5 Painfully Honest Things I Learned From Working In Toxic Offices

This can go two ways. You stay at your job and stay miserable. You stay at your job but look for jobs. Which way works best? You guessed it.

When our country is disrupted and divided by opposing political views, in-fighting, and the reality of a sexist, racist, xenophobic President-elect, it can be hard to work through our personal stressors. Worse still, it can be hard to handle personal stressors while the country’s problems at large literally validate and normalize what we deal with in our private lives. America’s sickness isn’t just a distraction — America’s sickness is, as of today, a permission for abuse, hatred, and fear. It’s a hard time to find courage and self-love. But it’s the exact time we need both. 

The thing is, it’s a lot like a toxic workplace, where you may feel powerless to speak up or ask for retribution. Things that are literally unfair or wrong go unproven and unseen. You stay quiet for a paycheck; you don’t fight back when your sustenance or your family’s insurance is on the line. Your only revolt comes in the form of gossip or leaving early — and even then, anything you do puts you at risk. You might turn to writing Glassdoor reviews, but even those are swept under the rug by other “featured” reviews, written by higher-ups or their favorites. And those reviews tell lies. 

Of course, not every workplace is like this. Some are genuinely concerned with the well-being of their employees; compensation is fair, health care is affordable, and actually using your unlimited sick days isn’t met with silent judgment. 

What do you do when your workplace is so toxic that it makes you sick? How do you take action then? What happens when you have nothing left to give?

So many of my friends work in problematic environments. I have had my share, too — so I speak from real experience. Whether it takes the form of jealous coworkers, racist managers, sexual assault on the job, or gas-lighting by your peers, the affects are real — and often, those affects take a long-term toll. When Human Resources have failed you (especially if you’re a freelancer) and company politics get in the way of any semblance of change, here are the things you should do — today.

1. Get your support team together. Figure out who your allies are. Know that not everyone cares, even if they pretend to. 

There is a major difference between bonding with chatty coworkers over your shared misery and trusting someone with a real complaint. Often, it can be hard to find those people. At work, whatever the reason is, people talk. They talk to bond, they talk to relieve boredom, and they trade information for gossip. The currency of talk can be damaging. So, establish a support network. If that includes coworkers, be sure you trust them. If not, talk to peers and mentors — perhaps those in the same industry — who can understand your position and provide relief or insight. 

Having a mentor, someone who knows you well and has more experience than you, can be the most helpful tool in your kit. Be open-minded about their advice, even if it hurts. 

2. If you have an HR department, consider speaking with them. Not all HR departments will be useful, though.

But before you do, get a paper-trail going. The issue here is that toxic workplaces are magically, conveniently filled with people who aren’t doing anything “technically wrong.” You can sniff out the bullshit, but you can’t actually point fingers — which is the worst scenario of all. If you can, however, pinpoint the exact dates and times of problematic behavior, it behooves you to write it down! Bring that to HR (if you trust the department, that is) and see what happens next. Know that HR doesn’t always solve the issue. Their best interest usually lies in protecting the company, especially if they’re friends with your manager — so assess intelligently. 

What about more insidious issues? More and more, especially after the election, people are experiencing direct acts of prejudice. Even at work. It’s critical that you find somewhere to turn, someone human and good and kind, who you can talk to. According to Madame Noir, the best thing you can do when encountering racism or xenophobia at work is to “Find a safe space where you can speak openly about these issues so that you are mitigating the harmful effects it can have on you. If possible, try to educate the individual(s) about how what they are saying/doing feels uncomfortable for you and offer an alternative when possible.” Obviously, this won’t always work (and the onus shouldn’t always be on you ) — so think about how HR can help, if possible. If not, return to point #1. Find those allies, gain strength from their support, and considering moving on.

3. Keep doing your very best work — seriously — even if you’re totally, completely unhappy. 

It’s so (so so so so so) tempting to let your work ethic fall into pathetic little shambles when you’re pissed off or upset at work. Why should you stay until 7:30 if you’re miserable? Who are they to control your life? 

One of the harshest real-life lessons I’ve learned is that whenever you’re upset at work there are really two scenarios going on. One is your inner life — your secret, daily misery — that can color everything and make you do crazy things, like forget assignments or treat your boss poorly or stop bringing your A-game. The other is that life outside your mind continues as-is. If you mess up, it’s never going to be excused because you’re unhappy. The only thing you’ll do is lose yourself a reference, potentially lose your job, leave on unhappy terms, with everyone’s memory of you as a half-assed, mediocre employee. They won’t remember that you used to be a great worker. They’ll remember those three last months when you phoned it in. I promise. So keep pushing for excellence, remind them why you’re necessary, and make them regret it if and when you leave or push for better treatment.

4. Start job-hunting. Now. Like, right now. 

Sometimes people say things like, “You’re not meant to be happy at work!” or “No job is perfect.” And you know what? One of those things is true. You can guess which. Happiness, however, is possible. It’s just attained by a series of trials and errors. 

If you’re unhappy, you need to find a situation that will be better for you. Your body, mind, and psyche will thank you (because, hello — have you ever sat in a work meeting and just stared into outer-space, tearing up, thinking hard about your existential plight? I have. It’s no fun).

Complacency is one of the worst traits. While it can be hard to motivate — especially when you’re struck by fear and lack of opportunity — you need to take the wheel. If you can count yourself privileged enough to have a degree or live in a city with an abundance of jobs, you need to look for another company that will treat you better. There’s no excuse for complacency. 

And while you’re looking, keep doing an amazing job at work. You’ll want to leave on your terms, seen as an employee that they would be sad to see go (even if they can’t see it now). Go home after work or wake up early and send your resume out. Network with friends. Do whatever you have to do. 

This can go two ways. You stay at your job and stay miserable. You stay at your job but look for jobs. Which way works best? You guessed it.

5. Make time for self-care. Don’t say you don’t have time.

The world is hard. Rarely are there times when it looks out for you. Mostly, you carve out the good things that happen. You treat people well, you get it back. You put in the effort for healthy living, you reap the rewards. Of course, because we’re human, it’s not always that simple — but the key is to try. If you’re working all night, allow yourself some time to turn off. Take a bath, read a book, meditate. There is nothing worse than having someone tell you to “turn off and read a book” — because that advice is so epically clichéd! — but I am here to tell you to turn off and read a book. Because it works. Because I have tried it. Because my sanity is still somewhat intact. And because I care about your well-being

It’s not easy carrying the weight of a job, your family, your health, your country on your shoulders. But doing small things, to alleviate the burden of toxic workplace problems, can be the difference between you losing yourself and finding yourself. 

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