How people cope in toxic workplaces

How do you cope when your 9 to 5 is genuinely toxic?

Most people have experienced working in a toxic environment, and cite this as a cause of stress.

A recent study is behind the deflating news, and other research shows one in 10 blame work stress on their boss or colleagues.

Being in a toxic workplace can take its toll, especially as work occupies most of the day for those in full-time employment.

These are the stories of Metro.co.uk readers who tried to cope in these environments and how they did it.

Looking outside of work

‘Plenty of people in the small team I worked in knew how much of an absurd place to work it was, which made it a bit more bearable,’ says Sean*, 33. ‘Then I worked as a DJ and promoter at a few clubs, which made it all feel less important.

‘Finally, my church was almost literally a second family, which helped keep everything in perspective.

‘Thankfully I managed to leave to pursue a masters degree, and knowing I could do that eventually gave me a bit of hope, but the long hours and low pay made summoning the energy to even do applications difficult – I was on the minimum wage for a 40 hour a week job, and then additionally we were required to work every other Saturday.’

Finding solidarity with co-workers

Anna*, 26, says: ‘What got me through was my immediate team. There were only four of us and we were all the same age.

‘At times it felt like it was us against the world and we often had to band together and deal with the tough times as one unit.

‘They were a genuine support system, and I wouldn’t have lasted as long in the job if it weren’t for them.

‘We were all there for each other in equal measure. And to know we were all feeling the same way was a blessing. If you can find that backing, hold onto it because it will help you through.

‘Sometimes it can be hard to leave jobs because of money and losing that sense of security, and I suppose I stayed as long as I did because of that.

‘In the industry I was in, full-time roles are few and far between, so I felt if I left, I’d lose my spot on the career ladder. However, this is no reason to stay in a job that fills you with anxiety.

‘In the end, I was given an out. The business was looking for people to take redundancies and while the option was there for me to remain, I decided to leave. The moment I did, a weight was lifted off my shoulders.’

Trying to rise above it

‘I tried to ignore the toxicity, but every time the other colleagues would leave the workspace a verbally abusive person at work would start filling my head with stuff trying to get me on their side,’ says Jessie*, 28.

‘I did tell the manager but they dismissed it and took no action as the abusive colleague made a complaint about the manager too. So I started looking for a new job and left within months.’

Keeping the end goal in sight

‘I focused on the end goal of the organisation and what I could achieve from by being there,’ says Claire, from Islington.

‘But I then decided that I was managing problems that stemmed from poor and weak leadership and HR so the issue was endemic – I could solve this one problem but these problems would always be there. I thought my impact on the company would be very limited, so decided to go.’

Looking after mental health

Kelly, a business coach: ‘There were healthy and unhealthy coping strategies – yoga, lots of walking, my PA only accepting meetings where there was an agenda, spending as much time as I could with my team to keep them motivated and positive, planning my days in advance, lots of breathing and grounding techniques. 

‘But there was also a lot of alcohol, a lot of excessive spending – if I looked good I felt good – a lot of late nights and missed meals, and a lot of headache tablets.

‘I’d almost hyperventilate at the thought of some people.  Some leaders would bully their team members and others would excuse the bullying behaviours of their teams.’

Getting professional mental help

‘At the time, if I am honest I didn’t cope well,’ Elle, a freelance PR consultant says. ‘I felt crippling anxiety and I became incredibly worried about every action I was taking.

‘I can honestly say that the best decision I made was speaking to a GP. I was terrified about it but I wish I could tell myself then what I know now: “This will be the best thing you ever do”.

‘I was worried that the GP would think it was a classic case of me putting too much pressure on myself and that my working environment was fine but she recognised the signs straight away.’

Reconnecting to yourself

‘I moved out of London to a lovely cottage in Hertfordshire and re-ignited my love of riding by loaning a horse – it made me remember who I was and I didn’t have to be around toxic nastiness,’ says Rhiannon, Garnet PR founder.

‘Having grown up in the countryside it helped me to establish my roots again and think about what truly made me happy and for me this was nature. That saved me and kept me sane, my workplace was the root of horrendous panic attacks but just remember who you are at that work does not define you.’

Going to HR

Hannah*, an operations executive, tells us: ‘I originally went to HR with some of the issues, but sadly nothing changed so I ended up putting in my notice. No job or company is worth putting yourself in a toxic environment. Life is too short.’

Leaving

‘I had just come out of a 15 month stint in hospital due to anorexia and was broadly okay, and after a few months in this workplace was critical again, so I left,’ says Francesca, 34.

Jane* adds: ‘My boss was unbelievably unsympathetic about my struggles with being a single mum during lockdown and battling with home schooling. As a result I left my job of six years to set up my own company.’

An expert’s tips for getting through a toxic workplace

Marcus Thornley, CEO and founder of Play Consulting, tells us you should:

  • Look for support from likeminded colleagues as ‘it’s easy to fall into the trap of keeping to yourself, believing that the rest of your colleagues have nothing to offer but drama’. It’ll make you feel less alone and it’ll make going to any further support systems – like HR – easier as a collective.
  • Really value your work-life balance, particularly when work has become toxic. It can be hard to let worries of work go, so plan nice things outside of your working hours so there is some respite from the situation. ‘Whether this is done by spending time with non-work friends or engaging with a hobby, this will help you fight the commotion of your workday,’ he says.
  • Remember the workplace isn’t a reflection of you. ‘Hostile work environments are often filled with people who are manipulative, disparaging, and egotistical. Over time, the constant undermining, passive aggressive behaviour and lackluster leadership will take their toll, and you could find yourself doubting your own ability. Remind yourself of how good an employee you are.’
  • Use this experience as a building block for figuring out ‘what you’ll never want to do in the future’ as you move onto new ventures.
  • Make the time to find a new job. ‘Your sanity of mind is the most important thing in life, and no role should sacrifice that,’ he says.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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