The emotional damage of working in a toxic environment

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post on the topic of mental health at work. Understandably a lot of other things have happened the past few months, but this remains my core area of interest and where I want to break down barriers. I decided it was time I got back to it, and was listening to Esther Perel’s podcast “How’s work” when this topic came to mind.

In the episode “You’re inching me out”, it’s clear that the two “interviewees” (for lack of a better word) have a fraught relationship. They struggle to understand each other and have clearly different viewpoints.

As I was listening to the more “emotional” one (and let me remind you that’s not a bad thing) something resonated in me and I thought “wow, I know how that feels! I too have felt very hurt”. That’s when I finally took stock of the emotional damage I suffered from spending 6 years in a toxic work environment.

What is emotional damage?

Emotional damage is feeling hurt, suffering, and feeling emotionally destroyed because of the situation you’re in. Like me, you might not even realize until much later that you’re suffering emotional damage, or that your emotions are taking a beating. And yes I’m using strong language, but that’s what happening. This emotional damage creates trauma and needs healing, and to be perfectly honest I don’t fully know what this healing looks like.

Looking back on my experience, in the heat of the moment I was more aware of feeling stressed, angry or frustrated. I felt hard done by, underappreciated and overworked… But I wasn’t really in tune with my emotions, or allowing myself to feel that pain. Sure there were times I cried (probably a telltale sign), but I put it down to exhaustion and stress.

Yet what Esther Perel’s podcast has made me realize in such a short time, is that the relationships we have at work carry just as much baggage as those in our personal lives. Of course they can also bring us a lot of joy and positivity, what I mean to say is that the impact of them is strong, yet we tend to look at them as transactional. I believe this is why we don’t care for them as much and they can create so much damage.

Processing my feelings related to work

As I’ve written before, it’s normal for us to experience feelings in the workplace. We are human beings and cannot dissociate ourselves from them. If I take time to think about it, the negative experiences I had clearly impacted me emotionally. For example:

  • Not being heard when I said I was overworked
  • Not being taken seriously when I voiced my concerns over work, certain conditions etc.
  • Not being given any constructive feedback
  • Taking criticism and mistakes very personally as a failure (partly due to company culture)
  • Feeling inched out, pushed out, purposefully left out of things
  • Having my work stolen or claimed by others as their own
  • Feeling overworked, undervalued and under appreciated
  • Feeling that my company didn’t have my back
  • Feeling dismissed when bringing up ideas or certain ways of thinking, particularly when it came to valuing the people and culture aspect of work (as in the podcast)

Man all of that hurt! It hurt so much. If you put all of the above into the context of a relationship (romantic, friendship or family), it’s almost akin to being in an abusive relationship. I felt betrayed, afraid, sad, and angry of course. I was very angry all the time. I channelled my anger to power through things, become vindictive, and show people shouldn’t mess with me.

Probably the most scarring part was feeling hurt, unwanted, alone, and vulnerable. In times when I was struggling the most and no one had my back, I felt incredibly out in the open, vulnerable to anyone who might have wanted to take advantage of the situation. Thinking about it now I realize I never really externalized those emotions, I just carried them with me. It’s no wonder I suffered from insomnia, and carried a lot of it in my body too.

What should we do about emotional damage?

Recognizing emotions in the workplace

The first step is realizing the huge impact work and professional relationships can have on our emotions. Perhaps I am late to the party, but I feel the connection has to be made a lot clearer.

We continue to make a distinction between personal and professional as if there were two separate versions of us. Yet there’s an increasing trend asking us to bring “our whole selves” to work. While we should (and probably already do), this means acknowledging our whole selves have feelings. We’re bringing our personality to work, with our set of challenges, problems and emotional baggage, as well as the positive aspects.

Therefore it’s vital for companies to recognize the humans in front of them, and stop labelling us as “robot employees” who are only a job description. Employees = humans = emotions will be involved.

We build relationships with colleagues, put our heart and effort into our work… It’s only normal to have some emotional tie to the workplace whether we want to admit it or not.

Allowing people to display emotions

Much like the conversation around mental health is taboo, displaying emotions at work also is. Everyone has to keep it together and “be professional”. Until we allow people to embrace and show their emotions, we won’t be able to support them, nor will we be able to create workplaces where people can thrive. Therefore, we need to start developing cultures where it’s ok for people to be honest about how they’re feeling.

This doesn’t mean a sudden crying fest or anger bash. Start small, encourage people to say how they really feel when they’re asked “how are you?”. Make it ok for people to express disappointment when projects go wrong, or to be honest when they’re afraid. These are just small steps towards creating psychological safety so people feel more able to be open. Besides, it’s unlikely people will want to open the floodgates to their emotions so there’s no need to be too concerned the office will become more dramatic than a tele novela.

Teaching people to deal with emotions

The second step is teaching basic emotional skills in the workplace. Once we’ve acknowledged we all have them, how do we manage them? Employers should make courses on emotional intelligence mandatory for all, with a particular focus on teaching managers how to recognize emotions in others. They should then be taught the appropriate response in each situation. This will help them feel less unarmed and at a loss when a colleague experiences something.

  • My employee is crying, what should I do?
  • My direct report is angry, how do I handle it?
  • My colleague is suffering from lack of confidence, how can I help them?

All of these situations should be taught to managers so they are better equipped for handling them. Similarly questions such as “I’m feeling anger towards a colleague” or “I’m so frustrated with work I want to cry” are things that employees should be helped with and taught to manage, as it relates to the workplace.

Another option would be to offer 1:1 coaching for all employees so they can get support as and when needed, specific to their issues. Or as in Esther Perel’s podcast, colleagues could go for counselling together (though this probably requires a higher level of trust and a long standing relationship).

Dealing with your own emotional damage

It’s important to recognize your own emotions in the workplace. Perhaps like me, due to years of conditioning and not knowing otherwise, you’re working hard to keep them undercover. You might be bottling them up or saving them for your friends and family. You might not even realize how emotionally affected you are.

Start by asking yourself how you’re feeling. At the end of the a day or a week, take time to reflect on certain situations and how they made you feel. Acknowledge and accept it. You don’t always have to have an out pour of emotions and catharsis on a daily basis, but being more in touch with them will help you process and manage them better. When you process, it will allow you to express them more too which in turn might help you speak up in situations that are uncomfortable or unpleasant, rather than grinning and bearing it.

If you’ve had some particularly hurtful or bad experiences that could have pushed you to burnout, consider getting professional help. You could talk it through with a therapist or a coach in order to find coping mechanisms for the future, but also understand what underlying beliefs you have that are preventing you from being in touch with your emotions in the workplace.

Most importantly, remember that’s normal to experience emotions at work. Don’t try to shove them away, learn to become more in touch with them.

Do you need help processing an experience you had at work, or are you motivated to give your employees the skills they need?

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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