How to Recover from Toxic Work Environments

What to do and how to recover in these difficult scenarios.

There are bad bosses, and then there are abusive, inhuman, horrible bosses. We’ve all surely dealt with work drama before, but sometimes those situations can escalate to the level of trauma, leaving lasting emotional scars. Generally associated with life-threatening events, the psychiatric condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also be caused by psychological harassment or violence -- or "bullying" -- according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Symptoms may include flashbacks, avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, insomnia and emotional numbness or a flood of emotions. Sound familiar? Read on to learn about extreme office stresses and get some healing suggestions from Judith Orloff, M.D., author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life.

Do you feel like the target of your boss' anger?

Toxic Scenario 1: The Toxic Boss

Toxic leaders are just plain destructive. Some of their characteristics, says Jean Lipman-Blumen in her book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders, include lying; deliberately undermining, demeaning and intimidating others; setting people against each other; and promoting incompetence with cronyism.

When bosses are bullies, they use their rank to change the entire office’s perception of their targets, making co-workers think the victims are less skilled than they are. The abusive supervisor sets up a “he said, he said” deadlock, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, making it hard for the target to fight back.

Read more: 10 Ways You're Sabotaging Your Own Success

What to Do:

Start mapping out your paper trail. Victims of a toxic boss’ abuse should document behavior that may fall into the realm of harassment or otherwise be illegal, recommends Monya De, M.D., M.P.H., a former ABC News medical reporter and a physician of internal and integrative medicine.

With reasonable documentation of recurring destructive behaviors, employees can approach human resources. But if the company does not respond or chooses to retaliate, workers may want to consider legal action. The National Women’s Law Center provides a list of legal assistance links.

Stay calm and carry on -- unless they cross the line.

How to Recover:

Your proverbial garlic against these emotional vampires is staying calm and nonreactive. “The toxic boss can wear down your confidence by dumping toxic anger on you, criticizing you, belittling you or just by being a narcissist,” says Dr. Orloff. “Someone only interested in what serves them has what science calls an ‘empathy-deficient disorder.’” If you’re still working with the manager, try to frame your requests in terms of how it can serve your boss.

“With anger addicts you must learn how not to take what is meant personally, personally. That is one of the spiritual laws of success,” she says. “If you left the toxic environment, give yourself time to emotionally heal. Tell yourself, ‘I did the best I could in a bad situation,’ and keep focusing on the future.”

Entangled in a web of someone else's lies?

Toxic Scenario 2: Bullying Co-Workers

You thought the playground bully was bad? Office bullying — whether verbal assaults, physical attacks or even harm to someone’s reputation — can be even more harmful. After all, your livelihood is on the line. A decrease in productivity and disengagement is a common result of unchecked bullying, which can affect a target’s performance review.

Your health is also in jeopardy. The Workplace Bullying Institute says that prolonged exposure to the stressors of bullying can cause stress-related health complications like heart problems, gastrointestinal disorders, a weakened immune system, fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. Symptoms of extreme stress can even include nausea, tremors, chills, headaches, elevated blood pressure and chest pain.

Work on strengthening the positive work relationships you have.

What to Do:

One editor described her first job in which an office ally turned on her: “I ended up doing a big, dramatic exit and told her, ‘If anyone ever treated your daughters the way you treated me, think about what you would do.’” While a cutting remark as you walk out seems like the ultimate revenge, it isn’t always that simple to leave a job. Document any damaging behavior and report it to your superior.

Don’t expect a big, emotional makeup, says Orloff. “It’s hard to trust bullying co-workers again. If they continue to bully, they do not warrant your trust.” She recommends being courteous without engaging them in any emotional sharing on your part. In fact, set boundaries and stick to them. “You must realize the limitations of a bully, continue to set limits with them, and make your interactions minimal,” she says. Meanwhile, physical attacks — hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping, pushing and the like — should be reported to police immediately.

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How to Recover:

If you’re interacting with other co-workers who are not bullies, try strengthening your relationships with them, which can help heal the trauma from bullying. “Say to yourself, ‘These are not the same people. I need to give them a chance and not project my old fears onto new people,’” says Orloff. “Be open to kindness and finding real colleagues again.” Victims of office bullying may also find some help with the company’s employee assistance program, which can offer workers counseling to address wellness and occupational issues.

It's an all-too-often scenario.

Toxic Scenario 3: Sexual Harassment

A shocking one in three women has been sexually harassed in the workplace, according to a 2015 Cosmopolitan survey. What qualifies? The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

Harassment does not even have to be sexual in nature — it can include offensive remarks about a person’s gender, such making offensive remarks about women in general. Also, the harasser doesn’t just have to be a manager; it can be a co-worker or even a client or customer.

Meditation can help you release the negative emotions.

What to Do:

It’s OK to feel like a victim in this situation. “You need to know in your core that you did not do anything wrong,” says Orloff. “You must realize the suffering that motivates acts like sexual harassment and see the person as sick.” Document instances of harassment and report them to superiors and the company’s human resources department. Seek legal help if you believe you were fired, demoted or not promoted as a result of your experience. If a crime has been committed or you are at risk of bodily harm, call 911 immediately.

How to Recover:

“Dealing with self-blame and doubt is key to recovering from sexual harassment,” Dr. Orloff says. “Meditate each day for a week on inwardly asking shame to be released and for you to have the clarity to see that you are not at fault.” A support group can be very helpful in healing the trauma, especially one in which you can express your emotions rather than bottle them up. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network suggests that victims seek counseling through the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online through their site.

Cutbacks can actually create a sense of survivor's guilt.

Toxic Scenario 4: Cutbacks and Layoffs

If you’ve found yourself mourning the loss of your job, you’re not alone. The response to job loss can indeed reflect the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), Dr. De says. “There’s a grieving process involved in getting laid off and losing your job, especially if it’s something you like [or] if it’s a financial lifeline to the kind of lifestyle you want,” she says. When people lose their jobs, they often lose their health insurance, which can undermine their ability to seek help.

What to Do:

The resulting loss of self-esteem can be debilitating. “A lot of people lose valuable time in those first few months, when they could be out pounding the pavement, looking for a new job, getting on the Internet,” says De. Start by proactively dealing with the physical and emotional fallout, which, according to a Stanford University faculty assistance resource, can include anxiety, irritability, anger, frustration and shame as well as fatigue, headaches, weight loss or gain, insomnia, digestive issues and muscle pain.

Staying positive is key when dealing with a job loss.

How to Recover:

Focus on regaining confidence in your employability. “Your self-worth must be based on what kind of person you are, not anything external,” Dr. Orloff says. “That’s hard with cutbacks, but you must remind yourself that the cutbacks are not about you personally.” Practice some positive, soothing self-talk, reminding yourself that you are a good person who is doing the best you can. She also recommends meditating on releasing fear so your work life isn’t dominated by it. “Try to live in the now as best you can and not catastrophize about the future,” Orloff suggests.

Taking care of yourself and trying to maintain a positive outlook should be your main priorities after losing your job. Among its tips for coping with layoffs, Stanford University also recommends that those who have experienced a job loss maintain supportive relationships and nurture themselves by doing something productive every day. Seek professional help to address debilitating anxiety and depression.

Dealing with a re-org can be confusing and stressful.

Toxic Scenario 5: New Management Upheavals

It’s a common occurrence: A new manager arrives and cleans house, hiring his or her own people. A digital-industry veteran describes a new manager who came in with a “my way or the highway” attitude and began using the company’s performance-review system to purge the ranks. “I basically went to work every day for a year feeling like I had a target on my back. I never really got over it,” the worker says.

The “what I say goes” attitude can kill team spirit, writes author and executive coach Annie McKee in the Harvard Business Review. Fear of the unknown places a huge stress on staff when a new manager is hired. Often, the newly arrived supervisor doesn’t display the emotional intelligence to deal with the team’s fears.

What to Do:

In the case of the digital worker, she contested the review, and the problem was solved when the manager was eventually fired. But that’s not a solution to count on. Consider joining an industry trade union like the ones affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which are set up to organize and support workers and negotiate conditions, benefits, salaries and other employment issues.

If all else fails, De recommends making a lateral move to a company with good reviews on a site like Admittedly, leaving a job you otherwise enjoy is an unsatisfying option, but it could open the door to an opportunity you may not have considered.

Be accountable and advocate for yourself.

How to Recover:

It’s all about transforming your frustration, according to Dr. Orloff. “Talk to a friend or supportive co-worker or therapist about your feelings.” Try saying an affirmation in the morning, such as “I am grateful for this day — I will make it a good one.” Or she suggests the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Orloff cautions against resorting to catastrophic thinking. “Stay in the now. Do what you can to stabilize your work situation each day,” she says. “When you find yourself worrying, be mindful of that and say to yourself, ‘I will have trust and faith that all will be well and that I can handle anything that arises.’” Finding compassion for yourself will help to alleviate the feeling of helplessness and motivate you to advocate for your future.

What Do YOU Think?

Have you ever been in one of these situations? What are some suggestions you have for other people who are dealing with these problems? Tell us in the comments.

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