Career Woman

Work in a toxic office? People power may be the answer


People are awful, right? But they’re also the best shot we’ve got at happiness.

America’s longest-running science experiment, the Grant Study, is just one of a number of projects to have shown that human relationships are a surer source of happiness than any other factor. (By the way, money only makes you happier when it lifts you out of poverty – the stinking rich aren’t any happier than the comfortably well-off).

So it stands to reason that a phenomenon with as much power as this to make you happy can have pretty devastating effects when it goes awry.

The toxic workplace

Picture a scenario (perhaps you’re reading this because you’re in a scenario) where your workplace is a hotbed of negativity. Your boss is incompetent, and covers for his shortcomings by loudly blaming others. The colleague to your right steals your ideas, and the colleague to your left makes hurtful jokes at your expense.

Nobody trusts anyone else because the atmosphere is so bad that they’re all waiting to be stabbed in the back. People quit weekly, and their replacements soon learn that the only way to feel any sense of control is to be absorbed into a clique and make snarky remarks about those who choose to ignore the cliqueishness.

Your personal economy doesn’t afford you the luxury to quit, so instead you reluctantly show up every morning to deal with more of the same. You’re exhausted by lunch. At home, you snap at your loved ones because – guess what – it’s the only way you can feel control. You don’t mean to do it. Our emotional processing systems are weird.

Slumped on the couch, your health and relationships suffering, you become depressed, de-motivated. Even if you had plans to quit your awful job, you no longer have the strength or confidence to apply for a better one.

A circle of evil

Of course, it’s unfair to put the blame squarely on ‘people’ – or at least the ones working alongside you. We live in a society where becoming ‘comfortably well off’ is not easy in itself, not least due to massive imbalances in wealth distribution and structural impediments such as sudden, life-changing medical costs.

At the same time, everything in our business culture reinforces the idea that becoming stinking rich is the be-all-and-end-all of a career and a life well-lived. From our youngest age, we’re encouraged to compete rather than collaborate, that loudness equals strength and strength equals power. It’s no wonder there are some pretty desperate and sad people in our workplaces, who behave in erratic, selfish, or anti-social ways.

How to cope

Without taking on the entire system (there’ll be time for that once you’re in a better position), what can you do to cope with life in a toxic work environment?

The causes we’ve mentioned may be out of your hands but, by working hard to minimize the effects, you can do something to arrest that circle of evil. This requires putting your focus on a couple of areas: first, self-care; and, as you continue with self-care, raised awareness towards the other victims of your toxic workplace.

Self-care requires lots of the obvious stuff: eat in a healthy and timely manner, keep yourself hydrated, make sure to get plenty of daylight and exercise. If you struggle with some of these, work on harnessing them to your existing habits: cycle to work instead of driving, eat lunch in the park instead of at your desk, keep carrot sticks and low-fat hummus in your kitchen instead of popcorn. Treating yourself right is much easier when you create optimum conditions to do so in advance of those moments when you might otherwise not feel up to doing the right thing.

But self-care in this context also means creating a sense of control in your personal life so that you feel empowered to cope with workplace stress (and to treat your family and friends as they deserve, rather than as collateral damage of your own crisis). Completing small, satisfying tasks such as making the bed when you get up, planning and taking a simple daytrip at the weekend, or preparing and cooking your own soup, can seriously buoy your resilience.

And in the workplace, you might not be able to fix things – you shouldn’t have to. But when you’re in control of your own sense of well-being, you can at least work on being the kind of colleague you wish your toxic co-workers could be. Distance yourself from the emotional vampires, but offer support, positivity, and friendship to those who are in the same position as you. Those relationships could be the key to workplace happiness for each of you.

For a rundown of some of the steps you can take to take back control of your situation in a toxic workplace, check out this new visual guide from

John Cole

John writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A digital nomad specializing in leadership, digital media, and pets, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.





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