Do you leave your job most days feeling emotionally and physically drained? While few people love going to work every day, the number of days you're happy to head to the office should definitely outnumber the ones when you want to hide under the covers — especially since Americans spend an average of 47 hours per week at work!
But if your office and the people you interact with are toxic, it can be tough to make it through those 47 hours without letting those co-workers suck you dry. Unhealthy work environments often feature bad communication, inconsistency in policies and procedures, poor leadership and an unhealthy dose of negativity, says psychologist and consultant Dr. Paul White. Environments like these can lead to low morale, gossip, cattiness and general unprofessionalism among co-workers, all of which are toxic to be around.
However, there are certain strategies you can use for dealing with toxic co-workers so they don't affect your health or performance — here are some of the best ones from experts.
Setting appropriate boundaries can be especially tough for people-pleasers. But if you’re too nice to toxic co-workers (you know, listening to every detail of the annoying interaction they had with your boss), they'll inevitably suck you dry. You end up rescuing them from whatever problem they're having, whether it's helping them with a project they're behind on or spending your lunch break listening to their personal problems. Once that happens, you've set an expectation and they'll have hooked you until you say, “No more.”
White recommends using a firm statement such as, “I’m willing to do this one task, but I'm not able to do that other one," or, "I'm on deadline, so I don't have time to talk about this anymore, but good luck!" Amanda Mitchell, founder of Our Corporate Life LLC, says that it’s also critical to maintain control of your own internal dialogue, which is a different type of boundary. It’s normal when you’re processing your day to think about what others are up to, but when it colors your thinking or becomes something you can’t stop thinking about, you’ve lost your center — another way that toxic co-workers can drain the people around them.
In toxic work environments, it's smart to stay clued in to the gamesmanship around you, but stay on the sidelines without participating. “It’s important that you don’t convey any judgment of other’s techniques — your goal is to remain neutral and totally aware of the office dynamics, otherwise you could become a target,” explains Mitchell. When things are happening around you and someone is trying to draw you in, say, “that’s interesting” and don’t commit to any action. “You want the person to know you heard them, but you don’t want to validate their game or contribute to the drama they're trying to incite." By remaining an observer, you can protect yourself without getting sucked into conversations and events that will only bring you down.
High-pressure work environments with lots of office politics can take on a life of their own. “When your perspective narrows so that your entire focus is on the office, you're more likely to react than respond,” says Mitchell. It also increases your stress level by heightening the importance of what happens at work. Mitchell stresses the importance of maintaining your personal relationships with friends and family. Limit the amount of complaining you do with others and hear what’s going on with them. No one wants to be the person who turns a fun dinner or party into a vent-fest. Stay connected to what matters to you — a hobby, exercise and your loved ones. There's more to life than work.
“Toxic co-workers are masters of indirect communication,” says White. Don't be the messenger on their behalf or deliver messages to them from other people. When you take on this role, you end up getting the emotional response that's meant for the other person and you become the punching bag. And of course, participating in gossip and hearsay is another way of perpetuating dysfunction and distracting from what's really at stake: getting your work done. In general, it's always wise to stick with direct, straightforward communication.
Remember: If you don’t, nobody else will. If you're having health problems and not making time to exercise, cook healthy meals, or get enough sleep, these are all signs that you're letting a toxic workplace and co-workers take over your life. If that stress is spreading into other relationships or your home and family life is suffering, you’re headed down the wrong path. If you don't allow your energy, positivity and excitement about your work to be drained by toxic co-workers around you, these "energy vampires" will move on to new victims and leave you alone, realizing their games and bullshit don't work on you — and that's the ultimate goal.
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