How to Cope in a Toxic Workplace

You’re pretty lucky if during your career, you’ve managed to avoid working in some kind of toxic environment. Wikipedia defines a toxic workplace as being ‘a workplace that is marked by significant drama and infighting, where personal battles often harm productivity’. Basically, a hostile work environment “leaves you feeling like dirt,” says Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor who studies organizational behaviour. It should be notes that toxicity doesn’t have to necessarily be direct and overt, it can in some cases be more subtle.

A study by the University of Manchester unsurprisingly found that people working for a toxic boss experienced lower rates of job satisfaction and this misery often spilled over into their personal lives. It was also found that employees working for narcissistic or psychopathic bosses were more likely to experience clinical depression. Where toxicity isn’t managed, studies have found that it spreads like wildfire.  

This above is unlikely to come as a huge surprise but it highlights its a widespread problem and you’re not alone if you have been or are going through this.

So what can be done?

Focus on the Job in Hand
Working in a toxic environment is naturally stressful yet it’s important to continue to perform to the required standard and not give anyone any ammunition to be used against you. It may be useful, where appropriate, to confirm meeting outcomes in writing, although if this isn’t the best approach, then keep your own notes.  

However, trying to deliver as normal in such an environment can be difficult if the situation is inducing a degree of stress. Stress can impair thinking, which can lead to procrastination and inaction. Best -selling self-development author, Brian Tracy, suggests that when you first arrive at work, you should ‘eat the frog’ which means getting the most critical task done first so that the day can only get easier. Yet what if everything is critical? Motivational speaker, Mel Robbins, who suffered from procrastination and in action herself, talks about the Five Second Rule – taking action within 5 seconds of a thought. So, if you’re overwhelmed as to your first or next task, make a decision and act upon within 5 seconds. If you don’t, you give yourself too much of a window to over think, talk yourself out if it and soon you’re back to where you started.

Increase your Resilience
Believe it or not, you can choose your state of mind and how you respond to situations. How you think effects how you feel and how you feel effects how you behave. If you want to change how you feel and behave, you have to change how you think. When your state of mind is negative, you’re unlikely to feel resilient and in a bid to protect yourself, you may find yourself retreating away. Yet by recognising unhelpful thought patterns and consciously choosing to replace these with something more helpful, you can begin to think, feel, and behave with more resilience and confidence. This doesn’t mean ignoring or accepting the unreasonable behaviour at work, it simply helps you navigate your way through the day feeling more equipped and in control.

Speak to a Confidante
Having a sounding board, someone you know and trust within or outside of the business, can be a much needed way of letting off steam in a safe space. The right person will provide you with support and sympathy as well as sage advice, but it’s also important that they are objective as it can be easy to only look at situations through only one lens and catastrophise.

Gather Evidence
in case you wish to escalate concerns, keep specific notes of when you’ve been at the receiving end of toxicity. Be specific, so rather than record that ‘she was mean to me’, or ‘he humiliated me’, detail specifically what happened and what was said. Dates and times and names of people present can also be useful to record.  If you feel that something isn’t very tangible, such as you feel that there’s a subtext to emails which read, on the face of it, quite politely, then still make a record and note why you believe there’s a subtext.  

Speak to HR / Employment Lawyer
If you decide to raise the matter with HR; before you speak with them, gather your examples.  Also have an intention in mind as to the outcome you’d like. It can sometimes be assumed that HR won’t act if the toxic people have been in the business for some time, however often HR are unable to act when people don’t come forward.

In the event that you don’t have a HR department, or you don’t trust the HR department, an employment lawyer can often provide an initial free consultation or you can seek advice from ACAS. or the Citizens Advice.

Plan Next Steps
Deciding whether to stay or leave can be a tough one.  You may like the job and your team but hate the overall culture. Or, you may like the company and see potential opportunities but hate your boss. Decide what’s important to you, what options you have, and how the situation is impacting your life. You rarely hear people saying when they’re out of bad situations that they should have stayed longer; usually it’s that they can’t believe they stuck around for so long, but it can be helpful to feel that you’ve done all that’s in your control.


Julie Greaves is a Career Coach and HR Consultant. To arrange a free chat with Julie to see how she can help you, contact her at  


Julie Greaves