I once asked my students in the Career Preparation course I teach at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago how many have ever had a “bad boss” or toxic colleague (or classmate). Over 90% raised their hands.
There’s a lot we need to do as a culture to improve the workplace. While generally speaking, the workplace is moving in a more empathetic, positive direction, toxic environments still exist. So what can you do to remain positive if you find yourself in this type of situation?
1. Find a Compatriot.
We feel it, we’re told it, and the research supports it: friends matter. Having someone we’re close with at work helps us, but having people in your corner, who get you, and understand your circumstances—good or bad, is extremely helpful in the workplace.
This can be even truer when you are in a less-than-ideal environment. Having at least one friend at work when times are tough can be what makes or breaks you staying at the firm or remaining sane while you look for what’s next.
2. Talk With Someone.
You don’t need to communicate your concerns or uneasiness with colleagues, but you do need to communicate them to someone. One of the worst things to do when you’re in a toxic work environment is to keep it to yourself. This breeds the mental reactions formed by gaslighting—you’ll begin to wonder if you’re the problem. Talking with someone will help you deduce fact from fiction.
3. Take Breaks and Use Your PTO.
You have PTO and a lunch break for a reason. You need this even more if you’re in a toxic environment. It’s nice to dart off to a tropical island to recharge—and if you can, and that’s what you want, you should!
But if you can’t take an extended vacation or short trip out of town, that’s okay too—find small ways to take breaks daily. Leave your desk for lunch. Go on a 5-minute walk alone. Even on the busiest days at the most demanding companies, there are ways to find a moment for you.
4. Establish and Honor Your Limits.
Boundaries are critical for a healthy work environment. Make your boundaries clear and communicate them with your manager and colleagues, and don't budge. If you said you're not checking email past 6 pm, don't check your email after 6 pm! If you do it, “just this once,” others will take advantage of you.
5. Create an Exit Strategy.
Set goals for yourself—and, if you've reached your limit, make getting out one of them.
I used to be shocked when my clients would tell me they’ve been in a toxic work environment—or simply painstakingly unhappy—for years. Now, I realize how common it is. Of course, sometimes there are reasons you can't just up and leave a job, but if you're unhappy, you must devise and execute a strategy to move forward. This will not just happen to you. You're responsible for yourself and must take your career and life into your own hands.