Career Advice

How To Handle a Toxic Work Environment

By: Emily Totura
Oct 1, 2021 • 5 min read

How To Handle a Toxic Work Environment

At some point in your career, you’ll probably end up feeling dissatisfied with your job to some extent, and this could be for many reasons. The culture and environment of the workplace might not be suitable for you, or maybe you’re starting to realize that this role isn’t a good fit for you. Regardless, it can be difficult to feel motivated to get your work done when you feel this way—especially when you aren’t quite ready to leave yet. While eventually, it might be a good idea to explore other options, you don’t have to suffer in the meantime! In this article, we’ll share with you some ways to handle any less-than-ideal work environment.

How do you know if you’re in a toxic work environment?

Every single job has some kind of stress, even on the best days. However, if you dread going to work each day and it makes you feel depressed or exhausted, these are some red flags that you might be working in a toxic environment. By definition, a toxic work environment is one where you feel that the work, atmosphere, and/or people negatively affect you. If you often have sleepless nights, feel vigilant all the time, have sweaty hands or have a racing heart that never seems to stop, then these are some physical signs that you’re working in a toxic environment.

Keep in mind that this is different for each person. What’s toxic for you might not be toxic for someone else. For example, someone who loves people and hates desk jobs would most likely thrive in a sales job, whereas someone who might not love interacting with people and prefer to work at a computer might feel overwhelmed in this job. As you begin to assess if your work environment is healthy or not, ask yourself:

  • Am I getting enough sleep and sleeping through the night?
  • What are my eating habits like? Do I feel too stressed to eat, or am I overeating?
  • Do I feel safe at home and work?

After reflecting, if you have any concerns, then it might be a good time to assess your work to see what the root of this problem is. Understanding what triggers you are important. When you understand specifically what is making you unhappy, it makes it easier to cope and handle these toxic environments. Each person is different, and therefore, each approach is different.

Once you’ve identified where you’re struggling, there are many steps that you can take to get through the workday a little bit easier. Remember to have patience. Some tips might work better than others, and incorporate them into your routine slowly—the last thing you want to do is overwhelm yourself more.

man in blue dress shirt sitting on rolling chair inside room with monitors

Try to identify what specifically is bothering you

Before you begin, you need to understand what is making your work environment toxic for you. Are you struggling to get along with one of your coworkers? Do you feel that your hard work isn’t appreciated? Are you unhappy with the commute and location of your office? When you know what affects you, it can be easier to find a solution. For example, let’s say you hate the commute and location of your office. Maybe going to bed an hour earlier will help you wake up more easily and be refreshed in the morning. Maybe finding a cute cafe by your office to grab a coffee before work will make you feel more motivated to hop in your car each morning for that commute.

Or, let’s say you don’t get along with a coworker because they can be condescending when you try to talk to them. Once you identify this, you might realize that you tend to be more irritable towards others after encountering them. Taking a lap around the office or doing some independent work for a little bit might help you cool down. Yes, this won’t magically fix all of your problems, but it will help. Remember, start small.

Don’t stoop to your coworker’s level

Also known as don’t reward bad behavior, stooping to someone else’s toxic level won’t make you feel better. Instead, it continues to create a negative atmosphere for everyone. Even people who love their job probably wouldn’t thrive in an environment like this. When you hear a colleague complaining about how your manager’s last-minute decision to leave early, don’t feed into the office gossip. It can be tempting when you want to blow off steam, but it’s never worth it. You don’t want to gain a bad reputation. Once your coworkers realize you aren’t interested, they’ll end up finding other people to gossip with that’s away from you.

 Try not to bring your work stress home with you

You signed a contract to work a certain number of hours. It’s normal to vent about work to your friends, but it shouldn’t be the focus of all of your conversations. Be conscious of your conversations and make sure that all of your conversations aren’t about your manipulative manager or sneering coworker. Not only will the people around you get sick of hearing you talk about work all the time, but it isn’t healthy either. Try not to obsess over things that are out of your control. It’s all about having a good balance.

If you find yourself thinking about work a lot when your home, try new activities to get your mind off of it. If all else fails, put on a movie or throw some headphones in—you don’t have to be left alone with your thoughts. Oftentimes, this conscious effort can have a huge impact on your mental health. When you leave work, it’s your time, so don’t let your work consume you.

 Don’t spiral, and try to remain positive

Mind over matter. When we’re under a lot of stress, it’s human nature to make problems worse than they are. Whenever you feel yourself worrying about work, try to breathe and relax. Worrying about things out of your control won’t do anything but make yourself sick. Instead, find ways to relieve your stress so that you feel more positive. If you start your day off with a bad attitude, you won’t have a good day.

 Find positive coworkers to surround yourself with

Even if you think that everyone you work with is toxic, there are probably at least a few other people who feel similar to the way that you do. Instead of isolating yourself, pay attention to your coworkers. If you see someone who might be struggling, try to see how they’re feeling—without gossiping or overstepping. When you find people in the same environment that can relate to you, it makes it easier knowing that someone understands you. This doesn’t mean that your coworkers have to become your best friend, but you don’t have to struggle alone and in silence.

man in orange dress shirt talking and sitting in front of woman on brown sofa

Build trust and learn how to speak up

The issue with people who micromanage boils down to the need for autonomy and control. While this might present some tension and miscommunication, building trust is a fundamental step in navigating these kinds of relationships. To develop this trust, you need to satisfy their needs: information and control. First, try to identify what their needs are. As you learn more about what they expect from you, it will be easier to be proactive so that they don’t need to micromanage you. You also need to communicate clearly with them, which is important for building trust in any relationship. You can never inform these people too much, so make sure to send regular updates.

However, no matter how hard you try, there still might be tension at times. While it can be difficult to address the problem as soon as it arises, the longer you wait, the more problematic it will become. Take the time to think about what you want to say, and then practice saying it out loud. If this doesn’t work, remember that it’s okay to reach out to other people. There might be other managers within the larger team that can offer you some assistance and guidance.

Find more ways to alleviate stress outside of and at work

If you’re unable to leave your job right now, then it’s even more crucial that you feel satisfied in your personal life. This means something different to everyone. Maybe you want to set up a weekly phone call with a friend, join an exercise class, or start a new book. Even if you don’t look forward to going to work each day, that doesn’t mean you can’t have something to look forward to before or after work.

With that being said, you can still find ways to reduce stress at work as well. It might be more peaceful to work with your headphones in (if you’re allowed to), or maybe you want to take a quick walk during your lunch breaks. In toxic environments, it’s easy to get caught up in everything around you. Take time each day to focus on yourself to maintain your stress levels. We all feel stressed even in healthy environments, so taking time for yourself throughout the day is key.

Focus on what you need to get done

Work is work. You don’t always have to be best friends with everyone or put in extra hours that you won’t be accommodated for. The days can get very long when your stretch yourself too far trying to please everyone. This doesn’t mean you can be rude to your coworkers or slack off, but there is only so much time in one day. Make sure that you’re aware of what the expectations are, and create a plan for each day to get it all done. If you feel like you still have too much work that you’re responsible for, have a conversation with your manager. If that doesn’t work, keep going up the chain. Work is stressful, but you shouldn’t feel panicked.

Try to solve the problems

Before you give up and accept that there’s nothing you can do, see if you can come up with any solutions. Sometimes the smallest changes can make a huge difference. If you feel like you’ve tried your hardest to fix the environment around you, speak up. When you don’t voice your concerns, no one knows how you’re feeling, and therefore, they won’t be able to help you.

person holding pencil near laptop computer

Keep it in perspective

At the end of the day, remember that this is just a job. You don’t have to work there for the rest of your career, and it doesn’t define you. Having a bad job is important for career growth and character development. When you have other team members that make it difficult to come into work, now you know what kind of coworker you don’t want to be. And when you move on to your next job, it will feel that much more rewarding.

Remember, it’s not all on you

When we have a lot to handle, we tend to get more sensitive to things. Just because your manager is having a bad day, that doesn’t mean it’s your responsibility to make them feel better. If you see that a colleague might need some extra help and you have some spare time, offer them an extra hand. Just make sure you aren’t stretching yourself too thin—your mental wellbeing the work you’re responsible for are the most important.

 Remember to take care of yourself

A lot of people feel bad when they take a break that they’re supposed to take. Taking a break, even if it’s just for a little bit, is extremely important. Even a healthy environment can become toxic if you’re in it for too long. So, take advantage of your breaks, and don’t feel guilty if you need to stretch your legs.

Once you get home, the self-care shouldn’t stop there. Take time to wind down, get enough sleep, and maybe even take a bath or do a face mask while you’re at it. Whatever it may be, take the time to care for yourself and to give yourself a break.

Don’t keep it bottled up inside

Yes, you shouldn’t talk about work all the time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it at all. Even people who love their job still have things to complain about. Maybe once a week when you call a friend, designate ten or so minutes to rant. If this doesn’t help, you could consider talking to a professional. It can also be therapeutic to keep a journal to jot your feelings down in. Keeping your problems locked up inside will only make things worse. Find some outlets to let out these feelings.

group of people using laptop computer

Focus on your goals, and don’t be afraid of the next step in your career

We spend a lot of our time working, so it’s easy to become consumed in our job. However, it shouldn’t control you. You never signed a binding contract for life, so it’s okay to explore different career paths. You can also take your time with this. As you work in your current environment, make a note of what you like and dislike. Even if you aren’t in a position to change jobs yet, it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye out for something in the future. You also don’t have to switch companies. If it isn’t the whole organization as a whole that’s toxic, you can try to work with HR to get transferred to a different department.

Give yourself some credit

It can be challenging to stay grounded. Sometimes, even after we accomplish a huge goal, we’re already thinking about the next one. Give yourself credit for how hard you worked and for your resilience to stay at a job that doesn’t make you happy. The work environment might be toxic, but that doesn’t mean it has to take away from your experience and all that you’ve accomplished.

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