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  • Surviving a Toxic Workplace: a Depth Psychotherapy Perspective

    In today’s work world, many people are confronted with the challenge of surviving a toxic workplace. In recent years, and especially since the pandemic, awareness of people’s experience of toxic workplaces has greatly increased.

    Here in the middle of the 21st century, people are often devoting more and more of their energy to work. It is also true that what workplaces demand of their workers seems to continually increase. Given that background, how  do we know if a work place is “toxic”? And if it is, what can you do about it?

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    What are the fundamental characteristics of a toxic workplace? In a recent article in Walrus magazine entitled “Danger; Your Job”, journalist  Samia Madwar helped us identify several key indicators of when a workplace has turned toxic. These include managers who function generally as bullies, demeaning employees’ abilities and rejecting their input and/or discouraging employees from asking questions. They also include generally hostile environments, which may or may not be characterized by open on-going expression of conflict between employees. It also certainly includes work environment where managers manage by tantrum. 

    Almost needless to say, it also includes work environments characterized by racism, sexism or other forms of bigotry. Unfortunately, there are a substantial number of such workplaces, even today.

    An all too common characteristic of a toxic workplace is what Madwar follows Sara Fung in referring to as a “toxic rock star”. This is a manager who gets results, but at the expense of his or her team’s well-being. Such individuals can be highly valued by the organization they work for, but the people working under them can pay a very high cost. In such organizations, “A lot of high-performing individuals got stepped on,”  and they must decide to either stay and keep their heads down, or leave.

    So, is this just the nature of workplaces in our current world? Must we just accept that workplaces are inherently toxic?

    Is a Toxic Workplace “Just the Way it Is”?

    At first glance, it might appear that workplace toxicity is “just the way it is”. In a survey of 4800 respondents in 2020 and 2021 conducted by the University of Western Ontario, the University of Toronto and CLC, an astounding 71.2 percent of respondents had experienced some form of workplace harassement or violence in the preceding two years.

    Given the picture of the work environment that this survey implies, it might be easy to conclude that we must just accept things the way that they are. That whatever the workplace dishes out, we must basically smile, keep our heads down, and accept.As Madwar asserts,

    There’s even handy business jargon that attempts to justify the inequity… for example, the concept of “managing up”…. “Even if your boss has some serious shortcomings,” one Harvard Business Review article advises, “it’s in your best interest, and it’s your responsibility, to make the relationship work.”…. Workplaces rarely invest in dealing with conflict, because profits tend to be priorized over well-being.

    The conclusion that a working individual who faces these issues might draw from the above is that their work situation is basically unchangeable, which might well be a recipe for anxiety and depression. As Madwar stresses,

    Over time… bullying targets… start to isolate themselves. They question their own behaviour, wondering whether they’re being too sensitive. They worry that their complaints might be dismissed as run-of-the-mill interpersonal conflict.

    Yet, it’s essential that workers take their own experience seriously, and look to see what their bodies might be telling them about how “normal” what they are experiencing actually is. If the individual is experiencing sleep loss, anxious rumination or restlessness or gastrointestinal disorders—it’s a strong indication that your body is telling you that something here is unnatural and out of order. 

    The Inner Critic and Surviving a Toxic Workplace

    Many of us have an extremely active inner critic, which is often or always criticizing how we do things in our lives. It can often lead us to criticize ourselves or underevaluate ourselves in areas that are really important in our lives. When an individual is in a toxic work situation, the inner critic can often show up in ways that disparage the individual’s work performance, lead him or her to question their own judgment, or even brand their strong emotional reaction as “petty”, “immature” or “selfish”. It can lead us to believe that we’re the problem and that we “just need to learn to suck it up”, and do better at work, and that will make everything all right.

    Potentially, this can lead to serious emotional or even physical and health-related problems. It’s important for us to get past the inner critic, listen to our deepest selves and our body, and take strong steps to take care of ourselves.

    An Individual Response to Surviving a Toxic Workplace

    If you are dealing with what you feel may be a toxic workplace, it’s essential to take your own reactions and your own needs seriously. It’s important for us to ask ourselves. what is the real effect of this workplace on my deepest self? What is my body telling me about how I’m responding to my workplace?

    There are other questions that are also important for us to ask ourselves. One is, do I really have a healthy work/like balance? Another very important question in our technological era, is does my workplace give me the right to disconnect—from email, text, work-related phonecalls—or am I expected to always be on?

    It’s essential that we really see clearly whether we are dealing with a toxic workplace. In one sense the answer to that question is very personal, as we need to assess what the impact of that particular workplace is on ourselves, personally. In a similar way, the response we take to that workplace, and the steps that we take to improve our relationship to work—also have a personal dimension, and are unique to each of us. 

    Depth psychotherapy, and Jungian therapy in particular, can be of great help as we work our way through the vital question of surviving a toxic workplace. The supportive and affirming environment created in a relationship with a skilled Jungian psychotherapist can be essential to an individual making a properly assessment of his or her own needs, and to finding the course forward in his or her own life that truly honours their own needs.

    With very best wishes for your continuing personal journey

    Brian Collinson 

    Registered Psychotherapist and 

    Certified Jungian Analyst (IAAP) 

    Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional

    © Brian Collinson, 2024