If Jeffrey Pfeffer had to sum up his latest book in one sentence, he’d say that “the workplace is killing us and nobody cares.” Take a minute, because that’s quite a summary.
You should care, obviously. Employees, employers, governments, and societies all suffer from the effects of toxic work environments.
“If I work you to a point where you’re so sick physically or psychologically you can no longer work…you become the public’s problem,” says Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business whose research has focused on organization theory and human resource management. Companies are squandering money via medical costs, lost productivity, and high turnover, and governments and societies have to deal with the long-term consequences and costs to the public health and welfare systems.
In the U.S., 120,000 deaths a year could be attributed to work environments, according to Pfeffer’s book, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It, racking up about $180 billion in health-care costs. He estimates that about half the deaths and a third of the costs could be prevented.
So once you know and care, what can you do to fight back?
1. Get Out of There (or at Least Take Your Vacation)
Pfeffer believes that “in every single industry, there are better and worse employers.” If your office is toxic, you should follow your instinct and try to leave for something better before you “get so psychologically and physically ill that [you] simply cannot keep going,” as Pfeffer writes.
“The way to buffer yourself is to get out. And if you can’t get out permanently, then get out temporarily,” he says. “Many people for obvious reasons don’t take all the vacation to which they’re entitled.”
2. Establish Your Own Support Network
Again, it’s not always possible to jump ship as soon as you’ve realized how much the ship’s grinding you down. You’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed, and it takes time and effort to find a new job—a tall order especially while you’re doing a soul-sucking job.
The irony of the situation is that the very things making your job miserable might be preventing you from doing something to make it better, like spending time with people you care about and who care about you. But remember that “friends make you healthier,” Pfeffer says. Find people at work and away from work who can provide the support you need.
3. Surround Yourself With People Who Have More Balance
The cliché goes that the first step to fixing a problem is to recognize there is one. But it’s hard to do that in a society where harmful work habits are so common.
“Surrounded by people who act as if long hours, an absence of job control, and work-family conflict is normal, people come to accept that definition of the situation,” Pfeffer writes in his book, emphasizing how potent social influence can be.
So if you can’t change your company, change who you spend time with. “Find some people who don’t work all the time, who have relationships with their family and friends that extend beyond pictures on screen savers, and who have work that provides a sense of autonomy and control,” Pfeffer writes.
4. Don’t Rationalize What’s Not Rational
People know when they’re being overworked. They know when they’re starting to take drugs to stay awake. They know when they’ve taken to self-medicating with alcohol. They know when they’re not eating well. They know, Pfeffer says. But often people stay anyway, “even when know they should get the hell out.”
In his book, Pfeffer details some reasons people stay, including the tendency to rationalize decisions we’ve already made. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake by choosing that job or company, so it’s easier to tell themselves “It’s just a crazy few months” or “They’re paying me so well” or “The commute is so easy.”
They also don’t want to be seen as “quitters,” by themselves or anyone else. “The ability to survive tough work circumstances has become a badge of honor,” Pfeffer writes, and the decision becomes a binary: “You can either hack it and thrive, or you can leave—and thereby admit to yourself and your family and friends that you can’t take the pressure and that you aren’t good enough to compete with the best.”
Remember two things. First, it’s okay to admit you were wrong about the job and to take steps to find a better one. Second, sometimes it’s not you that’s doing something wrong, it’s the company.
6. Ask the Right Questions on Your Way Out
Once you’ve decided it’s time to get out, make sure you’re not moving from one toxic office to another. Pfeffer recommends asking questions not only of your potential boss, but also of your potential peers about anything that’s stress-provoking to you.
Try some of these: What are the normal hours? How accessible are you supposed to be off hours? How much travel is there? How much notice do you get in advance of work trips? Is this place where you have a fair amount of say about what you do and how and when? Do most people take their vacations? Do people come to work sick?
But don’t just take their word for it. Look around if you’re visiting the office for an interview. Does everyone look exhausted and sullen? Probably not a great sign. If the company is big enough, check up on recent press. Have several rounds of layoffs been reported? Might be a red flag.
Pfeffer’s summary of his book is pretty depressing. I have a feeling that if you’re reading this (and if you got all the way to the end), a lot of it felt familiar. And that might be scary, but it should also be reassuring. You’re not the first or only person to go through it—and there are real ways to get out.
So try not to feel overwhelmed by the toxic situation. Acknowledge it. And then figure out what you’re going to do next to get the happiness and better health you deserve.