Escaping the Soul-Sucking Vortex of a Toxic Workplace

It’s likely that all of us have, at some point in our careers, worked in a toxic workplace. Workplaces where the leadership is either willfully ignorant or consciously complicit in implementing policies that create breeding grounds of cutthroat competitiveness, loneliness, exhaustion and misery. We have many rational reasons for staying in a toxic workplace. Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer specifies these in his book, Dying for a Paycheck.

Toxic Workplace
  • Economics
  • Company/Institution Prestige
  • Interesting Work
  • An Impact-driven Culture
  • Lack of Energy and Inertia
  • Pride and Ego (Aren’t you good enough?)

Many of my clients list the above reasons when considering the idea of a job change. Even though they can fluently articulate the failures and noxiousness of their workplace, some or all of these explanations keep them stuck. It is not that our reasons for staying do not have legitimacy, rather we are often creating a Faustian bargain where we trade away our mental and physical health, our inner values, our relationships with family and friends, and ultimately our ability to thrive and reach our potential professionally.

Unfortunately, the decision to leave often comes more through crisis rather than deliberate consideration event so extreme that it can’t be tolerated; family or friends point out or give ultimatums about the insanity; or a physical/emotional break down results.

Sadly, in addition, one of the most pernicious pressures keeping people stuck in a destructive workplace is that the toxicity becomes normalized. Resisting the social influence of being surrounded by people all drinking the “Kool-Aid” takes great courage. Deep inner reserves of strength need to be tapped to acknowledge that the “emperor has no clothes” and walk away.

So how can we resist spiraling ever downwards?

A Few Questions and Suggestions:

  • What are your 5-10 core values. Why are they important to you? Core values are non-negotiable, though some other values may be less so.
  • Why are you staying in the job? Do your reasons still ring true to you and mesh with your values?
  • What is your vision for where you see yourself in1,5 or 10 years. (Beware of remaining wedded to a vision being touted by a charismatic leader. Does it still resonate with you?)
  • What are your strengths? Are they being used? Could they be repurposed somewhere else?
  • Practice self-compassion and trust your instinct for “red flags”.
  • Maintain or reconnect to relationships that reaffirm your values and vision and support you (at work and/or outside of work)
  • Remind yourself that there is a shelf-life to your physical and mental capacity to simply tolerate a toxic workplace without developing long-term sequelae.
  • Beware of complaining as a pressure release. It is not a solution and becomes a way of normalizing toxicity.

You may or may not be able to change your workplace culture, but always stay connected to possibility; continue to explore options; and be ever mindful of safeguarding your health, well-being and future. Above all, commit to the preciousness of your own life.

“I will not allow anyone to walk in my mind with dirty feet.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

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