How to cope in a toxic work environment

By Anna Eliatamby, above, Director of Healthy Leadership, CIC

Human beings possess the potential to be golden and positive and negative and shadow. Most of us function from the positive side. If we do something negative, then we will self-correct, apologise and remedy the situation. A very few will operate from the shadow and negative. And then create and contribute to a toxic work environment regardless of the size of the business.

These negatives can exist for years because leadership and those in power remain reluctant to address the individuals who maintain the toxicity. Regardless of the massive psychological impact on those who are targeted or who just observe these behaviours. And there is a huge adverse impact on productivity, effectiveness, trust, and culture.

Working in these situations has a very deleterious psychological effect on the person. Their mental health, well-being, personal and professional lives are affected. People work and live in pain and suffer. Most don’t appreciate the effects of toxicity until long after they have left.

Toxicity in a smaller business can be more difficult to live with and manage. Employees may feel more intimidated, some may be reluctant to address a person’s behaviour especially if they are the owner. The relevant HR and internal justice systems may not be in place or robust.

Even in a smaller organisation, what can people do to cope if they find themselves in a toxic environment?

The first and most important factor is to recognise that none of what others say or do is your fault. Even if you have made a mistake, the reason you are the target has more to do with the perpetrator than you. They are good at sensing vulnerability or competence and, rather than honouring them, will try to diminish. If you are sensitive and vulnerable, it is important to know that these are valuable human qualities. Competence is competence. But in a toxic environment, it is worth considering not showing them so much. Be confident and still sensitive.

Second, take time to understand the behaviours being used by the perpetrator and consider the impact they have had. How have they affected your thinking and decision-making, ability to concentrate, tendency to make mistakes, stress levels, work and personal life, emotions and patience? To what extent do you wait tensely for the next time? This allows you to know the effects and then work out what you can do to cope better.

Spend a few moments trying to understand the toxic individual. Are they doing it because they can? How secure and happy are they? What are the signs that they are being supported and given feedback on their actions? The aim here is to acknowledge their personhood and rationale, but not excuse them. Often doing this diminishes their effect and it could lead to you changing how you respond to their behaviour. For example, simply praising someone can help if they are insecure.

Look at the approach you currently take to continue in this environment. Some people just silently tolerate the awfulness and try to just get on with their work. Others leave. Some will try to address the situation with the person or leadership. Some will use the internal justice or HR system (if they exist and are operational) to lodge a formal complaint. Think about the option you prefer. Remember that all of them require much strength and energy. We should not judge what someone does in these situations.

Make sure you take time to look at what has happened and make peace with it. Without reliving the past, look back and see what you can learn. Think about what you could have done differently. Focus on the emotions you felt and have now. Consider what you can do to release them. Then let the past go so it has minimal effect on the future.

All this will aid you to review where you are personally. Then think about your organisation and its approach to toxicity. Probably leaders have not systematically dealt with these issues. They are likely to ignore or deny the existence of negativity. How hopeful are you about addressing the negativity?

Coping with toxicity starts with deciding what you want to do. Stay, advocate for decency, or leave? Look at each option, think of how brave and strong you feel, the likelihood of change and the possible outcomes, consider who could support you. Then plan your way forward.

Write what you want for yourself and your life in the future. Imagine it and then identify the steps you need to take to achieve it. We can often forget how important this is amid toxicity. Gather your strengths, remember and note them down. Keep the record safely so you can return to it when needed.

Look at your personal self-care. Revert to the habits you had or think of how you can maintain current ones so that they feed your strengths: eating well and hydrating, looking after your personal and mental health, ensuring you have good personal support, caring for your relationships and supports and maintaining financial stability.

Make a promise to look after yourself. Remember your purpose and vision. Identify what you want to do to cope differently in the toxic environment. And follow through. Above all, please do not forget your own worth. You are a valuable and precious member of our society.

Anna Eliatamby is Director of Healthy Leadership, CIC and author of The Decency Journey Pocketbooks