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How to Prioritize your Mental Health in Toxic Workplaces

Estimated reading time ~ 6 min
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Many dread the job search, finding themselves navigating toxic workplaces instead. That's why I'd like to share how I prioritized my mental health over poor management and survived that very same dilemma.

Recently, I experienced a toxic work environment, from the pressure of doing everything perfectly while I was still new to the business, to constantly feeling anxious about making a mistake, and working with management that made me feel inadequate. I was so anxious, I’d log back on at 9 pm just in case a team member sent me a message on Teams. For reference, I came into the company with set boundaries, I didn't stay online past business hours, and I didn’t give in to my manager’s comments. But over time I became more nervous about job security, as things escalated with my manager. I felt helpless even as I filed formal grievances. After months of this, I finally searched for a therapist who specialized in career mentorship and a new job. I wasn’t looking forward to the job search, but I leaned on my network for support and sure enough resigned from that company. Going to therapy while navigating this situation was the first thing that made me feel better, as I was assured that these situations are only temporary and there is a way out. And by trying out some of the tips I learned, I've found parts of myself I thought I'd lost.

Getting Started

Initially, start by reflecting on what matters most to you. Is being online after business hours productive? How can you reprioritize your work day to complete high-priority projects and save the rest for tomorrow? Think about how to effectively communicate to your manager that you don’t have the bandwidth. What does standing up for yourself professionally look like? These are questions I ask myself continuously throughout my career because what you practice now, will help you better navigate situations in the future whether it’s at the same job or a new one.

Over the past few years, studies have shown how much more productive and energized employees feel when they work fewer hours and are provided the resources to access mental healthcare and professional growth. In an article from Bloomberg Law, it is mentioned that while investing in mental healthcare for employees is paramount, so is creating a culture of support, by enforcing rest and remaining logged off during PTO. Additionally, it highlights that this level of support starts with management and how they are responsible for promoting positive team culture, as they have a direct impact on employee satisfaction.

Setting Boundaries

We’re all familiar with setting boundaries and doing our best to stick to them, in our relationships and friendships, but what about with work? I learned that setting and sticking to my boundaries was the only way I’d prevent personal burnout. Sometimes this way of thinking isn’t always welcomed by your colleagues, but you must show up for yourself so that you can show up for your team and the work.

My boundaries have meant logging off of work at a decent time and addressing issues directly. When addressing issues directly, whether it is to the coworker you are experiencing issues with or HR, document EVERYTHING. Your boundaries are set in place to protect your well-being.

You Deserve Respect

Workload and setting boundaries around that wasn't the only challenge to my mental health. I was facing challenges in other areas, like standing my ground when someone more senior on the team spoke to me in a way that wasn’t respectful. I have this fear of being labeled the “angry black woman” or “too aggressive”. However, neither label aligns with my character or preferred way of handling conflict. I’ve been told to be more aggressive by this manager, but I knew that wouldn’t be received well. At that point, I didn’t know what to do and started doubting myself based on my manager’s comments about my personality. I started documenting every 1:1 meeting I had with her. I took two approaches, I identified the issues with her directly and I reported these issues to HR. My biggest piece of advice is to address issues as early as possible, don’t wait months anticipating that things will get better.

Recharging is also Productive

Prioritizing your mental health has a lot to do with how you spend your time, it doesn’t mean you need to be busy all the time, but moreover finding time to recharge (whatever that looks like to you), for me it was going back to church, carving out time to relax and catch up on shows, going for a walk, and going to a dance class. Sticking to my boundaries meant I had to step into something new, not just a new job but a new mindset. I had to redefine my relationship with rest. I learned that resting is productive and that it is the recharge you need to fuel how you show up in other aspects of your life, whether it’s work, networking, job hunting, etc. Also, take your PTO, sick time, mental health days, everything! You don’t get employee of the year by refusing to rest.

No One is Perfect

In this current job market, I feel there is an unspoken fear that we all can relate to, to be perfect at your job so that you’re hopefully safe from rounds of layoffs. But being perfect is unrealistic, and the hyperfocus to do so can cause you to not take the time you need to take care of yourself. Imposter syndrome is real, but here are some strategies that can help you manage these feelings and regain confidence in your abilities.

Acknowledge your accomplishments and recognize that you have earned your position through hard work and dedication. I like to keep a task tracker of the projects I’ve worked on, not only is it great for self-organization and recognition, but it helps track your accomplishments for performance reviews as well. Reframe negative thoughts when you find yourself thinking negatively about your abilities or achievements, challenge these thoughts by reframing them in a more positive light. If you made a mistake, look at it as a learning moment.

Seek support by reaching out to friends, family, mentors, networking groups, and mental healthcare professionals. It can be helpful to talk about your feelings of self-doubt. This can provide a fresh perspective and help you realize that many people experience similar feelings. Practice self-care by taking care of yourself both physically and mentally. This can help you feel more confident and resilient. Take the time off from work that you need, and try logging off at the end of the work day.

Focus on learning and growth, instead of focusing on being perfect or meeting unrealistic expectations. Set goals for yourself and focus on making progress each day.

Turn to Community

While situations in the workplace or even the job search may be out of your control, what you can control is how you show up for yourself. Getting a therapist is not a magic wand, it will not fix all of your problems but they can help work with you to create a plan for how you maneuver through tough situations. It's normal to feel alone when you’re challenging workplace toxicity, feeling overworked, or searching for your next role, but there is so much power in the community. It's always helpful to turn to your community for advice, support, and guidance when you're going through a tough time. I found that with Jopwell. Not only amongst the people I’ve met at the Jopwell events but the staff has been tremendously supportive as well. You'll find that someone out there can relate to what you're experiencing and offer some valuable insights to help you cope and move forward. Remember, you're not alone, and there are people who care about you and want to help.

While experiencing a toxic work environment can be uncomfortable, there are ways to manage it until you figure out your next steps. It’s not easy, but community support can provide you with the resources you need to navigate your current situation while preparing for your next opportunity. In the midst of dealing with this toxic work experience, I filled my free time with things that made me happy and rested. I constantly reminded myself that this was just a speed bump and I’ll be driving off into a new opportunity, with this one in my rearview soon. Keep a positive mindset, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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