One of the most challenging memories I have is when I struggled to keep my head above water in a horrible job I had. Eager to live and work in the Bay Area after I graduated from UC Berkeley, I took a job at a large non-profit organization I’ll call Girls Club that looked appealing on paper but not in reality. I only lasted 8 months and left unexpectedly. Looking back I realize that it was not the right fit from the beginning and that my failed attempts at trying to figure out how to survive a toxic work environment were fruitless.
It’s been over 20 years since that unfortunate experience. I wish I could tell you that it only happened once but I’ve been in other toxic and unhealthy workplaces.
I’m smarter now and recognize the red flags early since the stress we’re faced with in a toxic workplace can wreak havoc on our emotional, physical, and mental health.
Perhaps you’re stuck in a job that you hate and trying to strategize a way to get out or you’ve been working in an environment that is nothing short of chaos. Whatever the case, I hope that these 10 tips help you figure out how to survive a toxic work environment and maintain your sanity.
What does a toxic work environment do to a person?
As a licensed clinical social worker, I witness how painful, stressful, and overwhelming it is for my clients who work in toxic environments.
In short, working in a toxic environment can be incredibly stressful and draining, both emotionally and physically.
This stress puts your mental, emotional, and physical health in jeopardy.
How to survive a toxic work environment
If you’re reading this article, then you probably want to stay in your job but want to figure out how to keep your sanity.
I’m a big advocate of focusing on your self-care and mental health at all times so we’ll go through each step, including determining whether it’s time for you to leave the job.
1. Detach yourself emotionally
I know, this is easier said than done but I promise learning to detach yourself emotionally works.
First, try not to take anything personally.
Come to terms that whatever negative comments or actions your co-workers or superiors take have nothing to do with you.
It’s all background noise so just focus on the tasks at hand and the progress you’re making, rather than getting caught up in the negativity around you.
Avoid gossip, do not engage in it, and walk away from it.
Put your headphones on, listen to some music, and just get your work done.
Although it can be difficult to separate your sense of self from the actions of others, it’s crucial for maintaining your emotional well-being.
2. Establish boundaries and say no
It’s hard to set boundaries and say no, especially if you’re a people pleaser.
However, it is critical to do so when you’re in a toxic work environment.
Take a few minutes right now and write down your non-negotiables, for example, taking your lunch break, not coming in early or staying late, or responding to your boss at all hours of the day.
Once you set your boundaries, honor and follow them consistently.
Even better, communicate them to your colleagues and supervisor.
I recall how anxious I felt when my supervisor would text me on the weekends. I finally told her the following “I would appreciate it if you would not text me while I’m off the clock.”
Guess what happened?
Once you set your boundaries, honor and follow them consistently. You will notice that you feel better because you’re in control.
3. Avoid drama
A few years ago I had a colleague I’ll call Harriet who stirred up so much drama and gossip that the entire workplace and culture changed.
Harriet loved to talk behind other people’s backs, including our supervisor. One minute she pretended to be my best friend and the other minute she was throwing me under the bus.
In addition to being a drama queen, Harriet was unprofessional and unethical. A few of my colleagues and I decided we needed to report her unprofessional behavior.
Due to her behavior and numerous staff members’ concerns, Harriet did not last long at the organization.
So if you have a Harriet around you, maintain firm boundaries, focus on the behavior, not the stories you hear about them, and don’t engage in any type of relationship.
Trust me, this person is not your friend and never will be.
Most importantly, limit your conversations with them and keep your supervisor abreast of what you’re doing on projects and collaborations.
4. Get some support
Do you have a best friend at work? Someone you can laugh with, vent to or even work collaboratively with knowing that no matter what happens you’re in a safe space.
Having a supportive friend in the workplace is critical for your mental and emotional health.
Research has shown that having one close friend at work helps with job satisfaction, lowers turnover, and even reduces burnout.
Don’t have a close friend? That’s okay, then it’s time to seek some professional help through a therapist.
My best friend Regina has helped me countless times in the past fourteen years we’ve worked as medical social workers.
However, I also talk to my therapist who can help provide a different perspective and can assist me in navigating tricky situations at work.
5. Look for the good
One thing that has helped me tremendously in my current job is that I focus on the positive aspects of it.
I do this every single day.
Although my current workplace is not toxic, my work is stressful and traumatic.
However, every day when I start work I say out loud “Today is going to be a good day.” I also listen to this song which always puts me in a good mood!
My colleagues and I also make an effort to celebrate anything big or small that happens during the day.
For example, the other day I was able to find an organization that would give my client a gas card. I shared this and my colleagues cheered!
We also celebrate big wins and acknowledge the work that each of us do.
Don’t wait for your supervisor or manager to show you appreciation. Instead, start modeling it towards your colleagues and you’ll be surprised how much better all of you feel.
Try to focus and think about the parts of your job that you like.
Perhaps it’s the beautiful view from your office, the free snacks you get, or even the projects you are working on.
You can also write a list and add to it. This will help you keep your focus on the positive as much as possible.
6. Your job is just a job
It’s so easy to be all consumed by our jobs but you actually have some say on other parts of your life that bring you happiness and joy.
Sure, your career is important, but that’s only one part of you that makes you unique.
Think about your family, friend, hobbies, and your community.
Having balance in your life is healthy so focus on building up the parts of your life outside of work. This way your unhappiness with work will not dominate your feelings about life in general.
What is CYA?
Simple….cover your ass.
One of my friends was in a horrible work environment where she was being harassed by her manager.
I suggested to her that she start documenting everything and keep notes of the conversations taking place.
Fortunately all of the written communication she had kept helped her win the lawsuit.
Even if you’re not concerned about getting terminated, learn to overcommunicate.
“Overcommunication is crucial in times of crises, as well as in times of major changes. In these cases, regular updates, check-ins, and follow-ups help you avoid any misunderstandings. Apart from that, redundant communication helps your workers keep morale high, despite times of uncertainty.”“The importance of overcommunication in a remote workplace”
8. Have an exit strategy
I remember how ambivalent I was about leaving my job at Girls Club.
Mostly I felt scared that I would not be able to find another job so I kept going to work, even though I was suffering from daily panic attacks and hiding in the bathroom.
Don’t do what I did and start coming up with an exit strategy today.
This could be as simple as updating your resume and reaching out to your network.
You can also have a tentative plan with certain milestones you want to reach before you leave your job.
For example, I have students who are pursuing their master’s degrees in social work (MSW). Some of them are working in agencies that don’t align with their values so they’re focusing on obtaining their MSW and then pursuing a different job.
These small steps help because you realize that you are not going to be stuck in this situation forever.
9. Create a positive workspace
One thing that I love about my current office space is my desk area.
I don’t have my own office and share a small space similar to a closet with no windows with six other people.
Does it sound awful to you?
Did I say we have no windows? We are crammed into a small room which is hard to work in when all of us are on the phone.
Since I can’t do anything about the actual room, I decided to make my workspace as joyful as possible.
I have a plant I take care of, my favorite hand lotion, positive notes on my computer monitor, and more.
Though you can’t control or influence very much in your work environment, you can decorate your workspace.
Hang up photos of your friends and family. Put positive quotes on post-it notes and consider taking a plant to take care of.
Remind yourself that your job is not everything and that you have a happy life outside of it.
10. Practice self-care daily at work
What has helped me immensely in my current job is my daily self-care routine.
I am religious about taking my 10-minute walking breaks outside as well as eating my lunch away from my desk.
Take control. Feel better.
Start your Self-care Journey.
Instead of powering through an 8+ hour day, schedule and take your breaks. Make sure you stay hydrated, eat something nutritious and avoid working overtime if possible.
Follow labor law and your company policies around your meal and rest periods.
Oftentimes I hear my clients say “I’m too tired to practice self-care or exercise.”
Guess what? You’ll feel exponentially better if you exercise rather than go home to slump on the couch.
When should you leave a toxic job?
If you’ve tried everything possible and nothing has improved, then it’s time to take the next step and leave the job.
Looking back, I wish I had not stayed at Girls Club because I left traumatized and scared that all future jobs would be similar.
8 signs to know when it’s time to leave your job
- You are burnt out and constantly exhausted no matter how much you rest.
- You are not growing or developing professionally.
- You’ve tried everything to maintain your sanity but your workplace remains toxic.
- You have a feeling that your company is going under.
- You are under-compensated and despite efforts at getting paid more, you aren’t.
- You found a better job! Yipee for you!
- You don’t have a work-life balance.
- You are not inspired, engaged, and regularly bored.
It’s different for everyone and I don’t have an easy answer for this especially if you have dependents and you can not afford to leave your job immediately.
It’s important to start taking proactive steps if you’re considering leaving and leaving on your own terms rather than facing termination.
I feel privileged to write this article and wish I could tell my 22-year-old self that suffering through a toxic and unhealthy work environment was not worth it in the long run.
We can’t go back in time but we do have some control over our future.
You know that working in a toxic environment is stressful and draining. However, you can also survive and even thrive in these situations.
The active steps of how to survive a toxic work environment include things like detaching yourself emotionally, setting firm boundaries, and creating a better work environment for yourself.
In doing so, you can cope with the stress and toxicity of a toxic workplace and maintain your sanity. Remember to seek professional help if you need it, and don’t be afraid to make changes in your life to improve your well-being.
Now it’s your turn to share what experiences you had surviving in a toxic work environment! What tips and tricks did you use to stay in your job or what led you to ultimately leave the job? Please share your stories and comments below.