Hopefully, this will never happen to you. Hopefully, you will spend your career working in supportive environments filled with respect and opportunity. Hopefully, your co-workers will grow to be friends and family, and everyone will be happy forever and look something like these approachably beautiful people with perfect teeth in neutral colors.
But, sadly, there is a very good chance that these people are just paid models specifically chosen to make you feel good about buying life insurance for your pet.
In truth, many of us go to work everyday to places we don’t care about, to work with people who actively demean or undermine us, to places where there is no chance for advancement or development, to places where everyone is unhappy and the gossiping the unhappiness breeds makes everything worse.
I spent nine years in just one of these places.
I spent nine years not getting pay raises. Nine years not getting promotions. Nine years getting more responsibilities without compensation. After achieving my MLIS I was never given professional responsibilities or allowed to make use of my training. I was told, specifically, not to put on my formal evaluations goals befitting a professional librarian, because I was merely a library assistant. I was nearly fired for asking an administrator why a certain issue with student worker paperwork was the library’s responsibility and not human resources’ responsibility. I was hated by the Associate Dean because I used to sing when I was happy. I was hated by other librarians for reasons I was never able to discern.
Those of us who worked in Access Services were more like a platoon than a family. We constantly had our backs to each other to protect the group from the enemy across the building. We got along fine, most of the time, but our affections were limited, and the gossiping that rose from the work environment only made everything harder. Any time a decision got made above us there was no less than thirty minutes of speculation on who this new policy was designed to hurt and why. I got so depressed and demoralized that I was driven to therapy at my university’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to deal with the situation.
The only solution was to remove myself from the situation entirely, which, fortunately I was able to do.
Not everyone can pick and move 1,600 miles, though. Not everyone can escape the situation. What do you do?
Am I In a Toxic Work Environment?
First off, we all have had bad days or jobs we don’t like, but how do we know we’re actually in a toxic work environment?
There does not seem to be a single definition for this term, but here are a few sites that will help you discern the answer to the question.
I like this definition from the Bustle.com article,
A toxic work environment is any that makes you feel uncomfortable, unappreciated, or undervalued. This can range from all out bullying, screaming and talked down to, to more subtle forms of poor communication, setting people up for failure, mismanagement and an air of hostility.
None of the above definitions are identical, but here are some common themes:
- Narcissistic or bully boss.
- Unprofessional or gossipy employees.
- Culture of distrust.
- Sense of personal or professional devaluation.
If any of these characteristics seem familiar to you then you may well be in a toxic work environment.
Now, what do I do about it?
GET OUT: Your basic human value is greater than that situation. If you can’t get out immediately, begin making concrete plans for your own extraction. By concrete, I mean a plan with maps and stuff. Give yourself a goal and a timeline and get to work. You are better than them.
Take care of yourself, first: Self-care is soooo important. Make a special effort to devote whatever energy you have left to doing something you like. Hobbies are tremendously important. If you don’t have a hobby, try something new. This isn’t just about distracting yourself or occupying your time, though. You must eat well, sleep well, and get some exercise, too. All that tension from your toxic job builds up in your body and has serious physical side effects. Do any Google search on the dangers of stress and you’ll see what I mean.
Hug it out with a loved one: You don’t live in a vacuum. You have friends and family that you can trust and who care about you. There is no reason to suffer alone and no reason to suffer in silence. Seek out your loved ones for support. They don’t want you to suffer any more than you do.
Seek professional help: I know! I know! That sounds melodramatic, but the fact is toxic work environments create or exacerbate depression. It may be something that can be handled in a few talk sessions with a therapist, or it may require treatment for serious clinical depression from a Psychiatrist. Learn to recognize the warning signs and what your triggers are. If it is available at your workplace seek out your EAP department, or its equivalent. This is a private option that will not reflect on you professionally, and your employers legally have to allow you access to the service. I made use of this at my last job. While it did not fix the problems, it gave me a safe space to vent my frustrations to a third person who was not emotionally or professionally connected to the situation in any way.
The fact is that there are no easy answers to solving a toxic work environment. Even if the primary cause of the toxicity leaves (or “accidentally” falls off a cruise ship) the damage in his or her wake will likely take years to heal, and may take a wholesale turnover of the toxins’ victims. This is why the single best thing you can do in a toxic work environment is to leave it entirely. Yes, that’s scary and difficult, but is that really worse than willingly entering into Hell forty hours a week? I think you are worth more than that, and I hope you do too.