It’s no secret that we live in an overly competitive world. This competitive culture affects almost every aspect of our lives, from our morning commutes to our school systems, and even our dating lives. But one area it affects more than others is our work lives and workspaces. The competitive, production-oriented work culture we operate in has transformed some of our workspaces into nerve-wracking, rigid environments that can be tough to navigate. Sometimes things get so bad that we might even feel like we’re suffocating. This kind of workspace feels so stressful that it affects our daily lives and well-being. In such cases, this kind of an environment isn’t just stressful — it’s toxic. It’s therefore important to know how to survive it, navigate it and when to get out.
Let’s start by defining what a toxic workspace is. A toxic workspace is an environment where dysfunction and drama rein. Whether due to a hot-headed boss, vindictive coworkers, gossips, or maddening levels of disorganization, a toxic work space is hard to survive in. There’s constant pressure to achieve more and work more, either from the top down or through peer pressure. This weighs its employees down and demotivates them, even if they like what they do and want to do well. Such an environment kills productivity and creativity. It stresses us out so much that we end up not wanting to go to work in the morning, and then at the end of the day it makes us carry that stress back home with us.
When we’re in this type of an environment, the best thing that we can do for ourselves is to get out. But sometimes, that’s just not a possibility. Whether it’s because our current role may benefit our overall career plans, future career promises, or financial issues, sometimes we find that we’re stuck where we are job-wise. For the time being, we may have to stay at the job.. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be miserable. Oftentimes whatever unhappiness we’re experiencing is caused just as much by our reaction to the situation as the situation itself. We may be stuck in a toxic environment, but we can choose to how we react to it. We can choose to change our outlook, find positive aspects of the experience, and not let the environment we’re in get the best of us.
The first step is to ask yourself some questions. For better or worse, you’re currently in the occupation you’ve chosen. You’re also unfortunately currently stuck in a toxic workspace. Given how the environment you’re in is affecting you and possibly your work, now might be a good time to question your motives: Do you like what you do, despite the far-from-ideal work conditions you’re in? What motivates you to do the work that you do? What are you unhappy about in your workplace? Is there anything you can do to improve the situation you’re in? If not, are you able to move on to a new place? If you’re unable to move on to somewhere new at the moment, what can you do to change your outlook on the situation? What can you grow to accept for the time being so that you can improve your days in the long run?
In a toxic environment, it can often feel as though you’re surrounded by negativity. This is why it’s important to have a safe space for yourself that you can go to seek comfort and solitude for a few moments. Such a place be very useful for you both when you need a comforting environment and when you’re reflecting on questions about your occupation, purpose in life, and workplace. Trying to make big decisions for the future, like whether or not you want to stay in your current occupation or whether or not you can do anything about the situation you’re in, can be very scary. The uncertainty of the future only adds to this. But we can’t allow ourselves to panic and spiral out of control. Sometimes we just need to get out of our head, think things through calmly and with our entire hearts. A safe space can be the perfect place to do this, especially in moments when we feel overwhelmed or like we’re about to start spiraling.
If you have a desk, cubicle, or office, you can decorate it with personal items that make you feel safe or loved. Surrounding yourself with photographs, drawings, or small baubles — like a drawing from your children or cards from loved ones — can help remind you that your work life isn’t your whole life. These objects will also remind you of all the positive things you have in life despite where you’re stuck in the present moment. They can therefore be something that grounds you throughout the day, especially when it feels like work is all-consuming.
If you don’t have a space you can make your own like this, you can still seek a safe space where you can be alone with your thoughts during the day. A café near your workplace for lunch, going for a walk around the building, or the roof of the building you’re in… Finding space away from the negative environment will help support a more positive state of mind.
It’s incredibly important to take a short break for yourself whenever you feel that the toxicity of the workplace is getting to you. When work stress is too much, when your vindictive coworkers are bothering you, when your boss is in an especially irritable mood — whatever the cause of your anxiety is, lean back in your chair and take a deep breath. Do some breathing exercises or meditate for a couple of minutes. Remind yourself that this moment will pass and that you will not be here forever. Remind yourself of all the good things in your life and list the things you’re grateful for. Pay attention to your heart rate and breathing, observe your thoughts and try to see when negative patterns emerge. Remember that you are not these thoughts or the environment you’re in. You are you, valuable and whole, and no one can ever take that away from you.
The way we perceive the world around us is a conscious choice. We can choose to focus on the negative around us, which is exceedingly easy in a toxic environment, or we can choose to focus on the positive. Remind yourself to take note of the positive. Don’t pass those moments by. If you do, you might miss the chance to make friends with someone who’s experiencing the same things you are and who might understand and support you. You can even overlook something as simple as how beautiful the sunset is that night. Enjoy what you can, when you can, right there, in the moment.
While you shouldn’t carry work drama with you, you also shouldn’t bottle up your frustrations either. Finding someone to talk and vent to, such as a spouse, a friend or even a parent can help immensely. Keeping a journal and taking your aggravations out on the page can also be very therapeutic. Just be sure that you don’t keep carrying your troubles with you once you’ve let them out of your system. Air out your mind, but don’t let what’s happening at work cloud over the rest of your life.
Odds are, you’re not the only person at work who feels upset or frustrated. Look for like-minded friends that you can share these experiences with. Support each other when you need to, but be sure not to engage in office gossip. Because while gossip may feel like you’re getting revenge for the pain that’s been inflicted on you, it’ll only aggravate your frustrations instead of alleviating them. By the end of gossiping, you might find yourself even more worked up than you’d been to begin with. What’s more, whatever you say in the office might get back to exactly the wrong people.
While you might be stuck in a toxic workplace right now, it’s important to remember that things will not always be like this. You might not be able to leave the place you’re in right now for all sorts of reasons, such as financial ones. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan for a better future. Remember when you were asking yourself the question “Why did I choose to do the work that I do?” and “Why am I in this occupation?” In doing so, you were effectively questioning your motivations, that is, you were naming what motivates you to do the work that you do. What is it that drives you? What are you most passionate about in your work? What brings you joy when you’re working? Meditating further on questions like these will help you realize the passion that fuels your work.
Once you do that, you can start planning where you want to be in a year, 5 years or even 10 years. You might be stuck in a negative environment right now. But remind yourself that this isn’t permanent, and that it is allowing you to walk the path that you want to walk. We cannot plan every step of our lives. What we can do is embrace its ups and downs, and trust in life. What we can do is take everything beneficial we can get out of the situation that we’re in, accumulate the experiences that we need to live the professional life that we want, and recognize when it’s time to move on.
In the meantime, we can look around our environment to find the things that we can grow to accept. We can be mindful about our emotions and needs, and understand when we need to take action on them — be that confronting an unpleasant work situation or getting ready to move on somewhere else. The funny thing about life is that it puts the most unexpected opportunities before us without us realizing it. By being more mindful of our emotions and taking action concerning them, we can become aware of these opportunities and then take advantage of them. This might not be as easy as it sounds: in fact, it can be downright terrifying, but you never know what awaits you around the next corner. If we learn to embrace this simple fact, we can learn to move forward in our lives, professional or otherwise, without being mired down by the negative environments we may find ourselves in.