So your colleagues are toxic? It’s not you – it’s them. Here’s how to cope, mentally

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  • The home secretary, Priti Patel, avoided the sack despite an inquiry reportedly uncovering evidence of bullying. So how do you protect yourself from toxic colleagues? These experts can tell you

    With the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it’s become clear that certain members of her staff feel they’ve been subjected to a very toxic workplace culture.

    Do you sympathise and feel yourself raising a hand in solidarity? Surprisingly, you’re far from alone. As per Forbes magazine, 53% of workers reported their work brings ‘no happiness’ to their lives, while 58% of employees trust strangers more than their managers. Eek.

    That’s not surprising when 58% of managers in the UK don’t receive appropriate training for the positions. Toxic workplaces are common: whether it’s a condescending boss or bitchy work colleague, said experiences are bound to negatively impact your mental health when you have to deal with them day in, day out.

    Even while working from home, your mental health can still be affected. If you’ve found yourself negatively impacted by a toxic workplace, the following advice will help you safeguard your mental health and protect your energy day-to-day. Remember: you are not alone.

    What is a toxic workplace?

    Toxic workplaces are workplaces that promote a culture of cliques, bullying and intimidation, according to Doctor Maryhan Baker (drmaryhan.com). “They often occur when you are working with people who are highly driven to self-promote and will stop at nothing to do so. If you don’t conform to their rules, then you’re actively excluded.”

    Ever found yourself constantly worrying about each and every comment you make? Or your work decisions? Or how each might be interpreted? Then you’ve experienced a toxic workplace, according to Maryhan.

    It is important to remember here that toxic relationships are incredibly hard to identify and all too easy to overlook, even if the signs are objectively quite apparent. One easy way to identify a situation that’s causing you discomfort is to trust your gut instinct, according to clinical psychologist and Hello Self director Nicky Hartigan.

    “You’ll likely experience a ‘gut feeling’ or unease about a particular colleague or situation from the get-go”, she shares. It’s important to remember that toxic relationships come in all shapes and sizes. “Toxic work relationships are not limited to those who hold a more powerful position in the company hierarchy. They can come from peers and even juniors, who may wield power for different reasons (such as race, gender, popularity or nepotism),” she explains. These can be even harder to notice and name as they don’t take the stereotypical form.

    How do I know my workplace is toxic?

    There’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer here as, simply put, every single toxic workplace is different. Work environments can turn sour for a number of reasons, from heavy workloads, to lack of colleague communication, to differing values.

    The tell-tale signs are both physical as well as psychological, according to Maryhan. “Symptoms are often similar to those we experience when we feel extreme stress,” she shares. Think insomnia, constant worry, lack of appetite, even increased heart rate, sweaty palms or nausea. “People often find they’re running a constant critical internal dialogue, when they normally wouldn’t be so self-critical. Now, you’re ruminating over your every decision and action,” she explains.

    Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK, agrees, and shares that it’s time to take stock if you’re constantly and consistently feeling run down by your work environment. “If you’re regularly feeling stressed, worried or anxious as a result of your workplace, it’s time to talk to someone.”

    Any symptoms such as burnout, exhaustion, anxiety or heightened stress could indicate your workplace is causing you more harm than good.

    A womans hands typing at a toxic workplace

    Why does a workplace become toxic?

    As above, often as a result of go-getters willing to step on anything—or anyone—in their way.

    “In some instances, the workplace can have a pervading ‘toxic culture’, whereby those at the helm are complicit in or unwilling to address toxic behaviours, meaning that employees who inwardly question the status quo find it incredibly difficult to address,” shares Nicky.

    But similarly, toxic environments can be triggered by anything and are different in every instance. It can be a specific person, circumstance, place or project.

    What resources will help if I’m experiencing a toxic workplace?

    HR

    Pablo advises trying to speak to your manager about how the situation is making you feel—after all, that’s what they are there for. “If it’s a manager that you’re experiencing a toxic relationship with, speak to your HR team. They are similarly well equiped to support you, and you may feel more comfortable speaking to a colleague outside of your team,”, he shares.

    Your support network

    Similarly, confiding in someone outside of work could help. “Speaking to a friend or loved one outside of your working environment can help you put things into perspective,” Pablo continues. “They’ll be able to offer you advice on how to deal with a toxic work environment, and support when you need it most,” he shares.

    Online help websites

    There are lots of resources available to help you. Free online resources include:

    Your employer may also offer free online HR support, which is worth scoping out.

    Your GP

    “If the workplace issues you’re experiencing causing you to feel anxious, overwhelmed and stressed on a regular basis, your doctor will be able to help,” shares Pablo. He explains that speaking to a GP about how you’re feeling can be a relief, as they are medically trained to offer impartial and unbiased advice and support.

    Yourself

    Bear with us on this one. If your confidence is taking a battering daily, self-care is essential. “Taking control of your work-life balance will improve your overall wellbeing. Switch off after your working hours, avoid checking your emails until you start the working day, and take regular breaks throughout the day. Plus, block out an hour for lunch every day and use this time to relax by exercising or walking outdoors,” Pablo explains.

    A woman taking a Zoom work call at a toxic workplace

    5 top tips for if you are experiencing a toxic workplace

    According to Maryhan, these are the simplest ways to ease your stress levels and start moving towards a new phase of your life, where you don’t have to experience such negativity.

    1. Find like-minded people

    There will be other people within the organisation who have experienced similar to you. Seek them out and use them as your safety net of people you can talk too.

    2. Create a regular personal habit to relieve stress

    Figure out what you need to do to de-stress. Whether that is regular time out with friends or a regular exercise regime, work out what works for you.

    3. Raise concerns with management

    If the issue is with your own line manager, then raise it above them. Remember, you are always able to speak to your HR or personnel department.

    4. Keep a record

    Document everything so you have a clear record of what has happened, should you need it later. Work on your own exit strategy. If it comes to that, accept that everything happens for a reason, and keep moving forwards.

    5. Try not to take it personally

    This is a hard one to implement in practice but important nonetheless. Remember not to take a toxic work environment personally. These toxic relationships are not about you, rather a reflection on the people who create those cultures.

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