3 Tips to Survive a Toxic Work Environment
My dreams of working in a nurturing newsroom quickly turned into a waking nightmare within a year.
I had moved to another town to work in a daily newsroom in hopes of learning alongside seasoned and passionate senior editors, and maybe even winning national awards.
But alas, the nourishing work environment I had dreamed of did not materialize. Instead, I found myself in an incredibly toxic workplace filled with egoistic managers, backstabbers, and bootlickers.
Everything went downhill for me over an alleged misstep on how I handled a story. As a result, the story I was working on was reassigned to another reporter. On top of that, a colleague falsely told my bosses that she was constantly correcting my mistakes—an accusation which had the potential to ruin my career. From then on, two of my bosses were constantly highlighting or magnifying every error I made (or didn’t make).
I was treated as a junior reporter (despite having worked as a journalist for almost four years). I was given easier stories to write and needed to check in with my chief reporter on almost everything from my interview questions to first drafts. The biggest blow came when my editor told me he didn’t see the difference between my work and a fresh graduate’s.By the end of my stint with the newsroom, I was burned out, and my confidence was in shreds.
Struggling to stay afloat in a toxic work environment was very hard. But here are a few pointers I learned during that difficult time which I hope will help if you’re going through a similar situation.
1. Bring It to God
I am not the sort of person who cries easily, yet my time with the newsroom found me spending endless evenings in tears, sniffling into the neck of my stuffed toy penguin, turning its fur into a grubby mess.
During this especially painful time, I found so much comfort and solace in God’s Word. My Bible was dog-eared, thumbed-through, and dotted with big splotchy tear marks. But reading the Psalms was like a balm to my crushed spirit. Some verses I clung on to were Psalm 3:3, “But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high”, and Psalm 28:7, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song, I praise him.”
Admittedly, my prayers alternated between hating my toxic bosses and wishing them ill, then asking God to forgive me, but the time spent in prayer fortified me to face another day at work, knowing He will fight for me (Exodus 14:14).
I copied verses in my personal journal and on my notepad, and whenever things got really hard (which they almost always did), I would recall the verses, meditate over them, and pray them out. When it didn’t work, I would pop my headphones on at work with a worship playlist on Spotify.
2. Form Trustworthy Relationships
There is a lot to be said about having friends or workmates you can confide in.
Alas, I was then a young, naive 20-something who trusted my colleagues too easily. But it came at a cost—I soon learned that some of the stuff I had shared with them in confidence had made their way back to my bosses’ ears, pushing me further down the food chain.
Thankfully, God was faithful in providing a handful of genuine colleagues who believed in me and my work.
In particular, I had two other managers who were constantly looking out for me, giving me advice and tips for stories, and most importantly, encouraging me to keep going. One showed me a story of Kiwi screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who at that time had just won two BAFTAs for his Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. McCarten started his writing life as a cub reporter in the same newsroom, and his then-supervisor had seen him as “unexceptional”.
“There you go, you could one day be McCarten,” my manager said. And it was something I held on to until this very day.
Your group of trustworthy friends do not have to be from your workplace, and could even be from church or lifegroup. Scripture says friends build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and that two are better than one because if one stumbles, then the other can help him up (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). It was comforting to have friends praying and crying alongside me, and reminding me of how much I am loved.
Finding good friends doesn’t give us the license to gossip or slander our toxic workmates and bosses (I will admit I did just that), but it does help ease the pain of having to endure the harsh work environment on our own.
3. Continue to Do Your Best
Oh, there were times I had wanted to call in sick, and I fantasized about telling my bosses to stick things where the sun didn’t shine. It was tempting to stop caring about the newsroom. Why should I continue to show up punctually for work everyday, and go out into the field covering stories the best I can when I felt like my bosses barely cared about me?
But as much as I tried, I couldn’t find anywhere in the Bible condoning the stuff I badly wanted to do. Instead, the more I looked into Scripture, the more I found verses saying we are to obey our earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, as we would obey Christ (Ephesians 6:5), and we are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). This means turning up for work punctually, covering stories assigned to me with integrity, and continuing to be respectful to my bosses.
Knowing that my non-Christian workmates were watching encouraged me to continue pushing through despite the negativity and criticism. I felt like I should have an attitude that would reflect Christ, so as hard as it was, I was determined to fix my eyes on Jesus.
The positive attitude did eventually pay off, because workmates would tell me how they admired my ability to “bounce back up despite various setbacks.” However, I would not have been able to do so if God hadn’t given me the strength to do what is right and pleasing in His eyes.
God Is in Control
Although these three tips helped for a time, I soon realized I couldn’t hang in there any longer when both my mental and physical health took a decline.
The first was when I was walking along a coastal walkway with the ocean waves slapping against the rocks, and a brief thought flashed through my mind: “What if I climbed over this barrier and fall into the ocean, then that’s it, I don’t have to go back to work”. I was shocked by such a thought, as I am a naturally happy person, but it was an indication of where my mental health was heading if I didn’t leave (and I did seek counseling in the end).
The second was when I found myself throwing up each time my car pulled up into the car park, my mind anticipating another torturous work day. A doctor’s visit showed I had developed chronic gastritis (an inflammation of the stomach lining), and it’s irrecoverable.
My family was also getting worried about me as phone calls home were often me in a state of tears, blubbering like an overfilled kettle.
So, as hard as it was, I finally handed in my resignation. At that time, I remember thinking that this was the end of my writing career, but thankfully I have since learned that God is able to use my writing gift in other areas.
Navigating a toxic work environment can be draining and challenging, and sometimes you might not be able to call it quits as you have other responsibilities to think about. But I pray you will find the strength to continue digging in to God, the wisdom to seek out trusted friends, and to continue to do your best, even when it is difficult.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Workplace Realities. Click here to read the other article in the series, “What If I’ve Lost My Passion?“
Thank you for sharing, this is very timely as I am in that toxic work environment trying to survive. Until the time that I can finally hand in my resignation (as my mental health is also becoming worse as I go to work), I hope and pray that I can be able to do my best and live like Christ even in my last day of work there. Thank you for this reminder.
Hi Christine! Thank you for your message. It’s always so lovely to hear from our readers. I am glad to hear the article has encouraged you. It isn’t always easy to live a live like Christ, but I take comfort in knowing He is with us every step of the way. Praying for God’s comfort and strength to be with you as you head into work everyday.