How to exit from a toxic workplace with minimal damage

Posted on April 26, 2019
By Catherine Heilemann

We spend far too much time at work to put up with a toxic workplace. New data released by Dr. Tanya Carney and Dr. Jim Stanford shows that less than 50% of us are employed fulltime with leave entitlements. The research also shows we’re accepting less pay, finding ourselves increasingly in work casualisation situations and more concerned than ever before about our work future. This pressure, plus the existence of some of the highest rates of workplace bullying in the developed world is creating fertile breeding ground for toxic workplace environments.

According to data from Victoria, 17% of all suicides in Australia are sadly attributed to the workplace. Many other Australians are showing long term effects to their mental health, workplace confidence and even physical health by submitting to unhealthy workplaces.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Here are some of the ways you can exit from a toxic workplace while protecting your financial future and not sacrificing your career

Know your rights and obligations

The first area to explore is exactly what kind of contract you are employed under. Unfortunately, there has been a rise in what is known as “sham contracting”, where companies operate with contracts that place you in the role of allegedly being an independent contractor to avoid paying standard leave, sick leave and even superannuation entitlements.

These contracts are illegal under Fair Work Australia’s provisions and can be examined by FWA, an accountant or a lawyer for their validity.

Enterprise Agreements are another area. Enterprise Bargaining Agreements set out your entitlements, wage and overtime provisions as an agreement between workforce and employer. They are meant to be there to protect a large group from losing salary and other benefits through grouping the workers together. EBAs have dwindled in usage in the last 5 years, usually due to lock out and fear in the workplace. There has also been a stripping of protections for them at government level. If you have an Enterprise Agreement in place, you can legally enforce the provisions within that agreement as well as hold your workplace to minimum wage standards.

Knowing your awards and understanding what the best practises of your industry can also help. Unions can help you recover from unstable working conditions and you can legally ask for award wages to be honoured.

If your workplace is in breach of worker’s rights, hefty penalties can result. The first step to ensuring your workplace is operating within legal practises is checking with Fair Work Australia, checking state and federal law, contacting your union and checking award rates.

Focus on your confidence

One of the problems with toxic workplaces is that they institutionalise unfair treatment. This unfair treatment if received on a regular basis can erode confidence. It isn’t uncommon for places where toxic work environments have been left unchecked to see workers adopting survival mode.

Survival mode is a psychological protection that enables us to cope with traumatic, miserable, toxic and/or abusive situations. It can often trigger our flight, fight and freeze responses. We start to focus on putting one foot in front of the other to get by. This can lead to compartmentalisation as a protection mechanism, which in turn creates a condition of acceptance. Then, this gives people in power the ability to escalate the abuse well beyond what we’d usually accept.

Think of it this way- if your boss screamed at you in a job interview, you’d never join the company. Yet 12 months later, you may be so used to the way they treat you that you will put up with screaming as part of their personality.

What happens is that small breaks to your confidence occur over time to allow you to accept that screaming later. Maybe it begins with comments about your work ethic or feedback that is disguised criticism. Perhaps there is a pattern of covert aggression that you cannot quite put your finger on. Seeing other people getting bullied or watching things fall apart around you might make you worry about attracting the same sort of attention. Before you know it, you too are towing the line, ducking for cover and putting up with a sinister working environment.

To survive in a place like this takes courage. It also takes a lot of self-reflection and support. You can reinforce or regain your confidence by:

  • Keeping a record via a journal- not only does this give you a safe place to reflect, it may also serve as a record of events should you need it
  • Seeing a career coach like me- I can help you understand your rights and roles as well as work on mediation strategies if you need to stay in the workplace. Or can help you work on restoring your confidence to exit
  • Finding a counsellor – some of the situations we experience go beyond career advice and can be mentally unhealthy and triggering. A counsellor can help you make sense of the situation and support you emotionally
  • Recognising it’s not your fault – no one deserves to be mistreated, insulted, mocked, bullied, overworked, humiliated, living in fear or constantly stressed simply by wanting to work. The Polish proverb “not my circus, not my monkeys” places the blame firmly at the feet of the transgressors for a reason

Do what you can to preserve and fortify your confidence. Don’t allow their behaviour to dictate how you feel about yourself.

Look for allies (or go it alone)

If you feel like you are experiencing a terrible situation, chances are other people feel the same. By finding allies and confidants, you can make the workplace bearable. You may also be able to appeal to headquarters or other people in the position to change the culture for assistance as a united front.

There is a caveat on bringing people together though. You must choose your allies wisely.

The problem with toxic workplaces is that they tend to trigger the same behaviour in others. It might be a boss that starts the problem and his secretary grabs the mantle and enforces it. Or perhaps many workers join forces to normalise the behaviour.

As former head of research at Beyond Blue, Nick Arvanitis explains “That person is potentially under extreme stress themselves or is modelling the behaviours of others in the organisation, and doesn’t have the skills to provide constructive feedback.”

Pretty soon, the person brave enough to stand up is silenced by the sheer amount of people that have left, joined in or are trying desperately to stay off the radar of those creating the bullying and horrible workplace.

While we might find this behaviour distasteful, it’s usually what happens. Nobody wants to be stressed, vilified and in pain during their work hours. It makes us run for cover or even brings out qualities we later regret.

The hardest part of the equation is not joining the fray and recognising that you may be alone in your awareness of the toxic workplace around you. Or at least, alone in the willingness to make the hard decisions.

If you are in this sort of situation, some actions and self-protections can really help such as:

  • Planning an exit strategy from the workplace
  • Working on side projects to ensure you maintain a sense of control and autonomy over your skills and career
  • Avoiding situations where gossip or enacting harmful behaviours are involved to remain as neutral as possible
  • Continuing with coaching, counselling and documenting your situation
  • Finding support groups for bullying, stress and/or harassment
  • Electing to study to further your career- having a beacon of change can do wonders to help you stay the course
  • Recognise you don’t have to accept a toxic workplace and find alternatives
  • Ensuring you increase your self-care in the off hours and make things such as exercise, sleep, spending time with positive people, having fun and mindfulness a priority
  • Make use of the structures available to you – e.g. human resources, mediation, third party services under unions or professional memberships etc
  • Become a whistle-blower – if the situation is terrible for you, it will continue to be terrible for you and others until someone stands up to them

The aim should be to find your way out of a toxic workplace, no matter how long it takes to get out. Accepting bullying or horrendous working conditions should be nobody’s lot in life.

If you need help escaping a toxic workplace for a better career and brighter future, contact me now. I treat all contact with the strictest confidence and utmost sensitivity.

Book your 20 minute discovery call and let’s start planing your exit now.


How to exit from a toxic workplace with minimal damage

How to exit from a toxic workplace with minimal damage

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