6 Ways To Deal When You're Working In A Toxic Office Environment

by Caroline Nelson

For nearly a year of my life, I worked at a place I hated. It wasn't the normal, “I don't want to go into work” feeling; it was levels above that.

I couldn't sleep, I drank to be able to deal with another day, I cried in the bathroom at least once a week and I often had uncontrollable emotional outbursts both in and out of the office. This wasn't me, and I was often shocked and ashamed at who I had become. I worried that the parts of myself that I loved were gone, and I would cry at night wondering if I would ever regain them.

Weekends and nights were spent working and stressing over every possible mistake I could've made in the past week. The rules kept changing, and I would always feel like an idiot who was never able to keep up.

The weirdest part was, I thought it was a completely normal work environment. I had convinced myself that I was lucky.

The management kept telling me all the “perks” I had, and how it would be hard to find those somewhere else. I felt my skills were mediocre at best, and I always had so much more to learn.

Eventually, it got the best of me and I began gossiping and became sour. I made so many mistakes that it became obvious I was in over my head. I was seriously struggling.

It wasn't surprising to me that I got fired. I had been suspecting it, and I didn't feel like I had grounds to dispute it.

As I boxed up whatever I could grab in five minutes while one of the partners who had never said once nice thing to me watched, I walked past my manager who didn't even bother to get up to shake my hand.

I realized it was finally over. Sure, I cried on my way home, pondering what my next step could possibly be. But, I was finally free. I had found my way out.

I now work in the exact opposite of that environment. I cherish every day I get to spend with the people I work with. While I took a huge pay cut at the position I am at now and it is temporary, I know that I am richer than I ever was at my old place.

My bosses are incredible, and I have finally found people who are truly invested in my professional growth. I nearly cried the first time I heard I did an amazing job. I hadn't heard that in over a year without strings attached.

The purpose of this article — my hope is, anyway — is that someone who is currently in the position I was in will read this and understand you can get out and you are worth so much more. So, without further ado, here are the five things I learned while I worked at a market research firm whose most newsworthy statistic is its high employee turnover rate:

1. You are responsible for your actions and reactions.

My biggest regret is that I would let the petty stuff management did turn me into a petty person. I am very ashamed to say I even picked on an intern we had simply because it appeared to be a good bonding opportunity with my manager.

Sometimes, when I would get an angry three-paragraph email or have a passive-aggressive encounter with management, I would take it out on my co-workers with snippy remarks and overdramatic texts about how bad my day was. My reactions were inappropriate and unnecessary. Plus, when management would hear me get upset, it would strengthen their resolve to treat me the way they did.

If you feel like you're about to boil over, my best advice is for you to go take a walk or go to the bathroom. I'm not going to lie: It's really hard to hide the tears sometimes.

But just remember that the only thing your tears are good for is gossip for those who are making you upset. The most frustrating thing for someone who is trying to drag you down is to show it's not affecting you.

2. Your current job does not define your career or yourself.

This is advice one of my co-workers gave to me. When she said it, I was too upset to see she was right.

Every time I messed up or management rewrote my work, I not only thought it had implications on my professional experience at that place, but I also thought it revealed personality flaws and gaps in myself that would take down my career as a whole.

I wasn't good at market research, and I can't say I am terribly broken up about it. It wasn't something I was interested in before, and it's not something I am interested in now. It got a lot better once I left, and I took some key lessons from market research and applied it to where I am now.

It's frustrating, I know, but understand this is temporary, and it too shall pass. Of course, we want to be good at everything, and it's really hard when you're told day after day that you're not progressing.

Just try to remember the things you are good at, and look at job postings for things you are passionate about, too. I truly believe passion fuels greatness.

3. Accept the blame for your mistakes.

This is another piece of advice one of my co-workers gave me. I was always told to stand up for myself and to stop letting my manager or others use me as a way to deflect blame.

I took the blame for my mistakes, as I should have. However, when someone else had made a mistake on my project, I would also take that blame, never knowing that others wouldn't — and didn't — do the same for me.

My mistakes alone were enough to get me fired in the end, this I know. However, it never helped that when I didn't do anything wrong, I still found ways to take the heat.

My best advice is to accept the blame for your wrongdoings, but unapologetically rebuke the blame that's meant for others. In a bad environment, it's not useful to be a martyr.

4. Never ever engage in office gossip.

I am hot for secrets, but you would be surprised how much gossip can be detrimental. It doesn't matter whom you are gossiping about or if it is true, just don't do it. You never know who is talking about you, either.

I'm not saying don't trust anyone; I'm saying be smart. You wouldn't want someone else gossiping about you.

It wasn't just the fact that I engaged in the office gossip; it was the fact that it was so obvious. My co-workers and I would spend the day sending mean texts about others and laughing about it.

It probably made for a really uncomfortable office, and the management recognized that and didn't appreciate it. Honestly, this was never brought up in my review or when they fired me, but I seriously doubt it helped.

Aside from the fact that it's annoying, it's also very wrong and can do serious damage. Everyone was engaged in an ugly rumor about my boss and manager, and it was a rumor that could really hurt their families.

It was never proven, and no solid evidence was ever provided. I look back and wish I was mature enough to stop it because it was wrong.

True or not, it wasn't any of our business. Just don't do it. It's not worth it.

5. You will be oddly grateful for what you went through.

Ernest Hemingway once said,

We're stronger in the places that we've been broken.

Before that tiny place fired me, I had never had anyone who I worked for say I was anything less than exceptional. I honestly started to feel pretty full of myself, as most 20-somethings do. I had a healthy dose of humble pie that I desperately needed.

They forced me to confront my weaknesses, too. I have ADHD, and details are not at all my strong point. But they really do matter, and they really mattered to them.

I am by no means perfect, but I do review my work a lot more and pay much closer attention now. It may take some time, and you will never feel gratitude toward the people themselves, but you will be grateful for the experience.

6. But, your scars are going to take a while to heal.

I recently had to take initiative on a project I was not comfortable doing, but I had no choice, and my direct supervisor wasn't there. I was terrified for a week that they were going to fire me because I was sure I had done something wrong or overstepped my boundaries.

The exact opposite happened. My supervisor emailed me, telling me how much he appreciated the good work I had done.

I don't like making eye contact with the staff above me because I fear I will see the judgment and disappointment I had grown accustomed to in their eyes. I am always afraid they will figure out the “real me” and toss me aside. As far as I know, nobody at my new place knows I was fired, and I hope to keep it under wraps as long as possible.

Before I was fired, I would have judged someone who was, especially from his or her first job out of college. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that others will do the same. It will be a while before I can send an email without checking it 10 times before and after for errors and sweating over each tiny possible mistake I could have made.

I am finally able to answer the office phone without worry, and I hope other things can come along with it, too. I am lucky to work for people who are kind to and patient with me. You will feel better once you are out, but those scars will still be there every day for a while.

For those who are currently in the position I was in a year ago, I am so sorry. The pain and exhaustion is overwhelming, and a lot of people don't understand. You will get out, you will find a better place and you will be a better person because of it.

Right now, understand that people who aim to make you feel smaller only do that because they are small themselves. Don't feel like they have so much power over you that you can't leave. It all starts with an application to other places.

In the meantime, go for a run, indulge in some greasy food, find healthy ways to cope or seek professional help. No matter how you get out, whether it's on your terms or not, you will.

You will find your rainbow. Your journey is far from over, and the light at the end of the tunnel is so bright.