8 Things for Returning to a Toxic Work Environment and its Effects
People in a cafe eating and talking
When the quarantine is over

The quarantine lockdown is ending. Communities are moving into phase 2 and 3. People are starting to go places, to meet with friends at a safe distance and some are returning to work. It feels like such a relief to be back to something resembling normal and away from the endlessness of staying home – unless you are returning to a toxic work environment and its effects.

While for many people returning to work is a great relief, for some people returning to work means returning to a toxic workplace. Working from home has been safe from bullying, harassment, micromanagement, verbal assault, or being made into a sexual object, or sexually coerced. How can you deal with a toxic work environment and its effects?

The interesting thing about bullying and other toxic behavior is that it is not done in secret. It is often done in the open where others can see it. Those who see often have a sickening feeling, some fear, and a feeling of wanting to crawl away unseen. No one will or can stand up to the powerful person who abuses others.

Everyone is made weak. And that weakness translates into a loss for the company. People’s work efficiency and productivity go down. Many lose their enthusiasm for the company and cease being loyal. Some may follow the example they see from leadership and start giving as bad as they get.

Image of an eye filled with tears of a person in a toxic work environment.
Harassment hurts

What is a Toxic Work Environment?

A toxic work environment is where you are not treated with respect but are treated as a bad child. Everyone makes mistakes but the response to even the smallest error is a reprimand or even a tirade. Instead of getting a correction or help, you get anger and belittling. You may be left out of the loop and then be expected to know what is going on. Not knowing is another reason to get a sneer or a glare. Sometimes someone is a bully or is harassing. They use the power of their position or sometimes their gender or size to threaten or control you. Or they try to seduce you and fix it so that you have little choice.

Bullying is the secret that everyone knows giving silent consent to the bully.

To tolerate the toxic work environment, people, especially those higher up in the organization or closer to the abuser, ignore what they see. they make excuses or explain it away. As a result, the leadership of an organization may be deaf to what is going on that damages their company.

Your organization’s leadership may be under a lot more pressure because of the pandemic and the crashing economy. The resulting anxiety that the leadership feels may get translated into more demands, more bullying, and less job security.

As the person who is getting bullied, I won’t call you a victim, you certainly know how the abuse feels. When you go back to the workplace, it will start all over again. You’ll have constant headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, guilt, fear, anxiety, and maybe depression and burnout. This happens on top of the actual demands of your job.

Workplace bullying is so common that there are researchers all around the world working on the problem. One estimate is that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy $8billion per year. It is estimated that between 25% and 50% of workers in the US have experienced bullying with an estimated cost to the US of $180billion per year.

What can you do about the effects of a toxic work environment?

First of all, realize, deep down, that it is not your fault. This is a problem way beyond anything you can be responsible for. For sure, it is made to look like it is about you but it is more about the culture of the organization and of organizational leadership. And when you work at or near the top, you are more in the line of fire.

Here are eight things you can do to prepare to return to a toxic work environment and its effects on you.


1. Don’t take it personally, even if the harassment is directed at you specifically. Be determined not to let it take you down.

It is not your fault. it is a much bigger problem than you and it isn’t your problem to start with. It is just aimed at you. This is a power exchange. The person in power is attempting to intimidate you or humiliate you. By reducing your power, your abuser gains a feeling of being more powerful and in control.

Take a breath, feel your feet under you, and then sharpen your gaze on the person who is aiming at you. Don’t let it have an effect on you.

You can decide not to play these power games. In fact, if you try to play power against power it will end up with you losing. You’ll get accused of being insubordinate, or worse; of being weak, or a rage-aholic. Don’t play the game at all, Just stay steady, look him or her in the eyes, maybe smile a bit and watch the show.

2. Be a clinical observer

People, especially women, tend to simply tolerate bullying and harassing behavior. The prevailing attitude is that there is nothing you can do about it so just suck it up. Research shows that those who are bullied tend “to freeze up and try to escape from the situation, or to ruminate about it, keep going over it in their mind, but not actually do something active about it,” They also “were less likely to show problem-solving type strategies”

What can you do?

Become a clinical observer without interacting with the power. This will get you out of the freeze-up. You’ll be able to keep thinking more clearly. You will reduce the toxic effects.

Just observe. Don’t come to conclusions about why the person is acting as they do. Instead, become curious about what is going on. A conclusion will block your curiosity. Notice not only the overt behaviors but also things like sweating, breathing, quality of voice. Be able to clearly describe the facial expression, for example.

This means that you can pretty much go deaf to what this person is saying. What they are saying makes little difference. What is going on here is not about what they want from you but about how they are behaving at this moment. There are plenty of other ways to communicate something important to you.

What you get as intimidation or humiliation is, in reality, just behavior, like eye-rolling, smirking, ignoring you, changing the topic that is of concern to you. The behavior could also be standing too close, or looming over you. It could also be threatening gestures, like a raised fist, pounding the desk, crushing a soda can in your face.

Notice how effective it has been when by-standers video record incidents on the street, including those that involve a police officer. Even though it is aimed at you, be that observer. Use this power of active observation rather than reaction. You can even call out the offensive behavior.

3. Name the toxic behavior

Begin to name the toxic behavior you are experiencing. It can be both overt and subtle. It can be someone who yells at you or someone who comments on your competence, about your body, your race, or gender. You may get a disapproving look or unreasonable demands. You may be ignored, never looked at, or spoken to.

You’ve been observing. What have you seen? What words would you use to describe it? Learn to be very objective in how you describe what you have observed. Again, avoid coming to any conclusions. Don’t want to say why someone is doing something. Say what they are doing. You must write down what you have seen so that you can accurately document what happens.

Then start talking with others. Share your clinical observations. You can tell your family and friends about the curious behavior you have seen. But don’t make it a complaint session. That only harms you. Don’t tell a long story or try to defend yourself. Remember, this is not about you. It is about somebody else’s curious and toxic behavior.

If the behavior goes on, start asking if other people at your workplace have made similar observations. Again, we are calling on the power of the witness to restrain the behavior of a person that is exercising power in inappropriate ways. You are also making supportive relationships. Having a supportive network of friends is key.

4. Change the culture

While it may be one person who is particularly toxic or at least who is bullying you, remember that what he/she is doing is not a secret. Others may have been bullied too. Everyone knows about it and no one talks about it. That gives silent consent. This is the kind of thing that creates a toxic work culture.

Become the force of good, the light that overcomes the darkness of the bully. Get agreement from others at work to treat each other with extra civility and kindness. Be thoughtful and caring of your workmates.

Authentic Appreciation has been shown to quickly and radically improve the morale of a workforce. Unlike bonuses and awards, authentic appreciation is a personal, one-on-one heartfelt interaction. It is not about what a person accomplished. It is how you feel about what the person has dose. That is to say, this is a feeling-to-feeling communication.

Start by expressing authentic appreciation to several people. They may start to catch on how to do it. You can also encourage others to give authentic appreciation to each other.

5. Get support

So often we try to go it alone. You need support if you are in a toxic workplace, and it is having a toxic effect on you. You are not a victim. Yes, things are being done to you, but you don’t want to assume that position. If the things being done to you hurt, share that burden with those who love you, your friends, and your family.

Your goal in talking with others is to reduce the toxic effects that the bullying has on you and to make progress in the situation. Be careful not to keep re-injuring yourself as you retell the story over and over. Of course, you want to tell what happened and what you observed, but also talk about how this is affecting you, how it makes you feel, and what you are doing about it.

When someone is being bullied or harassed they not only benefit from talking to a professional but that they actually need to. A psychologist or therapist has techniques to make you more resilient and to decrease your sensitivity in the situation.

You probably notice that you don’t feel good in your body. You might have headaches, backache, stomach ache, muscle or joint aches, or a flare-up of arthritis. Before you seek the help of a nutritionist, a chiropractor, a massage therapist, and take various medicines, remember that these symptoms are all the result of the bullying. Therefore, seek the help of a mental health professional first. Then work on your body.

6. Tell them to stop

People do all kinds of things at work that may be OK with some people but not with others. Those things are reportable only if you told them to stop and then did not stop.

Because you have been observing, you can tell them to stop rolling their eyes or smirking. You can tell them to stop telling racist jokes or the things they do that are humiliating.

Once again, feel your feet under you and look the person right in the eyes. Take a breath to steady yourself and then say clearly what the behavior is and that it must stop. Make no threats, just tell them to stop. Don’t argue. This is not the time to debate whether they did something or not. No matter what they say, tell them to stop the behavior.

You should be well prepared at this time. This is about power and not about you. You have your support and have been working with a seasoned mental health professional so that you are more resilient. You have been making your clinical observations so that you can clearly describe what the person is doing. And it must stop!

7. You may need to report it

If what happens continues or is so egregious that it demands that you take action, you will have to report it to Human Resources. This has some built-in problems, and yet you might be legally obligated to report.

Get legal counsel. An attorney can tell you what your obligations are and what the responsibilities and processes of Human Resources will be. Should you need it, you will have established a relationship with someone who can advocate for you and protect you.  The union can advocate for you as well if you are represented by a union,.

Human Resources serves the purposes of the business. But having said that, they are also human beings and may have a lot of empathy and care about you. At the same time, they cannot help you because their hands may be tied. If you have made a complaint about the most powerful person in the company, their only suggestion for you might be to find another job.

Realize that Human Resources may have no control over the most powerful person in your company. The most they may have to offer is to transfer you away from that person. This is likely to be a demotion or to move you to an irrelevant place. This is when you need your union and the attorney to protect your interests and to negotiate for you.

Hopefully, you’ll already be looking for another job. Your professional contacts are the best source of new job interviews. Even your competitors are a good source. Because this has never
been about you, you can take your skills and experience and sell them, with pride and self-assurance, at a better price to someone else.

8. Make everyone whole again

We’ve seen it happen when one person finally makes a complaint about what everyone has been seeing for a long time, suddenly there is a chain reaction. Many people start coming
forward as Human Resources investigates your complaints. It can feel like the whole place is crumbling around you.

You have now arrived at a choice point. You could choose to start a lawsuit. The company, which may in truth be sympathetic, will defend itself against you with all its might. They can’t do anything for you or even talk to you. They will likely forbid any employee from talking to you, even your friends and allies.

The negotiations will drag on for a long time. Whatever they end up offering gets split between you and your attorney. While you might have hoped to get millions, that is very unlikely. This entire affair will have cost you in stress, medical costs, time, and income. And it may be the end of your career. The company and the accused are covered by insurance. They suffer no harm.

There is an alternative. It is called Restorative Justice and Reconciliation. This process allows the company to be on your side and to provide you with services. It removes the person you have accused and asks them to engage in Intensive Psychotherapy. If that person has been successful in that therapy, then there can be a process of reconciliation.

Ideally, this saves your career. The person who had abused their power is restored to their humanity and can safely return to the workplace. Everyone, the employees, the abusive person, and the company are made whole again.

I am Dr. Rob Woodman and I work with people who are being abused in the workplace and the abusers. If you would like more information about how I can help you, please contact me.