Stuck In a Toxic Work Environment

I’ve certainly had many moments throughout my career where I questioned my work environment and whether it was benefiting or hurting my career path. And then, unfortunately, I’ve also had moments where I evaluated whether that same environment was affecting my mental and physical health. Having a chronic condition that is directly affected by stress, this is something I must consider when taking a new job.

A few weeks ago, on a day when I was feeling a bit defeated, I walked into a nearby coffee shop and almost cried, not because of the stress I felt from my work, but because a stranger was being nice to me.

I’ve been feeling generally alarmed at how we treat each other in the world – not just our rising awareness of discriminatory behavior, but how we regard each other as humans. This has become especially apparent in the nonprofit work space.  

We have a mission and a vision that we feel attached to – that we derive a sense of purpose from. This can range from advocating for animal welfare, improving access to education, creating a support system for kids with chronic conditions, etc. Many of us who work in the nonprofit sector do so because we want to make a difference in the world. We want to contribute to a cause and better the society we engage with.

But what happens when our mission and vision is tainted by internal bureaucracy, bullying, little concern for work-life balance and a focus on what we’re doing wrong as opposed to collaboration and positive performance? It’s possible then that we are part of a toxic work environment.

Safe and Supportive Environments

When I was in school, I took an interest in industrial and organizational psychology, not because I wanted a career in Human Resources or to teach businesses how to retain and recruit staff. I wanted to learn how to improve morale and motivation in the workplace. I wanted to create safe and supportive environments for employees. Their well-being mattered to me (and from a business standpoint, it matters to productivity, too).

But as one individual, how do you change an entire culture? How do you be that ambassador for change? You need support, allies and a collective drive to revolutionize the way you do business. Sometimes, negative environments, such as a toxic workplace, can be the fuel that ignites the fire to build momentum and direct the organization in a healthy, new direction.

This is not easy. It doesn’t happen overnight. And when you’re fighting the good fight, you lose people along the way. Better opportunities arise. The toxic stress becomes too much, and employees need to do what’s best for their own well-being. I fully support this, and even while working in “toxic” environments (sometimes contributing to the very bureaucracy that defines it), I’ve considered the limitations of my own worldview, so that I can better support colleagues and clients. Sometimes, that’s all you can do.

I Am a Human Being

So, a few weeks ago, on a day when I was feeling defeated, I decided to take a walk and get some much-needed headspace. I went to lunch by myself, which I highly recommend whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed by your environment – there is something therapeutic in being among people but not having to interact with those people. On my way back to work, I stopped by this new coffee place I had been meaning to check out but somehow never had the “time.”

I was greeted by the most upbeat and cordial baristas. Now, having spent considerable time in the customer service business, I know how hard it can be to put on a positive face. The first barista I encountered asked if I wanted room for cream in my Americano. Maybe he asks everyone that? But the fact that he seemingly took the time to be considerate of this fact really surprised me. And then I wondered why? When my order was ready, another barista smiled at me and said, “Have a nice day, Tracy.” That’s when I almost cried.

I felt like I had been acknowledged as a person, and even though it may have been part of their job, it seemed like someone cared for my well-being. I had no idea I had been feeling so dismissed and devalued. But in that moment, among the genuine amiable atmosphere of the café, I felt whole.

Maybe I cannot change an entire worldview? Maybe I cannot change one toxic environment? But I can put it upon myself to treat people with the respect and value they deserve. This is one step forward and something I’m trying to be more cognizant of. I’m not always the most pleasant person to be around (frustrations get the better of my affable demeanor), and sometimes, I choose not to hold the elevator doors open for someone.

In reality, holding that door only takes a few seconds. And those few seconds could mean the world to someone else.


-- Tracy Gnadinger