Have you ever experienced a toxic workplace and thought about what you can do to survive? Well, about 53% of employees are not happy at their workplaces. A total of 58% of managers are not trained for their positions, while an equal percentage of employees trust strangers more than they do their managers. These factors contribute to creating toxic workplaces, and technology makes it harder to escape them.

Just about everyone has had a disrespectful, judgmental, and verbally abusive co-worker. Lilian (not her real name) found herself fighting for survival at one of the nation’s best companies. During the hiring process, the recruits had to stay calm and seated for long hours at a hotel as they waited for their interviews. The interviews took longer than usual and stretched late into the night. This was a sign that she was going to work for bosses who didn’t value their employees or their time. However, when she was offered good pay and contract, she signed and reported to work two weeks after the interview. But her troubles began in earnest and continued for four years, until February 2019, when she quit to preserve her sanity and well-being.

What Are the Characteristics of Toxic Workplaces?

Harassment, both physical and emotional, is prevalent in most workplaces. Sex, gender, religion, manner of dress, race, language, and culture are among the issues that characterize abuse at the workplace. According to a study by Good&Co, 3 out of every 4 reports of harassment are made by women. A total of 42% of workers reported bullying and other forms of abuse at the workplace. 

Women are frequently abused by their male and female bosses. They are often told to ignore harassment instead of seeking an apology or having their harassers face consequences for their actions. Verbal abuse often targets a person’s gender and sexual orientation. Many people at workplaces, especially ones who represent the dominant beliefs and culture, tend to be verbally aggressive toward non-dominant cultures and groups. People with disabilities, LGBTQ, and religious and ethnic minorities are often subjected to verbal attacks because of their conditions, orientation, beliefs, or race.

Males are not immune to harassment either. According to the Good&Co study, a total of 95% of men have related horror stories about dishonest management policies and pay issues. Sometimes they are not fairly compensated, and when they seek redress they are told to “be a man” or face other such attacks on their masculinity. In most cases, the companies retain the abusers, which shows that toxic workplaces are likely to persist.

6 Ways of Surviving in a Toxic Workplace

1.      Dodge Bullets and Bombs

In his book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt , Robert I. Sutton offers tips on how you can survive in the workplace with people who treat you disrespectfully. The first rule of survival is to learn how to dodge the shrapnel. Do not walk into the trap; learn the system and avoid it. If, as a new employee, you have heard rumors about a sexually or verbally abusive manager, avoid that person at all costs. Create your work life away from the bullet—dodge it as much as possible. There are many workers in an organization; let someone else deal with the person—just learn to be careful and avoid him or her.

2.      Adapt Mind Tricks

Reappraisal is among the most effective mind tricks. In cognitive behavioral therapy, reappraisal involves interpreting a situation differently. This requires considering a toxic workplace as a challenge rather than a frustration. For instance, you can tell yourself “it is not a verbally abusive boss, it is someone who needs attention.” Social researchers have proposed reappraisal as a way of turning a negative situation into a positive one. Try to simulate the life of Navy SEALs and Army Rangers: they do not personalize stress; they deal with the situation and move on to the next one. They must survive regardless of the stress that the current situation presents. The way you react to a stream of verbal abuse can transform people around you. It is advisable to take time before responding to an abuser. It is one method that clinical psychologists have used to control angry people.

3.      Build a Network of Trusted Friends

Solidarity is among the best solutions to toxic workplaces; you can stand with each other. Make a shield—a tight circle of good people—and deal with the jerk psychologically. You must be confident that there are good people in every place where there are bad people. Reach out and locate one or two colleagues who are trustworthy. You can offer each other support and vent. The negative energy and emotions don’t need to build up inside; give them some space for release. Co-workers who are trusted offer a platform for expressing yourself without being judged. You have a common goal, which is to cleanse a toxic workplace, and you are allowed to speak truthfully about the toxic persons and processes that drain you. In the end, a pain shared is easier to bear.

4.      Never Lose Focus on Vital Goals

A toxic workplace can lead to physical distress. Your main goal should be surviving until you get a better job. In this case, it is critical to stay focused on your goals. Some people go for counseling to help them survive in toxic workplaces. Lilian admits that she had to pay her loans and clear her student debt and resign when she was debt-free. She had to ignore unhealthy gossip to stay focused. At times, rumors were in the air, but she chose to ignore them. She did not enable a system where falsehoods are spread like the flu. She had to focus on her job and pay her loans before making the next move.

5.      Achieve a Work-Life Balance

You are not your work, and you are not your abuser. If you leave your work today, rest assured someone will do it. Some bosses abuse and overwork you. They give you guilt trips for underperformance. Stop taking work home and have a good lunch break. Many people work from 9 to 5, but they bring work home or dwell on it 24/7. Maintain a work-life balance, because someone else can do the work when you are gone. Accepting extra work because you fear abuse will hurt your work-life balance and affect you emotionally. Learn to decline the work and excuse yourself.

A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill wrote the book, Life Matters: Creating a Dynamic Balance of Work, Family, Time and Money. In it, the authors urge people to validate expectations. You should learn to confront reality at the workplace. If a workplace is toxic, you can quit—stop setting unrealistic expectations about workplaces; you will be hurt and frustrated. The book also instructs the reader to develop navigational intelligence. One must learn ways to evaluate a toxic workplace or how the work environment is changing. It is good to learn about the changes to be able to cope or make plans to leave. Apply navigational intelligence if your work does not allow you to balance your personal life.

6.      Never Hit Back

Madeleine (not her real name) was frustrated at work. She swore she would kill her boss. In the most extreme situations, retaliation has resulted in murder. Revenge could turn out to be fatal for either you or your target. You could land in jail or die. It is wise to walk away when the heat becomes too much.  

Finally, you can leave the workplace when you find another job. Remember that not all workplaces are toxic; there are some places that are healthy. You can be fired, you can quit, but the work must be done with or without you. If the abuse is too much, press the exit button—your sanity is paramount. Stop letting people belittle and abuse you because your ego makes you feel indispensable—you are only giving them a chance to further abuse you.

 In the poem, Indispensable Man, by Saxon White Kessinger, the author offers an insight about work. Kessinger writes that the human ego leads you to believe that you are the “best qualified in the room.” You feel that when you leave there will be an unfillable hole. He instructs people to fill a bucket with water and put their hands inside up to the wrist. When you remove your hands from the water, it looks the same, serving as a metaphor for your position at work: nobody is indispensable! Always do your best, but remember that at any point, you can quit toxic workplaces and life will go on. Always have an exit plan when the abuse becomes too much for you to handle.


  • Marguerita Cheng

    Author, Speaker & Advocate at Blue Ocean Global Wealth

    Marguerita M. Cheng is the Chief Executive Officer at Blue Ocean Global Wealth. Marguerita is a member of the CNBC FA Council and a contributor for Investopedia & Kiplinger. She is a CFP® professional, Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor®, a Retirement Income Certified Professional® and a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst®. As a Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (CFP Board) Ambassador, Marguerita helps educate the public, policymakers, and media about the benefits of competent, ethical financial planning. She serves as a Women’s Initiative (WIN) Advocate and Diversity Advisory Group (DAG) for CFP Board. She served on the Financial Planning Association (FPA) National Board of Directors from 2013 – 2015 and is a past president of the Financial Planning Association of the National Capital Area (FPA NCA) In 2017, she was named the #3 Most Influential Financial Advisor in the Investopedia Top 100 and a Woman to Watch by InvestmentNews. Marguerita’s mantra is “So many people spend their health to gain wealth, and then have to spend their wealth to regain their health” (A.J. Reb Materi).