Over the course of a career it is possible that you will end up working for a bad employer, the kind that says they care about employee well being, and then asks you to do something unethical, or compromises your health by demanding excessive working hours and results. Or perhaps your employer was just fine, but you encountered a toxic boss who demeaned you and made you constantly feel like you were never performing well enough, always hanging the threat of being fired over your head. These are just a few examples (sadly there are many more) but you get the picture. Coming out of a bad employment situation is similar to putting yourself back together after any unhealthy relationship has ended. Here are a few things to consider if you’ve experienced an toxic working relationship (or are in one now).
Trust Yourself. So many of my clients come out of these difficult work experiences not knowing where the “fault line” lay. Following a bad experience, give yourself some time to clear your mind (a few days or even a few weeks) and if your instincts are telling you that you were not to blame for the relationship going sour, believe your gut. Allow this time to bring your instinctive insight to bear; there will always be things you regret or that you feel you mishandled in this relationship, but if in your heart you know that you were asked to do things that were not ethical (or possible) then be compassionate with yourself. And if you are having trouble shaking off the lingering effects of this toxic work experience don’t feel like you have to live with it all by yourself, consider getting help from a trusted resource (counsellor, therapist or a coach).
Know it was not your fault. Just because your employer may have approached things rationally and with forethought doesn’t mean what they were asking of you (or how they made you feel) was appropriate or warranted. Employers hold the power, and when that position (or your trust) is abused in a tangible (rather than an assumed) way, you as an employee have very few options. Never presume it was solely your fault, after all it takes two to foster conflict in any relationship. Even if you spent time researching this employer before accepting the position, know you could not have foreseen this circumstance. Many people will put a lot of time and emotional effort into making a bad employment relationship work (the alternative in Canada being to quit and pursue legal action… with no salary to support you in the mean time); it takes a toll on well being, leading to self-blame and diminished self worth and self confidence…and these feelings persist long after the employment relationship has ended. Healing starts when you can apply self-compassion; it was not your fault.
Separate past and present. Once bitten twice shy is a saying for a reason. It can be very difficult to put yourself back out there and trust that your current or future employment relationships will or can be healthier. Self-compassion is a first step, but the next one is self-awareness. If you approach employment distorted from previous negative experiences, you will not be able to accurately assess opportunities in the present, with the risk being you repeat a cycle of compromise in any employment relationship you hold. Give yourself the time and space to objectively and accurately assess where you are with respect to your ability to trust both yourself (to make a good decision about employment) and an employer (to uphold positive employment practices) going forward. The vulnerability and emotional hardship experienced after a toxic working relationship ends does not have to define you or your approach to your career. It is painful and may be for some time; but know your gifts, share them with discernment. Gently learn to trust again or you remain a victim, limiting your great potential.
Learn from your experience. One of my clients came to me after a bad work experience with the “rule” that she would never trust another employer again. She could be forgiven for not wanting to be vulnerable and open - a very human response to pain and betrayal. Know that this approach requires so much rigidity and compromise it will leave you as exhausted at the end of each working day as it did her. Negative working experiences are not pleasant (I wouldn’t wish one on my worst enemy), but they are informative (you may not be able to fix stupid, but you can document it). Objectively understanding the circumstances and context of what happened to you is key to being able to circumvent it from repeating in the future. You may never fully understand everything that lead to the severing of the working relationship (being let go as opposed to resigning), but you will be able to get a sense of what to watch out for in future employment relationships. Having a thriving career means you need to extend a measure of trust to your employer and others in your workplace, but only once they have earned it (just don’t make the criteria for earning your trust so impossible no one could ever gain it or you’ll find yourself job hopping).
Find understanding. After a toxic work experience (and only when you are ready) you may find genuine compassion for your previous employer/boss. This is not a place you arrive at quickly; it takes time and a process of grieving to get here. However, arriving here means you are able to accept what was and was not in your control in this relationship, to learn from it what you can and then move on wiser and with empathy for your previous employer. Employers who egregiously hurt employees (physically and emotionally) should be held morally and legally accountable for their actions. The majority of people are impacted by toxic working relationships because of misplaced organizational (or leadership) values and beliefs; chasing profit margins and financial outcomes that were never realistic, creating untenable performance requirements and harsh working conditions (like running on a treadmill at a speed you can’t control); while you got out, others are still in this place of toxicity. Compassion is strength, and when mixed with newfound wisdom it has the ability to push the edges of your potential into new places, taking you with it.
This blog was inspired by an article written by Miles Neale in the Winter 2017 issue of Tricycle magazine.
There was a woman who grew the most amazing things in her garden. She tended it regularly, putting effort and energy into helping it grow. When she had it all picked she gave much of it away to others, who were grateful and would say to her “You must enjoy gardening to be able to grow so much and share it with us!”; she would respond with a confused look. Others would express deep gratitude for her kindness; she simply shrugged and turned away. As time went on people could see that this talented, kind woman did not nourish herself from the abundance she grew, but stored some for seed, giving away the rest. She did not seem interested in eating any of it and over time she grew gaunt from the lack of nourishment.
Can you see yourself in this story? Parables are simple teaching devices, meant to put into stark terms what happens to us in everyday life. It’s also a way for us to say that we would never starve ourselves and not eat what we had grown; and yet in many ways this is exactly what is happening in our lives. We are often responsible for nurturing things that grow, our families, our work, our partners; but we don’t often let ourselves enjoy the fruits of our own labour. We deny ourselves this nourishment when we brush off a compliment, keep our opinions and thoughts to our self, ensure others have what they need without taking stock (or giving ourselves) what we need. This may not happen all the time in all parts of your life, but hold here a moment and look at your days…how often do you make something you do look effortless (when a lot of care and effort go into it)? How often do you put off time for yourself to get something done for someone else?
Obviously we are not expecting a parade every time we make a difference in the lives of others (seriously, that would be one hell of a parade) but denying our worth, not owning our gifts, remaining silent when we have something to say or refusing recognition are all ways we keep ourselves from enjoying all the things we work hard for…and undermine our own potential. Where are you starving yourself in life? At work? At home? Do you place last in the pecking order of things to attend to? When we are emotionally hungry we answer in the same ways we do when we need physical sustenance; we become irritable, sensitive, reactionary, anxious or fearful. This is not a coincidence; these are the warning signs of deprivation.
Our potential is fueled when we know what we need and plan for it. From taking courses to getting to the gym, planning time to be at home with loved ones and out with friends – these things are all important. The next time someone gives you a compliment, own it. Smile and say thank-you (this may take practice). Take the credit you deserve at work. Make time for yourself at home (yes, the children can do more things around the house…how do you think our great-grandmothers did it when they had 12 of them!). Plan for what you need and hold that time, whether it is professional development, a bubble bath or a yoga class; make it sacred space for whatever nourishes you.
Be mindful of the ways you may deprive yourself of well being that is fuel for your potential.
You are contentedly going through your day when you hear it; a wet, germ infested cough coming from someone close to you. Your heart sinks as you realize that it is too late! Even hand sanitizer isn’t going to save you from the air-borne pestilence that you may have sucked into your lungs. When Eastern philosophers and yoga gurus alike tell us “we are all one” they are not kidding, and that “oneness” is keenly felt when cold and flu season is upon us.
Shopping this past weekend I heard the barking cough of a Retail Sales Associate - when I made eye contact you could see she was far too sick to be at work. I asked her if there was anything I could do for her (she was really not well); she thanked me but refused my help, seemingly content to converse with a customer (it gave her a bit of a break from stocking shelves), so I asked her why she choose to come to work today. “If I don’t come in I don’t get paid, it is a simple as that” was her reply. She continued that not coming in for a scheduled shift also put her at risk of getting bumped down the scheduling list, meaning she would pick up fewer shifts in the weeks following her missed shift (whether this was to allow her to get better or some scheduling algorithmic stupidity she wasn’t sure). Either way, come in sick or make less money was the choice in front of her. It made me very happy to be past the point of having to make a living through retail work, but it also made me wonder how many more of us would get sick because of this scenario which is playing out at stores across the continent.
It also reinforces the North American employee tendency to come into work unless incapacitated (sadly we start training them when they are young). I see people going in to work professional jobs (where they have paid sick leave) with runny noses and watery eyes…people whose well being would benefit from a day in bed. Why? The reasons range from “I am just popping in for a few hours to get something critical done and then going home…” to “I booked a meeting with unbook-able people and it will take months to get back into their calendars!”. And so it goes; even with our unprecedented level of connection enabling most professionals to work effectively from home, we are still coming into the office in various states of contagion and illness.
When we go into work compromised due to sickness, we have lost all perspective on what is important.
If the office cannot get along without you for a day, there is a bigger problem to consider. If you can’t book important stakeholders unless you do so months in advance, your project or program is going to suffer regardless of whether or not you make that one meeting. If you are so wrapped up in your role that your own well being comes second (or third) on the priority list then maybe getting a raging cold/flu is a wake-up call. Even ER doctors, whose role it is to save lives, do not go to work compromised by fever and flu – what is at stake is too important. Ask yourself, “Am I going in for me and my work or for others (when sick)?”. Often it is because we are hesitant (or even afraid) to inconvenience others. But what does that say about how we value ourselves?
Chances are if you have been a member of the working dead and zombie’d your way through a day or two of work recently, you may not have made yourself a priority by getting enough sleep, regular exercise or eating a balanced diet, which leaves you open to flus and colds. You may need some perspective in other areas of your working life…most of us are not saving lives, but we still need to acknowledge that working while sick has consequences. You may think you are doing just fine…until the fog lifts and you realize the mistakes you made and didn’t catch (last time I worked while sick I definitely made mistakes). What does going to work cost you besides your health? Don’t be a working dead zombie, leverage the “oneness” we share (in sickness and in health) by delegating, asking for help or postponing (people will understand) so you can show up at your best, and in so doing help others to see your best is worth waiting for. You are worth waiting for.
Make yourself a priority when you are sick…because if you don’t do it no one else will either. Keep your germs at home; I think you are awesome, but there is not enough hand sanitizer in the world to ward off that gooey cough!
We spend a lot of time at work. Even when we are not at work, we are often thinking about our work. Conservatively the majority of us in North America will spend fifty years or more of our life devoting 8+ hours a day, five days a week, to something other than our own personal interests or time spent with our loved ones in the pursuit of paid employment. That is an enormous investment; bigger than the mortgages/loans we will carry over our lifetime. There is a quid pro quo here, working life supports our needs in our personal lives, but it may also impact the quality of our well being, and the well being of those to whom we are the closest, when we end up in a place where compromise is the only path forward. It is worth reflecting on what our working life is providing, and what it is not – and I am not talking salary here.
Does your working life support you in meaningful ways? Sure, we can go to work and tell ourselves that it’s just a few hours, and that our “real” lives are there for us the minute we leave the office. We can rationalize that NOT being employed is worse than working in a job that is less than nurturing. But that’s not entirely true is it? When we have to manufacture the will power to go to work every day, to do the work assigned to us in a way that won’t compromise our ability to remain employed, then it doesn’t matter that our real life is waiting for us as we head home because there is little energy left to enjoy it. It becomes an unforgiving treadmill where we are working hard just to maintain the status quo and unable to enjoy what it is we are working for in the first place. Karl Marx is quoted as saying “…if you are cut off from the fruits of your labour, from your creativity, then you lose your sense of self.”. Are you cut off from the fruits of your labour? Have you lost your sense of self?
Contrast this to working in a role or organization where you can be your best (flaws and all), where you can contribute in meaningful ways and the energy is just there. Everyday isn’t perfect (far from it) but in the grand scheme of things you are coming out ahead because you are able to be engaged, valued…you know how you contribute and are nurtured by your work – and you have a working schedule that compliments (not sabotages) the other important aspects of your life. In this scenario you are not working to remain employed, but because it is interesting, challenging, engaging and meaningful.
This is no longer just working, but living!
When we can both live our life and work at the same time there is a synergy present that pays real dividends - allowing us to enjoy our whole life. This outcome is possible for anyone who wants it but it is not the easiest path; it demands knowing your self-worth, your courage, and making your needs known (to start, make them clear to yourself).
What kind of life would you like to experience during this long period of time when you will be working? What are you working for?
Most of us know what a guiding light is, that internal compass we have that helps us to make a good decision. That little voice that told us when we were kids not to shop lift even when our friends were doing it and (even today) ensures our work gets done on time and the kiddos get fresh fruit in their lunches. Guiding light is a good influence, but where there is light there is also dark…light creates shadow. We can equally be guided by this darkness, especially if we are ignoring it or avoiding a confrontation with our biggest fear. Without being fully aware of what we are so set on avoiding we are leaving ourselves open to some other interesting guidance; guidance from within our darkness, not wholly conscious, but unconscious. This guidance isn’t about doing bad things (our guiding light takes care of that), it is more about NOT doing things and this impacts our well being. Ready to take a look? Don’t think of this as overwhelming and unsolvable but more as a way to find relief. What would taking something from the dark and bringing it out into the light do for you? Want to find out?
What is your biggest fear? That one thing you hope no one at work ever figures out about you. The one you spend considerable energy trying NOT to think about. The proverbial pachyderm in your mental closet, who is taking up all the room in there and making it hard to move around, hard to THINK. That thing that wakes you up at night, or keeps you up at night or makes you so sensitive the mere possibility of it puts your teeth on edge.
It could be the degree you didn’t finish, or your inability to speak in public, feelings of inadequacy in your work, or that you cannot speak in a second language very well. Maybe it is that you secretly know you are in the wrong profession, or the wrong job or the wrong organization but you don’t know how to get out (you can’t just QUIT, who does that?). Maybe you really want to tell off your insensitive boss, say “No!” to taking work home most evenings and weekends…but just don’t have the words. Perhaps you deserve a raise or acknowledgment, recognition for your contributions and have instead said to yourself that if others don’t think you are worth it you’ll just have to accept that and work harder to stand out. What are you not telling yourself? What is the one big ugly truth you are afraid to confront? What are you avoiding having to do?
What are you compromising in yourself each and every day by not looking this dark beast in the eye and giving it a name (mine is called “Fred”)? Are you compromising? Your intelligence…your potential…your voice? What is it costing you? Are you exhausted at the end of your working days? Have you stopped seeing family regularly, going out, getting to the yoga studio or doing weekend brunch with friends because you just need some time to relax and recharge…yet it is never enough? What is this costing the people you love? What is it costing you?
Here is the thing, when we are resistant to something the tension is unbelievable, but let go of it and immediately there is no more tension; like letting go of a taut rope and watching it go slack. So how do you do that? Start by taking your biggest fear out for coffee. I’m not kidding, make yourself a cup of courage and sit it with your fear, ask it questions and get really curious about it. See what is there for you to discover in an objective and detached way, as if this thing that you are afraid of is no more harmful then a guest (and no more permanent). It may have been much ado about nothing, or it may have been a big misunderstanding, or it may be exactly what you thought it was, but now that you can see it, really SEE IT you’ve figured out what to do with it.
It doesn’t matter, because once you’ve had coffee with it, it is no longer whatever it was, but something that is known, and defined. And there is a lot your guiding light can do with something like that.
This is dedicated to all my clients who’ve had the courage to face their darkest working life fears and come away with more than they ever thought possible. A deep, deep bow to each of you.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.