Reasons Behind Why You Feel Stuck in a Toxic Workplace
A toxic workplace isn’t complete without the physiological issues that come with it; crippling anxiety, depression, burnout, fatigue and apathy towards things that once brought joy. Guests on my podcast frequently express these feelings at some point in their stories. It’s like a toxic rain cloud that hangs over your head bringing gloom and doom into your day-to-day life. These debilitating emotions, physical responses and psychological conditions don’t punch out when you’re off the clock, they seep deep into your personal life, wreaking havoc on your relationships, hobbies and free time. Many of the guests on my podcast say their thoughts are consumed by work issues when they’re not on the clock. They unload their stress and frustrations onto their loved ones until the relationships crack under the strain, and the downward spiral continues. So why don’t they just leave?
There are many layers to a toxic work relationship, and I want to emphasize the word relationship, because that’s exactly what a work setup is - a relationship between an employee and an organization. The same manipulative and psychological abuse tactics used in an abusive romantic relationship can appear in the workplace, but in different ways. It’s hard for people to walk away from an abusive partner because sometimes they’ve invested years with the person, they’re financially dependent on them, they’re loyal, or clutching to hope that things will get better. Many times, the abusive partner will promise to change, create reasons why the other person can’t leave, or even coerce them to stay. Likewise, abusive employers can manipulate employees into staying through overt and subtle means: self-serving agendas within leadership - devaluation of employees; and false hope of change within the organization.
The tone at the top will set the tone throughout the rest of the organization. Management's agenda becomes the agenda for the rest of the company. When that agenda is infused with corruption, you can trust the corruption will find its way into other departments. At the core of corruption is a need to control; a need to gain power. Those who corruptly gain power will use it to fuel their self-serving agenda. Corrupt people with power are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They can be charming, persuasive, energizing and may even come off as empathetic. This is because they want to be held in high esteem, gain trust and establish a foundation of positive rapport to then be exploited later. Like the love-bombing phase of a narcissistic relationship in which the abuser will mirror the other person to establish trust as a means to move quickly into a committed relationship - a corrupt leader will stroke your ego or give you inside information about the company that makes you feel special. They may even give you a fancy title that is beyond the scope of your job performance. All this creates a sense of loyalty or indebtedness to the company. However, it’s all part of a corrupt agenda that keeps employees locked in long after the honeymoon phase is over, and the toxicity starts to become prevalent. As time goes on, they may say things like, “I don’t know what I would do if you ever quit,” which causes feelings of obligation to stay.
Bullying is another form of a corrupt need for power. Bullying doesn’t end in middle and high school; it happens in adulthood too. A bully uses intimidation and humiliation tactics to disparage those they perceive as weak. At work, this may be a bullying boss or co-worker who points out your shortcomings. They will trigger your insecurities and cause you to question whether you’re good enough for your job. They may gaslight you into believing that you aren’t working at the caliber of your colleagues, or that you aren’t smart enough to take on new responsibilities. This kind of belittling will crush your confidence and make you question whether you're capable of moving on and landing another job. In my Antidote Episode with Leslie Miller, LICSW, she talks about being in survival mode, where people start to focus on surviving a toxic situation and no longer tend to their own needs. She says it’s a sort of trauma state which is highly debilitating and detrimental to our health. Many people who are bullied at work stay because they’re scared of not meeting expectations at a new company or taking a hit on their paycheck for a lower wage job. However, staying for the long haul is not worth the negative health effects this kind of toxicity has on your body, mind and spirit.
A toxic workplace will devalue your attributes and contributions. When you lose your sense of value, you become disconnected from your true self. You may become too burned out to care for the things that you once cared about. You may lose your physical and mental stamina after pushing yourself through the wringer. At this stage, you’ll probably question whether you’re cut out for your industry or if you should consider a career change. This loss of value keeps people from escaping a toxic workplace because they think, “If I can’t make it here, how will I make it somewhere else?” However, this is merely a perceived loss of value - a false perception created by the toxic work environment, not a reflection of your true self or your capabilities. If you remove yourself from toxicity, you will find yourself and remember who you set out to be.
Hope is a powerful thing. It keeps us hanging on when we need to weather a passing storm and it can guide us into fruitful endeavors. However, false hope can be detrimental and it’s imperative that you know the difference. Holding out hope in a toxic work situation is like weathering the storms of the Bermuda triangle - you’ll get tossed around and drift in circles making it harder and harder to get out. In a workplace corrupted by bad leadership, the toxicity will never go away unless the leaders have a coming of God, or are replaced by an new (uncorrupt) leadership team. In my own toxic work situation, the directors of the company always promised the staff that “big changes” were coming. They would have countless meetings with staff and send anonymous surveys to get feedback on what needed to change, and the staff responded honestly. The directors received harsh feedback they didn’t want to hear. Instead of making the necessary changes, they came up with their own quick fixes, but Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes, and the company continued to struggle with the same deep-set issues. As one colleague said, “The only way to fix it would be a Viking burial". A company can talk a big talk, but until you see consistent action and serious changes, save your sanity and steer your hope towards a new opportunity at a new organization.
If you’re feeling stuck in a toxic workplace, know that there is hope for a positive change and that change starts with you. There are tools and resources to enlighten and empower you to make a change. Start with my Antidote Episode with Alicia Wolf of Goldfinch Wellness on how to navigate a toxic workplace. Alicia's definition of a toxic workplace escape plan is incredibly insightful. Ultimately, the escape begins with understanding your situation and finding your value.
Do you feel like you're stuck in a toxic workplace?
Yes! I'm trying to plan my escape.
I used to be but I finally quit!
Written by Carleigh J. M. 2023