Surviving toxic work environments is a common theme among many individuals I support in my coaching and mentorship practices.
Let me be clear: I never believe someone should have to survive a toxic work environment. The onus should not be on the individual to adapt to a problematic workplace. Too often, this survival is set as an implicit goal simply because we tackle the challenges put in front of us.
Let’s start by understanding what constitutes a toxic work environment. It’s one with a culture that does not prioritize respect as a value and does not recognize each individual’s humanity. It’s a workplace that leverages shame or guilt and disregards boundaries. Symptoms that could indicate a toxic workplace include anxiety, recurring nightmares, questioning your reality, and feeling like you can’t trust anyone.
A small percentage of people enjoy and even thrive in toxic work environments. These are often people whose sense of identity is rooted in hierarchical status and power. Some may find Machiavellian scheming a fun challenge. People who have spent their careers in these environments may have become skilled in navigating them and benefit by perpetuating them.
Most people, however, do not enjoy these environments and do not thrive in them, including many of the people and leaders who are unwittingly creating them.
So, when a client or mentee comes to me with the challenge of surviving a toxic work environment, how do we tackle it?
First, we explore what the real goal is. What’s the underlying reason for wanting to “survive,” i.e., remain in this situation? Often, it may feel like we don’t have any other option and, while that’s sometimes the case in the short term, it’s nearly never true in the long term.
Is the goal financial stability? Is it to prove yourself as capable or tough enough? Are you striving to endure because a toxic work environment is all you’ve known and is where you feel most comfortable? Or is it because you see yourself as an agent of change who will shift the organization from the inside?
These are all valid reasons for wanting to “survive” a toxic work environment. Understanding your unique motivations allows us to weigh the alternatives for achieving that goal more effectively.
As a coach and mentor, I want the individuals I work with to have fulfilling and joyous lives. While I suspect staying in a toxic work environment long term is incompatible with joy, I help my clients in whatever direction they feel supports their overarching goals, even if that means learning to survive where they are.
Perhaps a client’s goal is to retire early, and they just need a couple more years to vest and accumulate their “walk away” money. We could focus on ways to protect their mental and physical health and remain effective. These might include skills like setting and maintaining boundaries, navigating difficult conversations or handling disrespectful interactions. We may introduce mindfulness exercises to create space, perspective and a sense of being grounded in high-stress, destabilizing environments.
Since toxic work environments can chip away at our identity, these practices would be paired with inner work focused on fully developing and protecting a sense of self. When we are exceedingly focused on adapting and camouflaging, we can lose sight of who we truly are. In walling ourselves off to protect our more vulnerable parts, we risk losing connection to them.
For folks who see survival as a longer-term endeavor, I’d want to explore their underlying reasons and unpack where those goals came from. If we believe that we are obligated to tackle any challenge in front of us, then it’s worth understanding where that belief came from. Who gave it to us? What’s stopping us from saying “no” or taking our ball and going home?
We demonize quitting in our society, yet the anti-quitting narrative benefits oppressive systems and encourages people to stay in non-beneficial situations longer than they should. If staying the course supports your long-term goals, then some tenacity and resilience will be necessary. But an unquestioned aversion to quitting often harms the individual and benefits the system. We witnessed a shift in this dynamic during the pandemic when people left their jobs in droves. Priorities shifted, the true nature of employer/employee loyalty became apparent, and the result was that people walked.
We have no resource as valuable and irreplaceable as our time. When someone is struggling with whether to endure a toxic work environment, I usually reframe the question as an investment decision. We explore whether their investment of time, energy and opportunity cost is paying the dividend that they expect it to. If the answer is no, we can and should look at how to close out our position and extract our resources to reinvest them in a more promising opportunity. That may not be a near-term transaction; perhaps we can minimize losses by waiting a year. In that case, a person could use that time to explore options and plan a transition. With this framing, we are decision-makers empowered to make strategic changes rather than test subjects undergoing an assessment of willpower or strength.
As a leader and a coach, I thoroughly reject the idea of endurance tests by way of workplace trauma. If you want to know what you are capable of enduring, you can train for a marathon or attempt a three-hour seated meditation. Those explorations of capability and strength do not need to come at your own expense for the benefit of a toxic employer. And, for those leaders who still feel a sense of pride in putting their employees through hell, I’d invite you to question how that trauma makes them better at their jobs and why your company’s mission is dependent upon harming human beings.
Engineer by trade. Diversity, equity and inclusion professional by choice. With a successful two decade career in the international energy industry, and having been one of the few women in her field, Erica D’Eramo has made it her life’s work to create diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces through research, best practice and lived experiences. She is passionate about reconciling the academic perspective with practical application to enable organizations to elevate their DEI efforts and change the workplace landscape through those activities with the greatest impact. In 2016, D’Eramo founded Two Piers Consulting to support under-represented communities in the workforce, and provide companies with the tools and strategies to effectively create and grow truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University, and an Executive MBA from University of Texas at Austin. www.twopiersconsulting.com
Oil and gas operations are commonly found in remote locations far from company headquarters. Now, it's possible to monitor pump operations, collate and analyze seismic data, and track employees around the world from almost anywhere. Whether employees are in the office or in the field, the internet and related applications enable a greater multidirectional flow of information – and control – than ever before.