If you’re stressed, depressed and dreading Mondays, you’re probably working in a toxic interpersonal environment that has started to take its toll on your physical and mental health.
In my recent research on workplace bullying, I discovered a baffling phenomenon in which people who are targeted don’t actually realise they are being bullied until months, or even years down the track. I believe that the reason it takes the penny so long to drop is because no one likes to admit they’re a victim, especially self-respecting professionals who take so much pride in their work and like to think of themselves as decent, resilient people.
The mere thought of being a victim is so stigmatising that most people would rather give the bully the benefit of the doubt and continue tolerating the abuse for far too long. Yet it’s so damaging to a person’s wellbeing that I want to declare my central message: ‘Catch it early and think strategically’ to as many people as possible because it increases the possibility of obtaining a better outcome exponentially.
The three ways to claim your life back are as follows:
1. Understand toxic office politics for what they really are
I refer to workplace politics as the natural human tendency to vie for increased power and status within a membership group. This is normal behaviour, especially when status is derived from impeccable character and competence. However, office politics turn toxic when people attempt to take shortcuts to the top, whereby the trappings, rather than the substance of power, are more highly prized.
When status is derived from the trappings of power (such as grandiose displays of superiority) rather than authentic power (characterised by genuine and legitimate moral authority and presence), it is also often accompanied by the lack of a firmly established identity, characterised by feelings of emptiness, insecurity and shame. Such persons are terrified to reveal themselves as they really are and will go to great lengths to hide their true identity and purpose.
Discord erupts when emotionally immature individuals with little empathy seek to fulfil their own personal agenda ahead of their company’s vision regardless of the impact on others. In extreme cases, such individuals believe that giving will deprive them of essential resources, so they must take everything they can get from others. It’s as if the whole world exists just to serve them and you are the latest object upon which they have set their sights for exploitation.
The best way to deal with these dysfunctional individuals is to understand whom you are dealing with. There are all different kinds, each of whom require different strategies to keep them from poisoning your life, which I discuss in depth in my new book.
2. Recognise the bully-prone company
Individuals with self-serving motives can certainly make your life a misery at work. But without the bully-prone company to support and collude with them, they would experience a swift and natural attrition from the workplace. Bullies, after all, are too expensive to keep and a healthy workplace won’t tolerate their disruptive influence for long.
The first kind of bully-prone company holds itself accountable to a minimum number of stakeholders; usually only their shareholders and board of directors. Such a company is driven by the dollar and is particularly susceptible to market forces such as boom and bust cycles. Typical industries within this group are the mining, construction and high-finance industries.
Employees working for these kinds of companies are under considerable pressure to meet deadlines. They are characterised by high levels of work stress, competitiveness and tight budgets. In an effort to strive towards ever-greater profitability, these companies think nothing of cutting costs by outsourcing cheap labour overseas and limiting or even eliminating union membership.
The second kind of organisation is one that is highly rule-oriented and bureaucratic; most often these are government organisations such as educational, health care, defence or justice departments. They are arguably even more toxic as employees are under the illusion they are protected only to find that they will ultimately be betrayed.
Bureaucracies are more focused on meeting annual targets or accreditation standards than protecting the wellbeing of employees. As such, they use convenient euphemisms that both minimise the bullying as well as require the employee to take half of the responsibility for being bullied. Investigations into allegations of workplace bullying are often shambolic, highly biased and conducted in secret.
Both kinds of bully-prone companies have high levels of staff turnover and absenteeism, low morale and poor employee and customer satisfaction. There are also likely to be more negative reports about them in the media. Watch out for these red flags when you get an interview for your next job and ask yourself: does this company deserve to have me as an employee?
3. Overcome self-doubt
Self-doubt is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome and the one that keeps you stuck in a dysfunctional work environment. When you first notice bullying behaviour, your initial tendency may be to ignore it or believe you are imagining it.
At first you give the individual the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he’s stressed or having a bad day. Then some time later, you start blaming yourself, believing there is something you’ve said or done to cause the behaviour. More time passes and you begin to seriously doubt yourself. Perhaps your work standards aren’t up to much? Or, as you suspected all along, you’re not good enough, worthy enough or smart enough?
Typically, targets are nice, normal people, often women. They have an empathic, pro-social orientation and tend to blame themselves for not doing enough for others. They have high personal standards and a strong desire to help, heal, teach, develop and nurture others. They are also strong, competent, independent, smart, likeable and highly educated. On average, targets tolerate the bullying behaviour for 23 months or more, often without complaint, so they are resilient too.
The worst damage is done when the self-doubt induced by workplace bullying collides with a person’s pre-existing inner critic: that nagging, inner voice constantly in your ear about your inadequacies and wrongdoings. In a toxic workplace, the inner critic thrives and when it’s dominant, depression is the inevitable result.
Where to next?
Of course, it’s impossible for me to share all the ways that you might protect yourself from toxic office politics and workplace bullying here. However, I cover all these strategies in-depth in my new book, Stressed, Depressed And Dreading Mondays, What Smart Career Professionals Can Do To Claim Their Life Back.
For a short time, Dr Henshaw is making her book available for free when you download a copy of her report, 3 Common Mistakes That Even Smart Career Professionals Make… That Keep Them Stressed, Depressed And Dreading Mondays, available here.