Surviving a Toxic Workplace
/ Author: Audrey Wilkinson
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Surviving a Toxic Workplace

By Audrey Wilkinson, CLAC Representative

Many of us spend at least half of our waking hours getting to and from, or being at work. It is important to our health and well-being that the place we devote so much time to is healthy and productive. 

Unfortunately for so many people, work can be a really dysfunctional and damaging place. All workplaces fall somewhere on the spectrum of health to toxic. You can find out where yours falls by taking a toxic workplace quiz

How to tell you’re in a toxic workplace

Big Boss/Little People
The boss has a different set of rules than everyone else. There is a spoken or unspoken rule that you never question authority. It is understood that you are either with the boss or against them. Employees are a means to an end—and in really difficult scenarios, employees are considered to be tools rather than humans.

Moving Target
There is a lack of clarity around expectations, what it takes to succeed in your role. It may be that a clear job description has not been provided, or what you were told is your responsibility is changed often without your knowledge. There is a sense that the target is always moving or the carpet is being pulled out from under you at regular intervals. 

The Water Cooler is Poisoned
I don’t mean your boss has spiked the water supply—that is a whole other level of crazy! I mean that instead of catching up at the water cooler about your family or the latest episode of Game of Thrones, your coworkers use their time together to spread negativity and gossip. There is a cultural tolerance—and sometimes even encouragement—for incivility and hurtfulness or bullying.

Playing Favourites
This is one of the easiest to see and what most people have concerns about. This is when one person or group of people have unfair treatment or opportunities that are not equally provided to everyone else. A common example is when one person is given a promotion that was never posted and no one else is given the same opportunity in the same position. Or, when one coworker is allowed to come and go at will when everyone else is expected to be at their workstations from 9-6 minus two bathroom breaks and one lunch per day.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
There is a consistent and pervasive lack of alignment between what is said and what is done. For example, your company may say, “We value our employees’ input and want feedback to make our processes more efficient,” but in reality, your opinion is not welcome unless you’ve worked there for more than a year, or there is no way to provide feedback without backlash from management. 

Another example is your workplace saying, “We value work-life balance,” when in reality, you are expected to work long hours, take calls and emails during your time off, or come in to work at the drop of a hat when you’re not scheduled to be there. 

Devoting your time, energy, and effort to a toxic work environment can be draining at best and physically and psychologically harmful at worst. 

How to survive

Set Healthy Boundaries
When you’re off the clock, make sure you’re not keeping tabs at work. Turn off the work phone, don’t look at Facebook posts or Instagram accounts from your coworkers. Leave it at the door. Be clear that when you’re on holiday, you’re not available for calls or questions.

Practice Self Care
Do your best to get proper sleep and eat healthy. Spend time with people or do activities that bring you joy and provide you support. Our ability to cope with stressful situations is directly related to how well our body and mind are functioning. Setting up all your internal health defenses can help negate the daily stress caused by a toxic work environment.

Provide Solutions
One very important thing you have to do is figure out what must change for you to stay, and consider the likelihood and what it would take for that change to occur. Once you are clear on that, you can raise the issue with your boss in a proactive and positive manner. 

For example, say your “must change” is that there must be clear expectations of your work. This can easily be changed by providing a clear job description and having set goals for your year. You know your boss is not the greatest, but you feel you can approach him or her with your ideas. Set a meeting time where you won’t be interrupted and explain your desire for a clear job description and provide some goals you think appropriate to your role. Pay close attention to how your boss receives your input. If you are blown off or he/she is disrespectful, this is likely not a place where change can occur easily.

Go Above the Boss
If you are not getting anywhere with your boss, go to your union representative (it’s one of the reasons we’re here!) If you’re not in a union, go to HR or your boss’ boss. 

If these don’t help or things get worse, then you need to plan your exit strategy:

Build an Emergency Fund
Money is one of the key reasons why people stay in toxic environments. It’s helpful to have three to six months of expenses saved up. This gives you the freedom to leave a situation that is harmful without the financial worry of how you are going to feed yourself. If you don’t have an emergency fund, start saving now. If you need help, there’s lots of information on the Internet on how to save money quickly. 

Bridge Over Troubled Waters
If your situation is particularly bad, you may want to just leave and get a bridging or temporary job that allows you to pay your basic bills but gives you the mental space to focus on your next career move. It’s important to realize that even if this job pays less than the one you’re leaving, it’s still a step away from a destructive environment, and a step toward better things.

Reframe Your Experience
One concern many people have when leaving a toxic workplace is what they’re going to say in a job interview when asked why they left their last place of employment. It’s important to understand that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with leaving a toxic workplace! It’s also important to treat that exit professionally when presenting yourself to a potential new employer.

For example, you could say: “I worked for Company X for three years with a focus on providing positive physical support for seniors. Recently, the goals of the company changed and it became clear that my role would change significantly. I really want to keep helping with hands-on physical support for seniors, so it was time for me to find a place where I could continue to do that work.”

Change is hard, but life is too short and our well-being too important to spend the majority of our waking hours in a toxic workplace.

As Zig Ziegler says: “Your current situation does not have to be your final destination. The best is yet to come!” 

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