Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Working at a dysfunctional job is terrible for all the obvious reasons: unclear expectations, unrealistic workload, tyrannical boss, toxic co-workers, or whatever might warrant the category of “dysfunctional job” in the first place. But on top of the obvious, bad jobs exact an additional price that many people don’t know about. If you stay in one long enough, it can totally warp your idea of normal. You’ll often end up accepting things as unexceptional that you shouldn’t tolerate at all, like unfair pay or being yelled at—and these expectations can shadow you into your next job too.
I often get letters at Ask a Manager describing abusive or exploitative work conditions from people who don’t seem to realize that their situation is very abnormal. Sometimes that’s because they’re new to the workforce—a problem in its own right—but often it’s because they’ve been in a dysfunctional environment for so long that their sense of what’s appropriate shifts profoundly.
Take this person, for example:
My managers at my last job … were so critical that I really bought into the belief that I did not deserve the job I had, I didn’t deserve any raises or promotions, and I definitely did not deserve something better. It kept me from asking for what I wanted (and thought I deserved), it kept me from looking for a new job, and it almost kept me from getting an appropriate salary at my new job (I asked for 6 percent less than they offered, and thought I was asking for too much).
And sometimes when you’re steeped in a toxic environment for long enough, your own behavior shifts in ways that become enormously problematic too. An unforgettable example of this is from a letter writer whose co-workers were so routinely hostile that eventually, in a moment of irritation, she bit one of them:
I work in an incredibly dysfunctional office … Yesterday, I had a meeting with a coworker. My hands were full of paperwork and a full mug. When I got to the coworker’s office, the office manager was in the doorway, braced with one arm stretched across the opening. I stopped, said, “Excuse me, I have a meeting.” Aaaaaand he refused to move. He replied that he didn’t give a s*** and it wasn’t his problem. The coworker grimaced but said nothing, as is usual for our office.
Normally, I’d sit and argue … this time I bit him. I don’t know! His arm was in front of my face, my hands were full, I know from experience he almost never moves, and I’m reaaaaally busy right now.
Then in an update a few months later, she reported that no one even cared about the bite:
Turns out, as I’d thought, no one in the office cared that I bit the office manager. I spoke to one person in the office that I find professional and whose opinion I respect. He was confused that I was upset, felt that biting someone wasn’t that crazy for our office, and in the end he didn’t think it was a big deal.
Perhaps most troubling is the way the dynamics of a bad job can stay lodged in your brain and harm you even after you leave. For example, if you learned at your old job that you’d be berated for the smallest of mistakes and thus should avoid coming clean about them, you might try to cover up mistakes at your new job—and if the new job has decent management, that’s likely to go badly when it’s discovered.
One of the most common ways this “workplace PTSD” plays out is in people who end up terrified to talk to their bosses:
At my last company, I used to get yelled at constantly. The owner was unhinged. She once emailed me 12 times on Thanksgiving day wondering why I wasn’t replying—I was a junior employee with no requirement to answer on holidays. It’s taken years of work to accept that I’m not going to be screamed at by my boss now, but I still get stressed whenever he’s around. It’s entirely unconscious at this point.
Toxicity can linger in your brain in other ways too:
At my previous job, it was common to “devil’s advocate” new ideas until they die. If an employee brought up an idea for new web, video, or social media content, others in the room took turns asking all manner of absurd what-if questions. What if someone unlikes the Facebook page because they don’t like that post? What if a YouTube viewer down votes the video? What if someone doesn’t like that photograph on the website? What if the video movement makes a viewer nauseous and they complain to us? What if … What if … What if … until no one wants to bring new ideas forward anymore.
One year after leaving that job, I’m still nervous about bringing up ideas in meetings. I also have become nervous about offering counterpoints in meetings because I don’t want to become an idea killer.
Here’s another account:
At one of my first jobs I worked for a manager who would call me at home during the middle of the day if I called out sick and would say “just checking” when I answered. It always made me feel like I was doing something wrong when I took a sick day and that still lingers to this day.
A few months ago at my current job, I had the flu and was out for an entire week. I made a point to texting sick pictures of me and my MD note just to “prove” that I wasn’t faking to my co-workers. They didn’t think I was faking and wanted nothing to do with me that week, but I had this need to prove I wasn’t faking.
In many ways, the effects of a toxic workplace aren’t all that different from the way other dysfunctional relationships can leave you with baggage even after you’ve escaped. But, perhaps because we (often incorrectly!) see ourselves as less emotionally intertwined with work than we are with family members or with romantic partners, we’re less likely to recognize when work has messed with our heads.
But just as with other kinds of damaging relationships, when you’ve tolerated them for so long that it starts to feel normal, it can be hard to see that you need to get out. And if you do suspect that you need to leave, it can be difficult to gear up for a job search if your workplace has destroyed your self-confidence—even though it’s important to do before the problem gets even more entrenched.
If you are stuck in a notably bad workplace for any length of time, it’s useful to make a point of not letting it recalibrate your norms. Pay extra attention to the way other managers and other workplaces in similar industries operate—say, by talking to others in your field, to serve as a counterweight to what you’re experiencing. And if you find yourself altering your work behavior in response to dysfunction (for example: stifling your initiative, not speaking up about problems, or simply disengaging), keep reminding yourself that those strategies are workplace-specific. And when you do get to your next job, just make sure to actively try to adjust your expectations.