It has been many months since I have been able to post here. In that time, I have left a job, started another one, been promoted, and had a baby. Needless to say, it has been a bit hectic. The place where I am today is a significantly different one than I was in when we last “talked” together. I find myself happier, lighter, and less burnt out. It was not until I set boundaries and left that I realized how toxic my former workplace was and it got me thinking about previous workplaces and those I have heard my peers talking about …and I noticed a sad theme.
For those of us who have spent most of our careers working in the public realm; the constant theme is that of an underfunded, understaffed workplace with too few resources to serve the dire needs of the too many patients (most of whom are indigent). The stress of making these ends meets trickles down from upper management and into the street-level staff by way of mandated productivity, expected blurring of boundaries in order to meet those productivity hours, and a blurred boundary between work and life that leads to quick burnout and even quicker turn over. It is not uncommon in these settings, for there to be a “deadpool” among older employees to see how long a new employee will last. In my experience, if you can last longer then 6 months, you are golden. THAT is when the old team starts to invest in getting to know you. They have been burnt before and thus will not move forward to be vulnerable with you until you have proven you are going to stay. Misery loves company.
I can look back and think of many workplaces that I would define as toxic in one way or another. It could be that manager that likes to yell at someone in front of the whole team. It could be a requirement that you take your notes home and document so that you don’t miss out on crucial productivity time. It could also be a deep-seated culture, pervasive in so many public mental health providers; one of scarcity and (in some cases) even trauma that leads to inherently unhealthy dynamics and trickle down from leadership and into the laps of the worker; and then is inadvertently passed on to the patient, whether we like it or not.
I can think of so many instances where I was asked to blur some important boundaries for my job that led to adverse outcomes in my own life. The requirement to document at home led to distance between my, now, husband and I that almost resulted in a breakup. Being asked to help a client clean up the crime scene in her home where she witnessed a family member kill her boyfriend resulted in PTSD symptoms for me and an image that I will never erase from my mind.
In all of my roles in work places of various toxicity, I noticed that in hind sight, I saw very common cues or red-flags that I chose to ignore for various reasons; the most common being that it didn’t directly impact me. The second most common? That I thought I couldn’t find a better job and was “stuck” there for financial reasons.
One of my last roles was the worst for this. I had so many clues and strategically ignored them, especially once I became pregnant and felt “stuck” not only financially but also because of thoughts like “oh god, who is going to hire a pregnant lady?!”. This most recent role was entirely administrative in nature and did not jive well with my skills and interests, but I strove to do my best despite being bored and un-challenged. A change in leadership led to a sudden culture shift where, slowly but surely, the new leader wedged stable members of the team out (some people who were a wealth of knowledge after over 25 years of service). Yelling at staff was frequently overheard in the hallway and more than once, we saw our 30-year CFO run out of the building crying. But, I was thankful, because the ire of the new leader did not impact my daily job.
Eventually I became pregnant, and like many women, that is where my problems began. For background, I was seriously sick throughout 90% of the pregnancy, in and out of the hospital for dehydration while still managing my job, 2-year-old son, family, etc. Sad to say it, the ER staff became like family too. While I hoped that the new supervisor would help me circle the wagons, hunker down, and get stuff done during this difficult time; the reaction I received was cold, dismissive, and more than once less than appropriate.
Are you noticing what I am noticing? Despite all the clues and hints (some chain-saw loud) I did not identify this as a toxic workplace until it was far too late and was directly impacting my life and the lives of my family. I ignored the red-flags that I saw circling around me because it did not directly impact my job or my life and for fear of not being able to make the changes necessary to leave without significant negative impact to myself or my family.
What were some of the key warning signs that I was engaged in a toxic work environment?
- I dreaded getting up for work- Nine times out of ten, I gladly would have suffered the consequences of not presenting for work; some of which included a day long, self-induced guilt-trip about how my work ethic was better than this, etc.
- I spent my day bored and counting down the minutes and seconds before I could leave
- I was disengaged from my staff; despite my best efforts to not be. I felt no drive to connect with them and they had no drive to connect with me.
- I felt tense and hypervigilant when at work and depressed when I wasn’t.
- There was a palpable sense of tension and fear when the supervisor was in the office; and a relaxed (calm before the storm) feeling when she was not.
- Often I had thought of leaving but I felt stuck; like there were no options that wouldn’t hurt my career or my family.
- I found I couldn’t establish boundaries with my job for fear of negative consequences.
- I started to notice adverse health effects due to the stress.
Do any of these sound familiar? These are some of the things (within a different context of course) that many of our clients who have struggled in toxic relationships have felt or noticed. While sitting on the couch as a therapist, it was “easy” to sit back and work with clients as they explored their relationship dynamics and came to the conclusion that theirs were toxic and then how to establish boundaries around that.
While sitting in the mud of the formerly toxic workplace, I felt stuck and had not an inkling of what to do about it; also similar to my prior patients. It wasn’t until I put myself in the “patient chair” that I realized what I was seeing…and boy was I startled!
But, this revelation allowed me to begin planning movement and establishing small but clear boundaries; recognizing that when one person in a system changes their actions/boundaries the larger system must respond. As such, I was doing my best to prepare for the worst.
First I started by limiting my time in the office. I worked only the hours I needed to work and then left on time to pick up my family. This felt wrong in my perfectionist, workaholic heart; but I knew both my family and I needed that time and space for our own well-being.
Then, I started taking action on plans I thought were best for the program without asking the input of my supervisor every step of the way (which is what she wanted). Micromanaging is a great way to shut down creativity and create a toxic workplace. I wanted to buck that a bit by showing her that not only was I great worker but that I could build out programs and make changes that would benefit the agency in its larger goals. While some of these ideas were met with moderate enthusiasm (which was about as far as she went); others were met with a nod and a “move along” hand gesture.
Eventually, as my pregnancy progressed and I became less and less able to walk; I started having to work from home more, which made my supervisor very uncomfortable. It is hard, in many cases, to micromanage the tasks that people are completing at home. This was one of those cases.
Eventually, I realized that my attempts to make a purse out of a sows’ ear wasn’t actually improving anything. As a matter of fact, it was raising the ire of my supervisor even more! So, I doubled-down on my planning to leave the agency, but within the right parameters of two weeks’ notice, etc.
During these last few months, my husband made note of how many days of the week I came home crying and feeling utterly powerless. He and I finally sat down and reviewed bills and came to the conclusion that, for my well-being, I needed to leave the job and that we could survive briefly without it. Had he not offered his outside help in planning, I would have not seen the forest for the trees here.
One day, I finally got up the guts to put in my two weeks’ notice. Apparently my affect and mood had become so tell-tale that no one seemed at all surprised; though interestingly, prior to this, no one seemed to care or express concern. We had become islands of woe unto ourselves; ships passing in rough waters.
This is when the reality of the toxic relationship began to crop up. Suddenly I found I was being “stalked” by others on the team. In one phone call with the supervisor she questioned the hours I put on my time card based on the “report” of other people in the office specific to my comings and goings (none of them had access to my calendar that showed out of office work meetings). Because of this, the supervisor was demanding that I change my pay stub to reflect what others said I had worked.
I took this new bit of information home and mulled it over, first with my husband and then with others. I have never once had my honor and integrity called into question by the spying jury of public opinion. After a few hard nights of deliberation, I informed my husband that two weeks be damned, I was going in there the next day and packing up my stuff to leave. My guilt and shame reared their ugly heads resulting in me crying throughout the entirety of packing my office and leaving. Strangely, it’s like everyone in the office knew what was going on and so the office was empty when I came in.
The relief I felt walking out my door was one of the best feelings I have had in my life. Any time I have left a job prior; the feelings were largely bittersweet. However, here they were entirely bitter. This was a strange feeling to sit with.
Reflecting on those days now, I see more and more how toxic the system was. Some of the hallmarks of a toxic environment that were found here were:
- Secrecy/Lack of Transparency- Many team members would find out about projects, etc at the time they were announced vs. being allowed to participate in discussions despite the impact to their departments.
- High Turn Over- This agency was small and 90% of the workers had been there more than 15 years, many had been there more than 20! That type of longevity is hard to find. Within months of the new supervisor coming on; 90% of the “old timers” had been “pushed” (their words, not mine) out of their jobs.
- Public Shaming- Accountability is an important aspect of any job. However, the use of public shaming vs. constructive criticism in private is a huge red flag.
- Walking on Eggshells- The standard demeanor of those working in the office was to make themselves as small as possible and avoid conflict or even basic conversation with anyone else for fear of negative consequences.
I am sure that if I were to delve deeper I would notices so many more themes inherent in the system that reflected the abuse cycle.
Despite our best intentions and, perhaps, naiveté; we always hope that we will end up in a healthy and even therapeutic work environment that supports the work we do with our patients in a meaningful way. We will hopefully be able to leave work at work and come back into the office feeling refreshed. Our lives, our own to do with as we please. Our office environments, not filled with tension that can be triggering to those who are more highly attuned to these things.
Our work can be hard enough to cope with without the additional stress of a toxic or borderline toxic work environment. I would encourage all therapists to evaluate their surroundings and look for the hallmark cues listed above and even some of your own “red flags” and then make plans about how to address those. In some cases, just like in any relationship, you may find that the benefits do not outweigh the emotional strife. Then it may be worth sitting down and defining what boundaries can be set where and where the line in the sand is in regards to those boundaries. In some cases, even contingency planning for the (best) worst case scenario (e.g. leaving) may be a helpful way to stop feeling so “stuck” all the time.
We can only help our clients as much as we have the emotional space to do so. In a toxic work environment, our daily capacity to carry our client’s pain gets smaller and smaller the longer we are there. It is not fair to us nor is it fair to our clients.
Take a second to look at your current work environment and do a quick evaluation. Where do you stand on it?
Brittany Lash is an LPC-S in Texas currently managing two inpatient psychiatric units. Her passions are providing care to individuals with serious and persistent mental illness, reworking broken systems, community collaboration, and mental health policy. Her clinical specializations are crisis intervention, risk assessment, trauma work, and providing care for those who have lost loved ones to suicide.