How to tackle a toxic workplace
A toxic workplace can have a huge impact on people’s wellbeing. With expert insight, we’re identifying the signs of this harmful culture, and sharing the simple life skills that can help transform your ability to approach it
If you raise the subject of toxic workplaces in any group of people, I can guarantee you that at least half will have first-hand experience of a past role where bad company behaviour was the norm, and staff were consistently treated poorly.
Chatting with colleagues brings up plenty of past examples.
From the outright outlandish: “I realised my previous workplace was toxic when the owner of the company walked through the office shouting and swearing at the top of his voice,” to the snide and divisive red flags: “A colleague commented on leaving work on time being ‘nice for some’ (despite my commute being two hours on the train versus their 10-minute stroll).”
And then there’s the non-verbal toxicity: out of hours emails and an expectation of responses in that same time period; lack of opportunities to ask questions and gain clarity over expectations; desk presenteeism; and promoting a culture of unhealthy competition or fear around job security.
But, clearly toxic workplaces are nothing new, given how many people seem all-too-familiar with this detrimental experience – so why is it such a hot topic?
“The time we spent away from the office during the pandemic has really allowed people who worked in those environments to return to their most authentic selves,” life and career elevation coach Carly Ferguson explains. “Being physically away from colleagues has collectively given us space to think our own thoughts and feel our own eelings, which has impacted actions and reactions to career paths, choices, and the return to previous ways of working.”
Listen to Carly's interview on I am. I have
We all know that some companies and institutions have yet to catch up when it comes to healthy, boundried, respectful workplace policy and behaviours. The previous examples are just the tip of the iceberg, and they’re undeniably negative and damaging to staff wellbeing.
Where the topic of toxicity – and it’s more nuanced derivatives – becomes more tricky, is in the murky area between expectations, and employer-employee relationships. Is there a situation where a genuine conflict between business needs, communication styles, skills match, and career ambitions culminate in a toxic circumstance, perhaps?
Helping to create a definition, Carly says: “A toxic workplace can be any work environment, it doesn’t have to be an office, that has a detrimental effect on its employees. That could be [in terms of] their performance and productivity, or their physical, spiritual, and mental health, wellbeing, and happiness.”
And the fact is, toxicity doesn’t just happen to manifest in a business. Individuals within that company contribute to the culture, and the experience of those around them.
“You can only have a toxic workplace if there are toxic behaviours coming from people,” Carly says. “And unknowingly or not, everyone can play a role, whether that’s poor communication, gossiping, or feeding a cycle of negativity.
“It’s important for us all to be self-aware and reflect on how we can manage each work situation in the best, most authentic and professional way possible.”
Regardless of whether we’re part of a world-wide organisation, or a small family-run business, each and every person brings different perspectives and qualities to a workplace, and they’ll perceive their professional interactions and experiences differently, too. Acknowledging this, as well as taking proactive responsibility for our own contributing behaviours, is key, Carly says, to managing our emotions when experiencing professional toxicity.
“My personal opinion is that the sense of a toxic workplace isn’t the same for everybody, and some people will be more affected than others. However for most people, being in a toxic workplace, dealing with a toxic situation or colleague, is unavoidable at some point in their life. So for me, the question is how can you prepare for it, if it is inevitable?”
Being aware of what a healthy work environment looks like to you, and what behaviours or situations might be triggering, can enable you to identify and try to address an issue before it escalates. Is it high staff turnover signposting deep-rooted issues? Or perhaps it’s burnout from prolonged stress? Is it a lack of communication, support, or growth opportunities? Is it unrealistic expectations weighing on your shoulders, or a specific individual/group of people whose comments make you uncomfortable? While the contributing factors may vary, the overall feeling you’re often left with is Sunday-night anxiety, dreading the working week.
If you find yourself in this situation, it can feel really isolating, and sometimes like a personal attack. But before going down that route, Carly suggests trying to remain objective to understand why this is happening.
“We all have our own ‘manual’ of how people are ‘supposed’ to behave, which is how we would behave in a situation – but everyone else has their own manuals, their own life experiences, and insecurities, too.”
This means that, in some scenarios, your colleagues or employers may be oblivious to the toxic culture, or unaware of the impact of their behaviour. It may be entirely unintentional.
“With this in mind, try not to label or judge people,” Carly says. “My advice would be that it’s important to honour people’s differences and personal circumstances.”
But, of course, unintentional or not, the fact that a toxic workplace has been created needs to be addressed. As daunting as it may sometimes feel, the best course of action is always to speak up for yourself – nothing can change otherwise.
“Firstly, I would say engage with all the avenues open to you, including speaking up, talking to HR, chatting with friends, focusing on what brings you joy outside of work, counselling, engaging a life coach if possible, and considering moving jobs. However, leaving a role doesn’t necessarily fix something. You might really love your job, so it’s important to take time to think about your next steps.”
Carly also suggests working on your all-round wellbeing, in particular your nervous system, but acknowledges that this can be hard when you’re feeling low.
“You need to get to a point where you can physically and mentally handle the situation you’re in. That could involve practising yoga or anything that strengthens your navel and your core, so you can literally stand up for yourself,” Carly says.
“Breathwork can also be hugely helpful, as can cold showers and cold water swimming. These activities all build up your nervous system.”
At the end of the day, we spend a lot of time at work, and deserve to feel safe, supported, and have our boundaries respected, whatever role we’re in.
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For more career advice, visit lifecoach-directory.org.uk