Your workplace can be a stress-inducing place at the best of times, but add in a toxic environment and things can become very difficult. In episode 296, I received a question from an individual looking for advice on managing their work in an environment that is heavily based on performance and judgment of others. In this post, I dive deeper into the realms of the workplace and offer my advice on what you can do if you find yourself in a situation similar to this.
Hi Dr. Robert!
Love the podcast! I was wondering if you have any strategies to navigate a hostile work environment with anxiety-inducing coworkers. For example: gossiping, racial biases, political biases, and sabotage of others work is the behavior experienced of my coworkers.
The environment is heavily based on performance and judgment of others which is not an environment in which I thrive or feel comfortable. I am a non-confrontational person and have trouble voicing my issues to my coworkers and even my boss.
I’m not sure if this is something that’s controllable by me since it’s so heavily based on actions and personalities of others, but it is affecting my anxiety when approaching my day-to-day work.
Any tips or advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time and such helpful resources, don’t know where I’d be without your podcast!
This is a really good question. I don’t think I’ve taken enough questions about workplace issues, so thanks for this one.
It’s unfortunate that your work environment is so gross and anxiety-inducing. It’s especially difficult if you expected something totally different and feel like you got catfished into the job. As a non-confrontational person, it puts you in a tough position, because most of us can’t exactly be like “whatever, I’ll just leave” flippantly because we’ve got bills to pay. Gotta love capitalism. There are different pieces here though, so let’s dig into it.
Understanding your own path
One of the issues here sounds deeper than the people at your workplace. It sounds like there are some issues with the job itself. If you were to take gossiping racist coworkers out of the equation, can you see yourself being able to sustainably work at a place that is so performance-based? I don’t already know the answer to this, so I’m not just pushing you toward a specific conclusion. There is a lot to consider when you are deciding whether to stick with a job. Not every single element needs to be perfectly suited to you. You can put up with a shitty boss when you have amazing coworkers for instance. Or you may be able to deal with a fast-paced demanding environment when there are a lot of benefits and other supports. Just going off what you have described here, this sounds like a pretty toxic work environment. I can imagine that a lot of people would have a really hard time existing in an environment where sabotage of other people’s work is common. So, ask yourself if these issues are baked into the fabric of the job, or are these issues that have cropped up and can be changed or coped with in some way? You may need to look at the management structure for this as well. If the managers are some of the ones perpetrating the kind of behavior that you dislike, that can be difficult. This is especially the case if it’s not a large corporate job with a well-structured HR department.
Let’s say that it is a place where you could potentially cause some change by raising concerns to HR or corporate management. This is an interesting prospect. Given your personality, it might be tough to cope with the environment if it becomes clear that you are the one that raised the issues. However, there are also social psychology phenomena like the bystander effect to consider. There is actually some research that indicates the bystander effect commonly plays out in workplaces where nobody wants to speak up about issues simply because nobody else is. The thing about the bystander effect is that it breaks down if one person does speak out. So, all it takes is one person to shake things up to cause change in some cases. Even if you were to not remain in your position, you could potentially shake things up in a way that is consistent with your values. Just something to consider there.
Navigating a hostile work environment
Now, let’s assume that you are trying to stay there or you have no choice. What can be done to cope and navigate a hostile work environment. You don’t necessarily have to be confrontational yourself in order to do this. I would encourage you to shift as much focus as possible to things outside of work. If this is your job and your source of income and that’s it, that may serve you well. What I mean is you are not trying to overachieve, you are not tying your worth or identity to the job. You derive your meaning from other aspects of your life. If the rest of your life is fulfilling, you can endure a little more bullshit at your place of employment. This is also a good strategy if you are looking to leave but need some time to find another position first.
When it comes to direct conflicts or coworkers trying to drag you into drama, you may want to keep in mind the metaphor of dropping the rope. They talk about this in various forms of therapy, including ACT, but basically you think of a game of tug-o-war. There are two ways to end a game of tug-o-war. One is to overpower your opponent. You burn your hands, throw out your back, and eventually you might win, but at what cost? You’re beat by the end. The other way is simply to drop the rope. The game is also over in that case – you are just refusing to play their annoying game. In your workplace, you don’t necessarily have to play along. I don’t know what your job or workplace looks like, but think about any areas where you might be able to drop the rope. I would be thinking about things like wearing noise-cancelling headphones so I can’t even hear the gossip. In other cases, I can imagine it could be useful to simply not give into people. You don’t have to necessarily be confrontational, but if someone comes by and says “did you hear what so and so did??” you can just say something like “Oh I don’t want to get into all of that” and turn back to your work. You are allowed to be the odd one out. Especially if that results in better productivity and performance in the end.
You can also look at what options you can utilize to cope with the stress of it all within the context of your work. Are you able to get outside and take a breather whenever you want? Are you taking your breaks? Do you have unused vacation time just sitting there? Are there ways that you can adjust your hours to avoid certain types of interactions? Can you request any sort of transfer to a different area in your workplace or can you move your desk/station/etc. Especially if you are at the point where you feel like you might have to quit the job, you start to have less and less to lose, so you can kind of go for broke a bit more and ask your management for accommodations that you might not otherwise do for fear of rocking the boat.
I would also ask if you have any allies in the work environment. Is there anyone that you get along with well? Is there anyone else that you can tell is tired of the bullshit going on behind the scenes? Lean into them. I would discuss the situation with them. It can make such a difference to even have one other person that sees what you are talking about. You aren’t crazy or just sensitive. You aren’t alone in your concerns. You may even be able to talk with them and figure out ways to change things or better cope with the environment.
Final aspects to consider
Just a couple other things to consider. There is potentially some work you can do on your side to be better able to cope with the stress of the work environment. This would generally be the normal suggestions like mindfulness, CBT strategies such as recognizing thinking traps like personalization, overgeneralization, and catastrophizing and working to rein those in a bit, and even therapy to learn some coping skills to deal with any significant anxiety symptoms that you are experiencing in the moment. It is possible to not like where you work or even hate the people that are around you and still do good work. Thoughts and feelings that you have don’t need to be inextricably tied to your behaviors. You can feel one way and act another. Whether you are willing to tolerate that is a different story. You have choice and agency here.
The last thing I’d like to say is that if you find that the environment is too toxic and you just can’t deal with it anymore, I don’t want you to consider that a failure on your part. It may just be that you stumbled into a really unhealthy work environment. They exist and it happens to the best of us. While it is admirable to try your best to stick it out and adjust, at a certain point you may have to cut your losses and get out of this position that is making you feel so bad. One thought experiment you can do is imagine fast-forwarding 2-3 years. Even if there is a moderate improvement in the work environment, can you see yourself there? Do you see yourself happy and fulfilled enough to continue? If not, that may need to play a part in your decision-making.
You can listen to this on Episode 296 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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