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The workplace detox

Updated: Oct 10, 2018

Today is International Mental Health Day. Considering the workplace is one of the major contributors to stress and declining mental health, I've decided to focus my second detox post on the workplace.

Studies have shown that workplace incivility lowers productivity, increases psychological distress and depression, and costs companies more than double the amount of retaining or hiring a superstar. Despite the compelling evidence, workplace toxicity has doubled in the last two decades with estimated costs of $14,000USD (~$20,000AUD) per employee (!!!) due to loss of productivity and work time. In Australia, mental health conditions that are not treated cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year. For a quick glance of some disturbing facts about the state of work today, have a look at this article (which is from the rubbish site Business Insider but is linked to the scholarly articles).

What's worse is that workplace toxicity has a ripple effect. It spreads like a virus through the office, especially when those behaviours come from upper and executive management teams. These are the people who set the agenda and culture of a company. If you think of your workplace as an eco-system, everyone and everything is connected and everything that happens in that ecosystem will start a vibration that reverberates throughout the organisation. The closer you are to that vibration, the more you feel it. If it is negatively charged, you'll feel negative. If it is positively charged, you'll feel positive. It doesn't take a genius to work out which type of vibration is going to yield better results from employees (here's a hint: it's not the negative one).

I have worked in some workplaces that have the toxicity of a biohazard chemical plant. We've all been there, getting swallowed by an absolute dearth of talent, surrounded by, or reporting to, assholes. It's like entering a realm of negativity; people are passively job hunting while at work, there is lots of whispering going on, the break out room turns into a rant chamber to where you drag a colleague and unload all the things that piss you off. You feel it in your back, your neck, your temples. No amount of alcohol (another toxin) makes it go away. It's like office quicksand. And like a true addict you keep going back, day after day, driven by your dependency on pay day which makes it all worth it. I know because I've had those jobs too, and I stayed in them because I liked the salary but when I left them it felt like I had taken an enormous intake of fresh air that made me buoyant like that little kid holding the balloons in the movie Up.

When we get yelled at or backstabbed or gossiped about or bullied, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Contrary to its very compassionate title, the sympathetic nervous system is the part of your brain that makes you flip out. It's colloquially referred to as the 'fight or flight' response. We either fight by dishing out the same toxic behaviour either: in the office to other colleagues; at home where our partner cops the brunt of our drudgery (sometimes for years on end); socially where every outing with friends is dominated by a one to two hour diatribe about how much we hate our job. Or we go into flight mode in the form of quitting and moving onto another workplace. The trouble with both those reactions is that toxic workplaces have reached pandemic proportions and chances are you'll invariably begin to notice the toxicity after 6-12 months in your new workplace anyway...and so the cycle begins.

When we feel threatened, we react. These threats may not be obvious acts of aggression; they may present themselves as company restructures, criticism of our work, lies or secrets about us that may be exposed, scapegoating, gaslighting, exclusion from social activities, lack of clarity, lack of information, deception, dishonesty, dependence. There are so many ways in which workplace toxicity presents itself. Albeit subtle, these acts send signals to our brain. Once that information is received, our brain kicks into action by reacting. Being non-reactive goes against our hard wiring because our brain's job is to react. It's what keeps us safe and alive.

Stay with me for this next bit....

Our behaviour is shaped by our unconscious and subconscious mind (which deserves a long post of its own but if you want a really thorough but simple explanation, watch "Inside Out").

Our unconscious mind has a bias that is influenced by our own personal experiences, memories, learned behaviours and projection of ourselves. Not many of us are tuned into our unconscious minds and it's why we feel we have little choice in how we react. The world is against me, my boss is an asshole, I have to stay in my shit job because I have a mortgage, I'm not qualified to do anything else...the list goes on. We end up feeling trapped and our resentment comes out in our conversations, our meetings and our work which is geared towards proving ourselves right and someone else wrong because it is a lot easier to blame someone else or something else for our situation. That way, we can absolve ourselves of any accountability for the way we feel and how we act and react. We get angry. We even blame the internet. The internet made me angry. Well here's the hard truth: You are the machine that generated those feelings and you had a choice in the matter.

I am not suggesting for a minute that workplace toxicity, especially bullying, is all in your head. It is real. If you are feeling this way, it is highly likely your boss and / or colleagues are assholes. There is a proliferation of evidence to support this. This post is not about telling you to suck it up and be grateful you're not a Bangladeshi textile worker. It's about being aware of the toxins you're exposed to in the office and reclaiming some power over how you manage them.

When you get screamed at or thrown under the bus it is so easy to start boiling on the inside. Being watched or judged triggers feelings of inadequacy and we become anxious, uneasy and resentful. That's the sympathetic nervous system at work. Your cheeks flush, you tense up, your heart beats faster, you feel rage, you get a massive dose of cortisol. Cortisol is your body's override button. It kicks in when you are stressed and you need to get away from the monster. It shuts down a lot of the primary functions going on in the body and turns you into a defence machine so you can run as fast as you can away from the threat or stand and fight. Combined with adrenaline (another hormone that is activated under stress) you become superhuman and want to punch someone in the face. Social convention (and the law) tells us that 'punching on' is wrong and this concept is reinforced through things like responsible parenting, pop culture and mass media. What we don't always get taught is how to stay calm and non-reactive in high stress situations. Often, when someone is trying to calm us down they are yelling, "CALM THE F@&K DOWN!" at us which unsurprisingly has the reverse effect.

Have you ever noticed there are some people who thrive in these toxic environments? How do they deflect those negative vibrations, come into work fresh every day, happily do their job and always have something nice to say to everyone? How are they able to have lots of compassion for the chronically melancholic and narcissistic? What is the secret to their Pollyanna-esque radiance that shields them from office toxins? You know what it is? Attitude.

You may not always be in control of your situation but you are always in control of how you react to that situation. Always. There is no grey area here. I'll say it again: You are always in control of how you react and respond to your situation. You may be influenced by certain drivers like family, values, financial security - no doubt. But, unless you are afflicted with an extreme cognitive or neurological disorder, your reaction is yours and yours alone. You may disagree with me but that is also a response you chose. Are you beginning to see how this choice thing works?

Similar to a friend detox, the secret to increasing your toxic resilience in the workplace is to harness your powers of non-reactivity. This. is. really. hard. Your most accessible detox tool is your breath. When you are in a stressful situation at work (or anywhere) take in a deep inhale through the nose for at least four to five counts, hold for three and exhale as slowly as you can. You can even do this while the tyrant is screaming at you. If you are in a quiet place, close your eyes and repeat a few times. The oxygen flow helps your body to expel toxins, such as cortisol. Yes, cortisol is a toxin and in extreme amounts it will kill you. It has been shown in a number of studies to reduce the length of your life and is why many high performance athletes - who everyone thinks of as fit and healthy - die young due to the stress they subject their bodies to in training.

I've found a rant from a toxic boss or office bully usually lasts 6-7 minutes. While this rant is going on, don't do or say anything. Do not buy into the vortex of negativity. While the rant plays out, remain very quiet and very calm. When the ranter finally shuts up they will notice they didn't get a reaction from you and they will feel quite silly. They may even say something like, "Well, say something! What are you going to do about it!?" to which you can very calmly respond in a low mild mannered voice, "I think we should resume this conversation at another time. But in the meantime, I'll work on a few ways forward and come back to you with some options," - one of which may be your formal resignation.

What you're doing here is becoming aware of your rising levels of cortisol and then not reacting to them. You expel them with every breath and the response you choose is one of non-reactivity. What really works is a genuinely sympathetic smile. Not a smirk - these two are easily confused. The smirk happens when the sympathy is not authentic and it makes the tyrant even more tyrannical. If you (understandably) feel no compassion for the bully, don't smile, but do make eye contact and try to understand what a truly wretched existence they must have.

Quitting is very rarely an option. Almost all of us have financial obligations that depend on the salary. Yes, there are arduous HR policies designed to shield us but that process often leads to more stress. What you can always access is awareness of your own thoughts. It's ok to be pissed off or frustrated but don't let these feelings manifest into negative actions. Don't let someone else dump their toxic insecurities onto you. That's their crap. Notice their reaction and say to yourself: "This is an example of someone I never want to be."

When you leave the office, really leave the office. Breathe deeply. Get some air. Go to a park and walk around with your shoes off. Hug your dog, child, partner, parent and tell them how nice it is to have them in your life. Tell yourself you are amazing and mean it.

Because you are amazing.

Stay well, sleep well.


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