Improve a Toxic Work Environment with These 4 Pro Strategies

Regardless of the industry, every job has some degree of stress. This is true even on the good days, when the workflow is seamless and deadlines are met. But if going to work—or simply thinking about it—sparks waves of stress, you're likely working in a toxic environment.

If this is case, it's worth learning how to combat it. A toxic workplace, after all, doesn't just hinder the company's bottom line—it can also negatively affect your overall health, including emotional and physical wellness.

"A toxic work environment can lead to overthinking, [self-doubt] and worrying," says Jason Eric Ross, a licensed psychotherapist in Florida. Over time, he says, this can lead to issues like anxiety, poor eating habits and lack of sleep. 

Granted, it may not be possible to single-handedly transform your workplace culture. But you can control how you respond to toxic scenarios. Consider these four strategies for diffusing negativity in the workplace. With each tactic, you can approach adverse situations with intention and mindfulness. Moreover, as you practice each strategy over time, you'll help minimize the toxic work environment instead of adding to it. 

1. Avoid Workplace Gossip

While it might seem obvious, the best way to deal with workplace gossip is simple: don't participate. "[Offer] little verbal interaction and keep your words to a minimum," advises Ross. "Focus on work so you don't have time to get involved."

When all else fails, be honest. If someone tries to gossip with you, say "This isn't for me" or "I'm not interested" to clearly state that you're not willing to participate. "Eventually, others [will] take notice and stop trying to engage you in drama," says Ross.

By staying away from the breakroom buzz, you'll help reduce the toxicity of spilled tea.

2. Practice Good Communication

From vague assignments to the "telephone game," poor communication is a common trait of toxic workplace cultures. In fact, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, most workplace issues stem from a lack of communication.

Luckily, you can be part of the solution. Strive to encourage good communication by responding rather than reacting. Instead of asking more questions, take time to ask the right ones. Practice talking assertively ("I feel…") instead of aggressively ("You never…") during disagreements, and be clear about expectations for work performance.

When you prioritize healthy communication, you create the opportunity for clarity — whether you're dealing with HR, difficult bosses, a frustrating co-worker or all the above.

3. Maintain Your Good Habits

In many toxic workplaces, employees collectively practice bad habits. This can include anything from constant lateness to social media breaks every half hour. And while it might be tempting to follow suit, sticking to your good habits is more important now than ever.

Falling into the trap only feeds into the unhealthy culture. It solidifies that poor habits are acceptable and appropriate. Plus, it can damage your reputation as an employee, especially if you're in a leadership position.

Instead of running with the herd, preserve your integrity. As you maintain your professional behavior, you'll avoid fueling the toxic fire.

4. Set Emotional Boundaries

If you're faced with hostile behavior at work, focus on creating emotional boundaries. These borders are crucial for handling a variety of unfriendly situations, including demeaning bosses or aggressive coworkers.

One method is to depersonalize the behaviors of others. Recognize that people's actions and words are not a reflection of you. "Take a step back and understand that [the toxic behavior] is about him or her," adds Ross.

Another strategy is to speak to a therapist or coach. According to Ross, these experts can help you process your emotions and plan how you want to handle future interactions. "You don't want to be defensive, but rather, confident," he explains. "Confidence will help you manage the other person's negative behavior and maintain your composure."

These strategies won't make your work problems disappear, and they certainly won't change your colleagues' behaviors and attitudes. They can, however, shape your influence on a toxic workplace. Above all, these strategies will protect your emotional, mental and physical health, at work and beyond.