Toxic Work
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Matt Cummins dreaded going to work every day. But it wasn’t because of a long commute or his duties. A poor work environment plagued his performance.

“Things were particularly bad a couple months ago, after my grandfather died and my best friend at work went on vacation,” says Cummins, 32, a mortgage processor in Plainfield, Illinois. “During this week-and-a-half period, I felt isolated from the team. They wouldn’t include me in group discussions, ask me to go on walks or have lunch with them.

“I had a consistent feeling I was missing things, felt judged and looked down upon by my team members. I felt they were constantly waiting for me to mess up.”

Cummins says he lost weight and found it hard to sleep at night. His stress got to a point where he stopped eating and working out and experienced episodes of vomiting in the morning.

Millions of people in the workforce have similar tales to tell. To maintain your health — and keep your job — find out what makes your space toxic and how to manage stress and improve your overall work life.

Diagnosing the job culture

According to a 2015 survey from the RAND American Life Panel, more than one-half of American workers reported exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions. About one in five people were exposed to a hostile or threatening social environment at work.

A hostile environment can include cold or standoffish colleagues, a lack of transparency, difficult-to-meet deadlines and even inconsistent rules handed down from the boss.

“Employees who are in constant fear for their jobs, or angering their manager, or having to worry about explaining or covering for their actions, all of these are red flags,” says Michael Klein, a workplace consultant in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Another indicator is chronic turnover — employees who leave often or after a few weeks or months on the job, Klein says.

Stacked ranking also is a bad practice, says Denver career coach Brenda Abdilla. “It may create crippling anxiety in one person and exhilaration in another,” she says. “One person’s hell is another person’s heaven when it comes to work culture.”

Working through the stress

The survey reported eight out of 10 workers had steady and predictable work throughout the year, while two-thirds frequently worked at high speeds or under tight deadlines, with one in four not having enough time to do their job.

A little job stress keeps us feeling focused and purposeful. Bad job stress comes with the constant feeling of impending doom, or goals and expectations that seem impossible, Klein says. Although it’s tempting to rely on co-workers for support when struggling with a boss or difficult colleague, it can become an excuse for not dealing with the situation.

“The more you see difficult co-workers as a chance to develop increased understanding ... that will undoubtedly help you develop as an employee and performer, the easier it becomes to manage the situation,” Klein says.

Abdilla says it’s OK to vent frustrations and then step back. “Try to imagine why this person would behave the way they do,” she says. “Then come up with ways you can engage differently with this person or even disengage if possible.”

Cummins recently transferred within his company from Naperville, Illinois, per his manager’s instruction.

“Things have completely changed since the move,” he says. “I feel like a valued member of a team again. I ate breakfast for the first time in over a year and feel a chance to live a healthier life again.”

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