Toxic Work Environments (and How to Detox Them)

By February 26, 2018For Talent

Toxic work environments are sometimes hard to describe accurately. It can involve anything from bullying to big egos to ongoing drama between clashing personalities. Other times, toxic work environments can be caused by a detached organisation that isn’t interested in developing its employees.

Working in a dysfunctional workplace is tough. However, for a lot of people, leaving a job isn’t always the immediate solution. It could be that someone is holding out for a new opportunity in a different department, or simply haven’t found the next job to transition to. If you need to stay put for now, here are some points to consider.

What you can change and what you can’t

There’s that old saying that hope is the last thing to die. In work, we often subconsciously hope things will change for the better. That a manager will suddenly come into work filled with calm, good manners, efficiency and a sense of fun. Not unlike how Scrooge was visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the three ghosts, then wakes up a reformed person. In contrast to the Charles Dickens novel, people generally do not come into work after having had a complete and sudden personality make-over.

In this case, acceptance is better than hope. If you can accept that certain difficulties are happening in work, it is possible to do something about them. If you are hoping that things will change, you risk becoming passive and disappointed.

Take out a sheet of paper and start sorting through the issues one by one. Put them into a “what I can change” and “what I can’t change” category. You can’t change personalities or other people, but you can change how you react to them.

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Your attitude matters

So, the hard question is: Are you, unbeknownst to yourself contributing to a negative work environment? When a working environment has become dysfunctional, we mobilise our subconscious defense systems. The role of these systems is survival. Cynicism, for example, is a way to detach from people or situations that hurt us. It is the opposite of being naïve and gullible, which is where we can get hurt. Cynicism and pessimism are highly contagious. It can lower the workplace temperature to icy.

What negative workplace attitudes may have crept into your life? If they are not serving you or your environment well, is it time to let go of them? Mindless negative thinking rarely benefits anyone.

The workplace detox
Showing leadership isn’t always about working towards a leadership position. You can show leadership by inspiring others to follow your lead. If your workplace has become toxic, go back to your list (see above) and have a think about what you can influence in work, as opposed to all the things you can’t.

Starting a lunchtime walking group, for example, costs nothing and will bring positivity into a stagnant environment. Setting up a charity event helps people connect with a meaningful purpose and shifts the focus on to something other than work. Many small initiatives can lead to bigger things. The aim should be inclusion and fun which can counterbalance a negative culture.

Self-Care Outside Work
If you need to stay put in your job for a little while longer, consider applying self-care strategies every day to build up your psychological core strength. A good routine for taking care of yourself should involve a bit of exercise (of your choice). This will burn off the accumulation of stress hormones and hopefully allow you to sleep better.

Apart from that, getting creative is good for stimulating other parts of the brain. It shifts the focus away from the negative and can help tap into the brain’s reward centre. So, if it’s building miniature train sets, baking, gardening or carpentry, find your creative mojo and get cracking.

Annika is a Counselling Psychologist and Coach with an interest in psychology in the workplace. She sees clients for coaching and therapy in her private practice at MindSmart.


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