How to Survive a Toxic Workplace

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Do DMX’s lyrics, “Ya’ll gonna make me lose my mind…up in here”, ring in your head almost every day at work? Do you tense up or get depressed as soon as you think about your job? Are you physically, mentally or emotionally drained every time you get home?

Well then, you could be working in a toxic environment. I’m talking about workplaces where there is simply no positive energy. Where nothing exists to facilitate or enhance the promise of growth for you, as a person or employee. Where invaluable characteristics like creativity, ingenuity and self-expression are consistently thwarted, so you don’t even bother to use your “initiative” – the choice word used by bosses to make you feel guilty about not working harder.

Far too often, the excitement of working falls short at the office door, and instead of seeing it as a place that inspires and captivates the mind, you’re left to wonder, “WTF am I doing here?”

True, no workplace is perfect, but sometimes there is little or no distinction between being at work, and being in a battlefield or a mental institution.

Many of us have experienced an unhealthy work environment, but not all of us are fortunate enough to be able to just pick up and leave. A doctor shared that so many of her patients are talking about how much they hate their jobs, but she noted that these days, work is hard to come by. So even if work is killing you, you just have to stick it out!

It’s sad that in addition to your regular duties, you have to put up conflict generated by jealousy, deception and the ultimate grab for power.

The situation can be so volatile, you just don’t know where to run for cover, or who to ask for help, because it’s every man for himself. Why is there a need for work to be so much more stressful than necessary? Why does the workplace have to be so devious? Haven’t we all grown up and shed those secondary school antics?


“Spies are everywhere.”


I have been told by those more indoctrinated into the system, “Unfortunately that is how it works” or “Welcome to the real world!” But how can one survive? Ever watch “Alias”? You always have to watch your back because spies are everywhere, which leads me to survival rule number one: Be professional at all times, and avoid gossip. Have nothing to say or add to water cooler banter.

Ever had your words regurgitated out of context? What about being asked the most extraordinary of questions? For example, “What do you think of your boss?” or “How are you enjoying the company?” Like you’re really going to say he is an idiot and the job sucks!

I worked in an office where certain longstanding members of staff were not happy with the new manager. It was amazing to witness; they talked and laughed with her, but from the time her back was turned they grumbled and ‘bad mouthed’ her every decision. Talk about being two-faced! They were resistant to change, undermined her authority, and even became disgruntled by the introduction of new, younger staff- members, whom they ultimately viewed as her allies. They strived to make us feel inferior. It constantly felt like it was ‘them’ against ‘us’ – age and experience versus youth and potential.


“There’s always worse.”


Constantly being scrutinized, faced with cross-directives, and being saddled with grunt tasks, this made work difficult, but it could have been worse. There’s always worse (when you think your job stinks, you can always meet someone with worse stories). Yes I felt depressed, annoyed and stressed, but the camaraderie among the younger staff members, the “cool” manager and the important fact that I was gaining experience in a field of interest held me together for the time that I was there.

Talking is a major antidote for beating the isolation and feeling of bondage that some workplaces and bosses create. So even if you don’t have an ally at work, remember no matter how clichéd it sounds… that’s what friends are for. So vent with them. After all, you don’t want explode or implode on the job, like many noted cases in the USA.

For self-preservation, find an outlet, maybe a hobby. Join the gym; do something fun. Just take care of yourself mentally, physically and spiritually.

One friend shared that while she was a trainee at a well-known company, they were told that openings for permanent positions were coming up, and they would be hired based on performance. So everyone worked their butt off – working long hours, weekends, and going beyond the call, only to be told after the laborious six-month probation that they could not get the jobs, because they lacked the necessary experience and qualifications. They never had a chance!

These situations can make anyone go ballistic and are but tiny insights into toxic workplaces. An employer might even tell you that they want you to advance within the organization, that they are concerned about your well-being or that they have an open door policy. Yeah right! What a load of crap! Many times, there’s no possibility of upward mobility either because of the company’s structure or because the position is already filled by the boss’s family or friends.

Go on. Ask for time to pursue your studies and see what they tell you, or actually get sick or dare to have a family emergency. And oh sure… every boss wants to be informed about the shortfalls of the company and to listen to complaints; after all, a company’s human resource is its most vital asset. Don’t mind that you get treated like sh&t!

When you’re in an unhealthy workplace, even if you’re determined not to play, survival instincts kick in and you do what you have to do to get through the day. Some employees thus dare not step into work without their battle gear, while others prefer to go into droid mode. I prefer the motto of the Penguins of Madagascar… “Just smile and wave boys… smile and wave!”

Faking it can wear you thin. It can also cause you to wonder who or what you’re becoming. God help you if it’s anything like that guy who’s been working in Hades for the past umpteen years – so long, that his soul has been assimilated into the collective. Maybe once he resisted.

Working in a toxic workplace taxes you, and it all boils down to survival of the fittest. While you’re there, be realistic about the situation, find ways to improve your abilities, and vent with your friends and family. Oh, and keep sending out those résumés!


Author bio: Danielle Martin is a writer at heart, having crafted her first poem at the age of seven. Since then she has managed to gather experience in the fields of journalism and advertising. She believes that the best limes are spontaneous, and that life really is too short.

Image credit: iStockphoto.


Danielle Martin is a writer at heart, having crafted her first poem at the age of seven. Since then, she has gathered experience in the fields of journalism and advertising. She believes that the best limes are spontaneous, and that life really is too short.


  1. richard rawlins

    August 23, 2010 at 12:22 am

    The fact of the matter though is that in Trinidad while we are making some strides to removing the toxicity from the work environments, businesses have not done enough. Toxic individuals in an organisation should be removed. The problem with this though is that the toxic individual in company has like us all rights. The industrial court often takes the side of the employee in disputes with the employer. This has led to big pay offs to remove those you don’t want, while the ones you do want leave without any reward. It seems to me like toxic is winning the battle for now. Sadly…

  2. Vishnu

    February 15, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Wonderful article..well crafted..i could relate..

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