Strategies for Staying Sane in a Toxic Workplace
With the grim state of the economy, leaving a dysfunctional job situation may require more time and effort than ever. In the meantime, these survival strategies can help.
According to the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate was at 4.5 percent in March 2019.
Looking for another job is daunting at the best of times, but statistics like this can be particularly discouraging for people trapped in a position where they’re underpaid, underappreciated, and/or overworked.
These strategies can help such people survive – if not thrive – in a dysfunctional workplace while they’re looking for something better.
Setting Boundaries to Survive Dysfunctional Employers
Toxic employers don’t recognize where work ends and personal life begins, so employees need to respectfully establish and maintain those boundaries for themselves.
For example, Josh, a project manager, declined to use his personal Twitter account to promote his company’s products.
Anna, an editor, made sure everyone in the office knew she wouldn’t be checking her work e-mail when she was on vacation. These were areas in which they weren’t willing to allow their jobs to intrude.
Setting boundaries also means that employees stand up for themselves when those boundaries are compromised, and serve as their own advocates when an employer’s demands threaten their physical or mental health.
After a month of late nights, early mornings, and weekends at the office, Megan, a writer, asked her doctor for a note explaining that she required eight hours of sleep each night for medical reasons. Her employer backed off.
On the other hand, several of her colleagues who regularly skipped meals and sleep for the job landed in the hospital with severe health problems.
It’s important to be tactful and maintain a positive, cooperative attitude, because dysfunctional employers often dangle the threat of termination over their employees.
Offering alternative solutions when boundaries are compromised can showcase creative problem-solving skills, as well as proving to the employer that being a team player and maintaining healthy boundaries aren’t mutually exclusive.
One of Josh’s colleagues, Mike, started a Twitter account for work-only posts. Hank, an engineer, left work on time to attend his son’s basketball game, then went back to the office afterward. These actions showed their managers that they were willing to help the company meet its goals, without sacrificing their own autonomy or family time.
Viewing a Dysfunctional Job as a Learning Experience
In addition to providing opportunities for creative compromises and problem-solving, a toxic workplace can be a valuable, albeit uncomfortable, classroom. Learning to play the game, read people, and know what to avoid in the future are among the life lessons a dysfunctional job can impart.
“Playing the game” doesn’t mean getting entangled in the quagmire of office politics, but rather analyzing and adapting to the demands of the environment.
Jane, a copywriter, normally asked for guidance if an assignment seemed unclear. But the company’s new vice president interpreted her questions as a lack of belief in her own work. So she learned to take a stab at doing what he wanted, then “sell” the finished product to him as if she knew it was exactly what he wanted – and as an unexpected side effect, she developed more confidence in her own decisions. She also began to study the way he responded to various coworkers. She noticed that he reacted better to respectful, direct disagreement than to subtle resistance, and she was able to share her insights with her colleagues.
Identifying what factors make a situation dysfunctional, and what the underlying causes are, is a crucial step in finding a better workplace the next time.
After suffering in a nepotistic environment, office manager Kevin resolved to make sure his next employer wasn’t a family-operated company.
Sierra, a Web designer, discovered that her dot-com employer didn’t have a marketable product, so when the venture capital ran out, so did her job. In interviews for subsequent jobs, she always made sure the company had a viable source of income.
Perhaps the most important lesson of dysfunctional employment, however, is learning when to quit.
If the job is creating problems with a significant other or causing serious health problems or turning the employee into someone she doesn’t want to be, then it’s time to cut losses and get out.
Surviving Dysfunctional Workplaces is Possible
Dysfunctional jobs can wreak havoc and cause misery, but employees have some options for taking back control. Establishing and maintaining boundaries, holding onto healthy routines, and offering creative solutions to problems can help workers maintain their sanity while still meeting the requirements of their jobs.
And viewing a dysfunctional workplace as a learning experience can enable employees to weed out similar companies during their job search, ensuring that the next situation is better in every way.
After all, regardless of the economy, there are other jobs.
But people only have one life.