7 Tips for Dealing with a Toxic Work Environment

toxic work cat

According to a 2019 study by the American Psychological Association, toxicity in the workplace is not only on the rise, but it’s also hugely detrimental to employees’ mental health. How? Per another study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden, over the past 20 years, toxic work environments have contributed to increased depression, substance abuse and other health issues. The bottom line is, toxic workplaces are unpleasant and unhealthy. But short of quitting your job and finding another (which is the right move in certain situations), there are thankfully ways to mitigate the stress caused by working in a toxic office. Here are seven tips for dealing with a toxic work environment.

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1. Don’t Stoop to a Toxic Colleague’s Level

Helps with toxic bad-mouthing

In other words, don’t reward bad behavior. When your teammate starts ragging on your shared manager’s propensity for dipping out 45 minutes early, don’t bite the gossip bullet and jump in (we know—it can be tempting). Instead, offer a neutral response and pivot to a new subject. Once they realize you won’t take part in her bad-mouthing bouts, they’ll probably start looking to do it elsewhere (aka with a receptive audience). Hopefully, your dismissal will also signal that her behavior is not normal. Or nice. Or appreciated.

2. Leave Your Work Stress at the Door

Helps with creating boundaries in your work-life balance

It’s one thing to occasionally vent to your partner or roommate about how much work is killing you; it’s another to make it the centerpiece of every conversation. Be conscious of how often you’re talking about your job around your loved ones and make sure the majority of your conversations are about things other than your conniving desk mate or micromanaging boss. Not only will the people around you get tired of hearing about your work woes (even though they do want the best for you), it’s not healthy to dwell on things you can’t control. It’s all about balance, people.

3. Seek Out Positive Co-Workers

Helps with creating a more positive environment

Even if it seems like everyone you work with is toxic in one way or another, chances are there are at least a few people who are feeling the same way as you are. If you notice a colleague facing the same issues that they are, try to gauge how they’re feeling about the situation without gossiping (which will just backfire). Once you establish that you’re on the same page, you’ll be able to lean on each other and commiserate.

4. Practice How to Confront

Helps with highly stressful, one-on-one interactions

If tensions have reached a tipping point, it may be time to address the issue head on. In stressful situations, it’s often difficult to get out all the things you want to say, so practice first on a close friend who’s familiar with the situation. Running through your points ahead of time (your boss is always asking too much of you, your superior is constantly taking credit for your ideas, etc.) will help you retain your monologue, feel more confident and ultimately be more effective in your delivery.

5. Build Trust

Helps with micromanagers

The problem with a micromanager boss is that it pits two very basic human neuropsychological needs against each other: our need for autonomy and their need for control. Navigating this tension is all about building trust. You won’t get autonomy until they get their certainty. In order to gain trust from a micromanager, you have to provide them with the things they crave the most: information, inclusion and, yes, control. Resisting that—or being sloppy about the details—will only aggravate the situation.

Here are some tactics to try: First, try to anticipate their needs. The more you learn about their expectations, the more you can proactively address them, removing the need for them to micromanage. Second, communicate clearly and keep them overly informed. This means providing regular updates, plus status and progress reports before your boss asks for them. Keep in mind, this could be as simple as a daily email that lists all your projects and their status or CC-ing them when relevant. Finally, do your best to adopt their standards. You want to align your work to their preferences and learn what markers of quality your boss wants/needs, then deliver on them. (This also may require assessing yourself and looking for any trouble spots that are preventing your boss from trusting you.

6. Leave Your Job or Change Departments

Helps with unsolvable toxic situations

Thanks to uncertain job markets and financial responsibilities, quitting your job in favor of one that will be healthier for you isn’t always an option. But, if you are able to think about finding a new company, it’s worth considering. Even if now isn’t the right time to make a move, it can never hurt to keep your future options open by mastering the art of networking. Here are some tips for expanding (or maintaining) your professional network whether you’re stifled by the pandemic or you’re an introvert for whom networking feels nightmarish. Note that this doesn't have to mean leaving your company altogether; sometimes just changing departments or teams can work wonders in terms of removing yourself from a toxic environment. If there's another department you're interested in, put feelers out to see if there's a place for you. You can even spin the reason you're switching teams to make it seem like it was your narcissistic boss's great idea. 

7. Find Ways to Relieve Stress Outside of Work

Helps your general mental health

If leaving your job isn’t an option at the moment, it’s important to make sure that your life outside of work—something have more control over—is fulfilling. This could mean scheduling a vent session with a friend in a similarly toxic job, picking up a soothing hobby like yoga or prioritizing self-care (post-work bath, anyone?). The point is to ensure that, even though your 9-to-5 might be super frustrating, you have something to look forward to once you clock out every day.

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...