How To Handle A Toxic Work-Life Environment

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Now that we’re fully settled into the new year, I hope that setting your intentions to get your work-life together is still high on your annual to do list. It could simply mean trying to leave bad work energy in 2018.

We can thank the generational shifts in the current workforce and other societal movements like #MeToo, gig culture, and job ghosting for coming to the mainstream career-related conversations that were formerly reserved for behind closed doors. The war stories, best practices, and even vocabulary to define what creates a toxic work environment are finally becoming part of the public discourse.

Take for example the New York Times article “How Professionals of Color Say They Counter Bias at Work,” in which professionals across various industries shared personal anecdotes about their work experiences. Or a piece on PopSugar that dissected comments about Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle being difficult.

To help avoid repeating these same trials and tribulations the women in our lives continue to pass down friendly, code-switched advice earned from their decades of work and life experience.

But is the advice still good medicine?

I spoke with Dr. Pei-Han Cheng, founder of Open Minds Psychological Consulting, PLLC and Assistant Professor at CUNY’s Brooklyn College. Dr. Cheng specializes in diversity training, career coaching, and psychotherapy for relationship issues and body image, about the reasons some women of color struggle in the workplace and ways to deal with a difficult work environment.

“From my research and experience, the workplace can be exhausting for women of color,” said Dr. Cheng. “There are some general challenges that women deal with in the workplace — for example, the glass (or bamboo) ceiling, or having your credibility challenged and not being considered for leadership roles. But among other things, we may also be dealing with colleagues’ or clients’ projection of stereotypes and fighting against them, which can take up so much mental energy and take away from the freedom of being authentic. Its like you want to show up to work as your full professional and authentic self, but sometimes we have to leave our identities outside.”

One factor that can affect your perspective on your workplace is how much of your authentic self you feel comfortable enough to bring to work everyday.

Whether it’s your appearance, communication style, lunch choices, or how you pick and choose your internal battles — these are all important parts of creating an environment in which you can thrive. Among the challenges women of color face stem from adapting to and often times endeavoring to imprint upon a company’s culture, or the loose set of principles and behaviors that make up how a company interacts with itself internally.

This can be especially challenging in instances where the rule makers don’t look like you and the rules are not adapted to your lifestyle. Humans are socialized to assimilate to a dominant culture, but if that culture doesn’t make space for you, your identity, experiences and needs, then you could wind up spending more time trying to ensure that the people around you are comfortable with you, rather than focusing on career advancement and building skills.

Keeping up that type of energy all the time can make you feel some type of way and ultimately become exhausting, especially if you’re fighting the uphill battle against stereotype threats — the fear of conforming to stereotypes about a certain social group, like, the “angry black woman” or the “submissive and docile Asian woman.”

“As a woman, we experience the double-bind dilemma at work. When we don’t behave in the way that is consistent with gender expectations, we are stereotyped as bossy, opinionated, difficult, or aggressive,” said Dr. Cheng. “But if you do concede to gender expectations, like being soft, delicate, or deferential, then you’re not considered to have qualities for leadership. Stereotype threats can be exhausting for women of color to deal with in the workplace because it often depletes our internal resources and takes away our freedom to be who we are without being misunderstood or judged.”

Then there is the supreme challenge of dealing with the straight up bad actors. The fragile egos. The blamers. The narcissists. The ones who want to put you in your place. The ones your cousin tells you to watch out for anytime you share a bad work experience.

Look, it’s one thing to deal with bad behavior from your friends or romantic partners, it’s quite another when your paycheck is involved. But, how do you recognize a bad day from a bad co-worker or environment?

“If you ruminate and can’t get that thing that bothers you out of your mind, that means you’re probably having a bad day.” said Dr. Cheng. “If you find yourself talking about work in your personal time that means work is seeping into your personal space. Trust your gut.”

If you think you’re dealing with a difficult colleague or boss, Dr. Cheng first suggests taking a detached observation of your situation so you can take in all the facts and make a mindful decision.

“Go into work, be aware. Observe difficult people’s behaviors and tactics and get a feel for them. Make a note of your feelings around them. Does their behavior or comment make you feel belittled, offended or angry? What does your emotional quality say about that transaction?,” said Dr. Cheng. “Then, take a step back and assess your priorities in having a conversation with this difficult colleague or boss. Figure out what your goal of that conversation is, assess pros and cons, and how you want to feel about yourself afterwards.”

“It’s brave to have those conversations. It shows that you have certain level of trust and hope that your colleagues or boss can listen to the feedback. Decide to take a self-preservation approach and not engage in those conversations is also brave. It shows that you know what’s right for you in your work climate,” said Dr. Cheng.

The more clearly you can identify your goal for any particular working relationship, the easier to identify your approach. For example, are you trying to strengthen the relationship with the person? Get your point across? Get some ish off your chest? Regardless of what it is, set a goal for it and keep in mind the possible outcomes. If and when you’re ready to have that conversation, stick to the facts and try not to get caught up in your emotions.

“Practice on a trusted friend helps you have a productive and effective conversation with a difficult colleague or boss.” says Dr. Cheng. “It’s helpful to use ‘I’ statements when describing how their problematic behaviors have impacted you and the workplace. Say ‘when you raise your voice, I don’t feel comfortable and I don’t know how to engage.’ Or ‘there have been a few occasions where you do XYZ can you help me understand what that’s about?’ If you can provide concrete facts, they can’t push back on that. But, be prepared to not be able to control the reactions of others and don’t get distracted by their possible defensiveness. Focus on getting your points across.”

Even with the best of intentions, a move out of the toxic environment may end up being the best thing for you (it’s exhausting being on guard all the time!).

If you find yourself tapping out when you reach your limit, accept what it is and move on.

Do something good for yourself and assure yourself that you will land softly among friends who appreciate all your magic. Because you will.

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16 comments on “How To Handle A Toxic Work-Life Environment

  • lforsythe7040 , Direct link to comment

    These are all great points! I work in a profession that is dominated by women with many of the high-ups being women. It’s not as prevalent of an issue for women to gain respect in that type of environment. However, many of the points about how much of your authentic self you bring to the workplace definitely still apply!

  • Luna S , Direct link to comment

    I dealt with this early last year when we had a horrible team member as a boss, it made work hell for a lot of people then once she finally got canned things got a lot better around here. Some aren’t so lucky and their problem may not be solved or go away so finding a less hostile environment may be a good idea as well.

  • sjd68 , Direct link to comment

    Well I’m 0-2 on this one as I’m not a woman and not a woman of color but as someone who has been in the workplace for 30+ years and someone with daughters, I am glad to see some of the changes I am seeing happening. I agree with Dr. Chen on having the conversation and believe that companies nowadays have to listen to these conversations that in the past got swept under the rug.

  • Johnny Quid , Direct link to comment

    Love this post. And yeah, it really is a double edged sword. Speak up too much, and people think you’re trying to be THEIR boss and you’re ostracized for it. But stay quiet too much, and they’ll assume you don’t have what it takes to make the big decisions. Bottom line, a toxic work environment will always be just that, no matter how high up the ladder you climb. Just because you’re so high up that you can’t smell the crap doesn’t mean it’s not there. I say do what you need to do to survive of course, but your mental health isn’t worth staying ANYWHERE you don’t want to be. If it gets to the point where you’re dreading coming in, you next job is to be actively looking for something else to get out of that situation.

  • tcleland88 , Direct link to comment

    I have been very lucky in my professional life. I work with an awesome cohesive staff. I can not imagine how stressful it would be to work in a hostile environment.

  • Lindsay Rae , Direct link to comment

    This was a really informative read! It is such a frustrating topic because, how is this still happening in today’s day and age!?

    As of right now I work with my husband in our own business so luckily I currently do not have to experience this type of behavior. But I have in the past.

    I really liked the suggestions listed here about confronting the situation. As difficult as that can be sometimes it often helps because it tells the other party that their behaviour wont be overlooked.

    This is such an important topic, thanks for sharing!

  • Nina , Direct link to comment

    There was a time that I was working in a really toxic environment. I needed to discern if it was really worth staying there because I was constantly sick. At the end of the day, your health is what matters.

  • Boss Mom Outlaw , Direct link to comment

    I’m so thankful to work in a diverse, supportive environment. I have encountered many of these situations in previous jobs, and it really sucks the life and confidence out of you. Great points.

  • Erica (The Prepping Wife) , Direct link to comment

    Being a blogger is primarily a female driven field, it seems. Prepping is a very male driven thing. Yet I’ve somehow managed to fit into both. I’m not entirely sure how past just being myself. I know not everyone will like what I do or what I have to say, and that’s just fine with me. I leave negativity behind. That’s really what matters, is that I’m happy. I wish more people took their happiness into consideration when sticking with a job.

  • Livelearnbetter (@livelearnbetter) , Direct link to comment

    Working in a hostile environment could be demoralizing. I’m a black man and got picked on for my accent but had to stand my ground and promise to take it up legally before being taken serious.
    But after making my point, I had to quit because going there every morning grieves me.

  • Andrea (2oddravens) , Direct link to comment

    As a woman of color, I relate to so much being said here! I am currently struggling in my work environment, and despite my best efforts, the work is seeping into my home and business life. The methods mentioned in this article will absolutely be put into practice.

  • Melody , Direct link to comment

    I’ve been fortunate to work in an environment that was positive in most areas and it didn’t have any issues with gender or color. My daughter, on the other hand, has experienced many difficulties with hostility, mostly from women, though. I’m glad to see these issues being brought up. Great advice on handling it.

  • Swagata Sen , Direct link to comment

    This is such an useful post with so many relevant information. I have been in a very toxic work environment for a very long time. I took a very long time to come out of that experience even after leaving that job. I could relate to many things that you wrote about. Thanks for sharing a post on this topic.

  • travelwisesr , Direct link to comment

    Having been in senior positions for many years I did focus on ensuring the atmosphere was always conducive to bring out the best in people.Interesting read.

  • Fly Away Godddess , Direct link to comment

    I work in the bar industry in dallas Texas and as a women who of color it is not easy ever. Even if you are the most talented and dedicated person. I’ve learned about myself and I’ve leatned that racism and lack of diversity and prejudice does STILL exist from all sides of the “table” thank you this post! J can tell you what all I have to write about next.

  • Elease Colcord , Direct link to comment

    I love that you talk about the tough stuff without pointing fingers. Great advice to help people move through modern changes of the work place. (and life!)

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