The emotional toll of the toxic workplace

This post is not in reference to any particular workplace or environment I have been in, but is an amalgamation of the experiences I have had across many different workplaces. While I reference The Thesis Whisperer as a blogger I admire, my post isn’t about academia or even university specifically (I have had a life outside of this place duh). Unfortunately I don’t have any concrete answers to provide, rather, this is a thinking-through of my own reactions to the experiences I have had. 

A toxic workplace can take many forms. What one person finds intolerable, another may experience as business-as-usual combative office politics. A Google search reveals that this notion of the toxic workplace has entered the lexicon of popular culture, has become a ‘thing’. Some checklists credit specific personalities and archetypes as being responsible for this particular phenomenon, others recognise the existence of more general behavioural patterns. In my experience it can be both: it can be because of the influence of a few ‘bad seeds’, or it can be a general environment of negativity and paranoia that takes its toll on everyone. Put simply, a toxic work environment is one in which you go home at the end of the day feeling at best unfulfilled and depressed, and at worst angry and anxious.  In my experience  these feelings creep up on you. At first you attribute your unhappiness to isolated incidences, or to particular people who you work with, however eventually you come to realise that these events aren’t isolated, but patterns of unhealthy behaviour that, if unchecked, can repeat themselves for months and years at a time and cause untold emotional suffering.

The Thesis Whisperer’s post ‘Academic assholes and the circle of niceness’ examines the phenomenon of toxic individuals (“assholes”) as present specifically within academia.  Citing Robert Sutton in his book ‘The No Asshole Rule’, TTW notes that being an asshole (arsehole?) is advantageous, and while workplace assholes may not be popular, they do end up being respected more, and their behaviour may even end up being emulated by the people who work underneath them. TTW continues:

Appearing clever is a route to power and promotion. If performing like an asshole in a public forum creates the perverse impression that you are more clever than others who do not, there is a clear incentive to behave this way.

The sad thing is, I have worked with far too many assholes to argue that this isn’t the case. I think everyone has. Being a jerk, perversely, pays off. I have worked for and with some of the most gorgeous, genuine, talented people you could imagine, but I have also worked for, and interacted with, some massive jerks. Jerks in high places. Jerks who don’t apologise, who never back down, and jerks who appear to all intents and purpose to be a success within their careers. Jerks who act like jerks so often that it has become normalised, background noise, part of ‘the-way-it-is’.

That’s all well and good, but there is a cost to fostering this environment. It is true that in some workplaces the people who act like jerks may appear to rise to the top, but the flip side is that good, kind, talented people will be lost. TTW notes:

He [Sutton] clearly shows that there are real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour. Put simply, the nice clever people leave. […] It’s a vicious cycle which means people who are more comfortable being an asshole easily outnumber those who find this behaviour obnoxious.

My post isn’t about academia specifically. As a long-term casual my interactions with academia have only ever happened from the fringes. I have made my opinions on the treatment of casuals abundantly clear. However toxicity is something I have known to permeate the cultures of environments as diverse as the retail sector and the corporate sector. I have worked at, and left, my own share of toxic workplaces and situations. I have stayed up all night worrying about work. I have cried to colleagues about unfair treatment and conditions. I have taken stress leave from work because the situation had become so untenable. I have had my concerns about a potentially dangerous situation dismissed by a superior who really should have known better. I have worked alone in a cubicle or an office and felt angry, alone, and having no idea what recourse I had, if any. I have rarely, if ever, stood up for myself. These experiences have come to have an emotional toll on me. I enter into these situations in good faith, and remain in them for far too long for many reasons. I think part of me doesn’t want to believe that the people who are nice to my face, are perhaps not as well-meaning when I am not around. I also form loyalties to colleagues in the workplace, where I will feel a sense of obligation to the individuals I work with. Mostly I make it about me. If only I was more assertive/less sensitive/better at handling complex situations/thicker skinned I would be able to cope better in these situations. So I return to the scene-of-the-toxic-crime, day after day, silently hoping that things will get better, all the time knowing full well that they won’t.

With the transition into full-time employment, comes the risk of encountering this toxicity. This makes me question my own abilities. It isn’t the work I question. I am fully aware that I am smart and driven and capable. It is the navigation of office politics that makes me feel entirely out of my depth. I am already someone who speaks in the passive voice. My emails are peppered with “if it’s OK” and “would you be able to’s”. Having come up against these kind of environment and conditions in the past has made me question my ability to be the career person I would like to transition into.  My daughter is going to school next year, casual employment is becoming increasingly tedious and demeaning, I want to start being paid for public holidays and sick days, which seems like a small ask and yet seems to be the hardest thing to transition to with my background as a long-term casual.

This blog post may read as if I am not capable, but I am thinking about it from another perspective. It isn’t that there is something wrong with me, it is that there is something wrong with workplaces that reward negative and intimidating behaviours, and that leave the people who work hard and contribute feeling unacknowledged. I refuse to compete with my colleagues, I am perfectly capable of being diplomatic because I posit it as being fucking nice and talking to everyone as I would want to be spoken to. I am more than capable of responding well to criticism as no one could ever be more critical of me than I am of myself. When I have come up against these situations in the past I have talked a big game when I am at home with my husband about how I am going to stick-it-to-the-man, but at the end of the day I will back down, eventually walk away, as I figure my mental health and emotional stability is worth more to me than aspiring to a ‘career’ in a place that makes my colleagues and I unwell, rewards arsehole-ish behaviour, and fosters unhealthy interactions between peers.

As I said in my introduction, I am unable to offer any advice on how to navigate toxic workplaces as I am unsure of how to address these issues myself. This year is the year of the assertive Smart Casual, so I am turning a critical eye to my experiences within the workplace, and asking myself what place I see for myself in the future. I know I want to write. I know I want to work in an environment which fosters teamwork and collaboration, and doesn’t operate on a platform of competition. I know I will not tolerate intimidation tactics and make them about my perceived sensitivity. The Thesis Whisperer offers the suggestion of instigating a “circle of niceness” within the worklace: a space where colleagues can come together to “be[..] together and talk[..] about ideas with honesty and openness” (sic). I think this is an idea that can be useful outside of the academy, as the asshole phenomenon is definitely not university specific. I want that, I think most people want that. It is an idea I am going to bring with me to my current situation, and to any future employment situations I enter into.

If you need a nice Smart Casual at your workplace let me know.

5 thoughts on “The emotional toll of the toxic workplace

  1. Systems of reward and recognition or the non-existence of them are at the core of this issue. In various workplaces I too have looked on in dismay as the gleeful asshole rubs palms together as they rise through the ranks crushing great people on their way. I have also seen the inexperienced newcomer waltz straight into the spacious corner office with the view that I’ve been peering at for months from my cramped and central cube. Even worse, after hours of time tracking and budgetary discussions the smiley new arrival proposes that they go on a global tour to introduce something they know next to nothing about. The idea is applauded, the funding is found at lightning speed and within a week they are the poster child for a project you’ve been slaving at for the last year. I can’t conclude that it’s always blatant nepotism. Sometimes it’s the arbitrary nature of these career opportunities that can be toxic and cruel and leave us questioning ourselves.

    • The dual myths of the workplace is that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough, and that hard work will be rewarded. The grim reality is that this isn’t the case. I think you are right about the arbitrary-ness of the rewards system. Some of the work of which I have been most proud ends up disappearing into the ether, as if my contribution never happened. The disappearing labour of the casual worker I guess.

      I am still unsure of how to navigate these systems, but I am learning to not judge myself by those parameters either. I am certain of my own value within the workplace, and my own contribution, even if it isn’t always acknowledged. One day I hope to make it out of the cube, although where I will end up is uncertain.

  2. “The dual myths of the workplace is that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough, and that hard work will be rewarded.”

    Here’s the thing – that’s only believed (and I don’t say this to be offensive, just how I see it) by the suckers – anyone in the know quickly works out that it is about being seen as doing the right things not if you are actually doing them – I’ve buried pretty much all of my competition who thought it was about hard work instead of identifying quickly what will get you noticed and ignoring the rest.

    For example, I was reading on twitter earlier someone who is spending over an hour per essay on marking – that is absolutely dead time and something that is never going to pay you back in terms of career progression and security. Now someone is going to say “but what about that warm glow from doing a good job/how happy the students are?”

    I can’t eat that.

    • I’m not offended at all 🙂 I agree that it isn’t about how much work you do, or even of the quality of the work you do sometimes, but the work you choose to do which might get you noticed and acknowledged within a particular setting. That being said, I have always positioned myself as the person who “gets shit done”. I guess perhaps I am naive in the sense that I pride myself on being the one who gets all of the work done, even that which is less glamorous and less likely to be acknowledged in the direct sense. Part of me holds onto the hope that it is this work ethic that will be recognised one day.

      Hope springs eternal.

      • I used to do this but I found that actually all that happens is that you get loaded down like a mule – so I’m pretty hard-skinned now about simply saying “no, I’m not going to do that” – all that ever happens is that the department finds someone else to do the grind and I get on with publications and the other things that are measured.

        The other problem with grind work is that it’s not portable, that is to say it carries no coin at all when you try to move across to different institutions

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