and leave their jobs. Here are some things you can do to alleviate stress from your toxic workplace.

Find a community

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

If you’re feeling the strain from your workplace, chances are there are many other people who are feeling the same way. Toxic workplaces aim to squash comradery with coworkers, so try to find a few of the good coworkers to spend time outside of work with. Maybe meet a few for a happy hour or a lunch date. Other coworkers in the same situation can be an invaluable source for sanity. They know exactly what you’re going through and can be validating to hear from. A word of caution: choose your coworkers wisely and try to stay away from rumoring/too much negative talk. The goal here is to find support and it can be easy to go from a little venting to a constant cycle of negativity. The goal of building these friendships is to build each other up to survive!

Not sure if you *have* a trusted coworker? Consider networking with people outside of your company or with people you have worked with in the past. Meetup has a ton of professional networking groups for each city and can be a great resource for networking. Even though you can’t share your current toxic workplace situation, it can help re-invigorate you and your career and give you some much-needed inspiration and hope. The worst-case scenario is that you meet some like-minded people in your career.

Go to therapy

To piggy-back off the last point, a truly confidential place you can turn to is in therapy. Therapy can help empower you and give you specialized tools to combat the specific issues you’re dealing with at work. Therapists can even give you the tools to cope with the stress from a toxic work environment. Prior to going to therapy, I was a constant people-pleaser and couldn’t say “no” to anyone at work. The toxic people in my workplace saw this vulnerability and exploited it as much as they could. Toxic workplaces can feed off your weaknesses, and going to therapy can help you.

Make time for yourself

You can’t relax at home with your cat if you’re working all the time

If your workplace clearly doesn’t care about you or your well-being, take the time to care for yourself. It can be so easy to be sucked into the negative black hole that is a toxic workplace. You might find yourself working long hours and completely lose your personal life. It’s pertinent that you are able to take the time for yourself in order to survive.

In order to do this, you need to set clear boundaries for your workplace. If they’re demanding too much of your time, stand up for yourself. Give your workplace a chance to correct itself before making any decisions. Set aside to discuss your work-life balance concerns with your manager. If they’re any good, they’ll be willing to listen to you and work out a better work schedule with you. The Balance has some great tips for discussing this with your manager.

If your manager or HR department isn’t helpful, continue working on your projects but don’t “go the extra mile.” Remember, this is a workplace that has proven they do not value you by not respecting your concerns. Leave when everyone else leaves, go home, and practice self-care. Self-care is so important at a time like this, and is often one of the first things to go at the first sign of stress.

Establish goals

It can be so easy to lose sight of your career and life goals when you’re barely hanging on at work. Suddenly, what was once your passion in life, is your biggest dread every day. Instead of being excited about your career, you can become burnt out and jaded, exhausted from dealing with your job. Most of all, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day.

Re-establishing your goals in your career and life can give you purpose. Having a purpose makes the time go faster, and the bumps in the road seem small in comparison to the big picture. Take some time, preferably on the weekend or during some time off, to think about your career and some goals you’d like. They can even be life goals, such as wanting to be in X position in the next 3 years. Write these goals down and keep them with you at work. When you start feeling hopeless, look at these goals and remind yourself that this is just a minor setback and that you have more to offer in your life.

Take breaks

Taking small breaks throughout the day can make long, torturous days go by faster. Most of my workplaces had an hour for lunch with 2 15-minute breaks a day. I used that time to leave the office, usually to go on a walk or sometimes to get lunch with friends. Being able to leave the workplace makes it easier to not feel squashed by it. This time can be used to re-center yourself so you can come back with a clear head and ready to defeat the rest of the day. Even better, if you go for a walk, you get your steps in for the day (or at least some).

Create your exit strategy

Although it is very tempting, don’t leave like this

Almost everyone who has worked in a toxic workplace has probably been tempted to leave on a whim, making a scene about how awful it is. While it’s nice to fantasize about, the best way to leave a toxic workplace is with a well-planned exit strategy. Not only will this help you make the transition that aligns with your goals, but it will hopefully make an organized, graceful exit.

Creating an exit strategy can also help ground you and feel like you have control. Working in a toxic workplace can make you feel hopeless and helpless, unable to make decisions for your own career. By taking the time to create an exit strategy, you take control back in your life and your career. By using the goals you made, start looking for other positions you’re interested in or networking. Set a timeline for yourself on when you’d like to quit your job and save up some money just in case you don’t find a new job in time. Having this date on the calendar will give you something to look forward to.

A toxic workplace can be a career-ender, but it doesn’t have to be

A toxic workplace can beat you down, burn you out, and leave you feeling passion-less, lost and uninterested in your career. It doesn’t have to be like this. Yes, it can be an extremely stressful time in your life that feels like an endless waking nightmare. If you use the tips above, however, you can survive long enough and continue working towards your goals and taking care of yourself in the process. While I wish I had never been in a toxic workplace myself, I am thankful for the lessons I learned and my ability to share this with others. Always remember: you are strong, you are smart, and you can achieve your dreams. Don’t let a toxic workplace take that away from you!

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