Work, like life, is bound to have its ups and downs. Whether it’s a new manager who thinks hovering behind your chair is productive, a round of lay-offs that wipes out half your work friends, or yet another spate of cost-cutting austerity measures—the atmosphere in your office can sometimes quickly go from manageable to miserable.
Naturally, when faced with a hostile environment, your first thoughts probably lean toward finding ways out of the situation. However, leaving your job isn’t always an option—at least not right away. So, until things improve or you’re able to plot your exit strategy, you’ll still need to show up every day and deal with whatever tension ails your office.
Although dealing with a toxic work environment is anything but fun, you don’t have to be at the mercy of your surroundings. Here are a few steps you can take to get a handle on the situation and get through it relatively unscathed.
1. Establish Your Support Group
Building a support group outside of the office is always a good thing, but it’s especially important when you find yourself swimming in toxic waters. When tensions at work are high, you may not want to or be able to vent to your colleagues. Plus, there are some things you just shouldn’t discuss with them, as constantly airing your frustrations could easily be misinterpreted if overheard by the wrong person.
So save your curse-laden tirades for you trusted friends and family, and keep them to after hours. Just remember not to overdo it—you don’t want them to end up as frustrated as you are.
2. Find a Friggin' Outlet
I can’t stress this enough. When things at work get tough, find something to do after work—every single day. The first time I encountered an awful 9-to-5 environment, the biggest mistake I made was to wearily drag myself home every day, pour myself a glass of wine, and re-hash the day’s events over and over in my head, dwelling on how miserable my life had become.
Fortunately, by the time this happened for the second time in my career, I had learned my lesson. I was already a member at my local gym, so I added weekly classes to my routine and attended religiously. When I wasn’t in the gym, I was working on little home improvement projects around my house, and when I ran out of those, I taught myself how to knit. Don’t laugh! Knitting was seriously one of the best hobbies I could’ve picked up. It required constant concentration, so I could never allow my mind to wander (or wallow), and it’s surprisingly soothing.
The key is to make sure you’re living a fulfilling life outside your job—it’ll make the drama you endure after punching in far more tolerable.
3. Stay Positive—Even if You Have to Fake It
This might be the most difficult step in the process, but it’s also one of the most important. Have you ever hung around someone who’s constantly negative, and then found yourself becoming a bit pessimistic, too? The same can happen when you’re positive. And even if keeping your chin up doesn’t rub off on your colleagues, it will definitely help keep you from falling into the trap of never-ending negativity in the office.
That said, be sure not to overdo it, as an overly joyful attitude may seem inappropriate to your colleagues in the office—especially others who’ve found their situations as difficult as your own. You don’t need to be the company for their misery, but you also don’t need to go out of your way to act like nothing is wrong. Focus on your work, treat people with respect, and be as polite and genuine as you would in any normal, healthy office.
4. Make Lists—Every Day
Having a great attitude (or at least pretending to) is great for the big picture, but when it came down to the minutes and hours of each day—that could drag on tortuously—I found I needed a more hands-on approach.
Those of you who like to make lists will love this, and to those who don’t, trust me. It will make such a difference that you’ll start making lists for everything—even when you’re not at work.
Several years ago, when dealing with a particularly painful situation in my office, I noticed I had become quite distracted. I would forget important meetings, or write an email but never get around to sending it. Because my job seemed to no longer have real purpose, my days dragged on and I never felt I like was working toward anything.
And then I started making lists. I wrote down every little thing I needed to do that day, all the way down to the most insignificant details, like washing out my coffee mug before leaving each night. The results were incredible. Suddenly, I had things I “needed” to do. If I had a list, I had a purpose, and no matter how awful the situation was, I had a nice long list of tasks to keep me busy every day—and keep me from staring blankly at my screen.
A toxic office is a challenge I hope none of you will ever have to face. But, if you do, remember these tips to help ease your journey through the choppy waters—and you’ll be better equipped for success once the storm passes, too.
Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon.
Jennifer Winter is a freelance writer, editor and career consultant. She translates her 14-years of corporate combat experience to help others navigate their own careers, and become advocates for their own success. Need help negotiating that raise or writing the perfect email to your boss? Jennifer’s your girl. Find out more about her services on her blog, FearLessJenn or follow her on Twitter @fearlessjenn.More from this Author