Navigating the Toxic Workplace

By Françoise Mathieu, Compassion Fatigue Specialist


At some point, I stopped going to the staff lunchroom.

I started eating at my desk instead, staring at my computer, trying to finish reports over the lunch hour, maybe surfing the web for new shoes or reading about the latest celebrity scandal… Truth is, I was avoiding my co-workers. The workload in my office had recently dramatically increased, stress was high and the pay was low. People were angry and frustrated, and would often use the lunch hour as an opportunity to gripe about our boss, vent about the flawed system and complain about pretty much anything else. A friend of mine called this the “BMWs” of work: bitching, moaning and whining.  At first, it provided some short-term relief - it was nice to feel that I wasn’t alone in my anger at what was becoming an unsustainable situation. However, after a while, I started wondering whether this was moving us anywhere constructive. In my workshops, I jokingly refer to the BMWs as a fake workout: regularly complaining about work without moving to any advocacy for change is a bit like eating a bag of chips while watching an exercise video…We have the illusion that we are working on the problem, but in truth, nothing positive is taking place.
Recent research in the fields of burnout and compassion fatigue have indicated that some of the key elements of a healthy workplace are working in well defined teams, good quality supervision and social support. (Killian, 2008)  Unfortunately, over time, work overload and poor communication can not only lead to gossip and negativity among teams, it can also lead to internal strife among staff and destroy team spirit: jealousy, backbiting, the creation of cliques, even sabotage can occur when staff are drowning in work and feel unheard and criticized. I am sure you see the irony at play: the most important protective features of a healthy workplace, social support and healthy teams, are being suffocated by workplace negativity and conflict. How can we work our way out of this mess?

What can you do? 

If you are a staff member, you need to start by identifying what is within your control and what isn’t: You may not be able to change a policy around workload (although it’s not a bad idea to constructively advocate for change), but you can choose who you spend time with. Almost every workplace has one or two very burned out staff members. (I sometimes call them the “old crusties” even if they are young) – the ones who are extremely bitter and angry, and who encourage negative talk and BMW in the workplace. Although you may want to reach out to them, to offer support (because in truth, these people are suffering), you may also wish to focus on spending time with less burned-out members of staff. Pick two or three more positive folks, and agree to spend time on topics other than office gossip.

Create some supervision for yourself: When you need a debrief or some advice, is your supervisor someone who is available and open or someone you don’t feel comfortable talking to? If you are not getting what you need, consider finding your own sounding board: find a mentor or another colleague who is interested in creating a positive space and bouncing ideas. At some point in my career, I gladly paid a therapist in private practice to provide me with the clinical supervision that I badly needed and wasn’t getting at work – the benefits to my mental health far outweighed the cost.

Take a breather: If the climate at work is getting to you, consider leaving the building at lunch – go for a walk, bring a novel to read in the food court or in the park, just make sure to get away to regroup.

Weigh your options: Some people are far less affected by the workplace climate than others – they seem to be able to put their heads down, and get their work done, no matter what is swirling around them. If that is not your case, and the negativity at work is seriously impacting you, or you have a direct personality conflict with a colleague, consider calling in some help: consult with your Employee Assistance Provider (EAP), find out whether you have access to mediation or dispute resolution, talk to your union.

Sometimes, the problem can be resolved and you can learn new tools to better manage the challenges and climate of your workplace. Other times, you may seriously need to explore the possibility of moving on to another job. This can be a frightening move, understandably. We spend an average of 90 000 hours at work over a lifetime. Shouldn’t that time be fiercely protected from constant toxicity?



Mathieu, F. (2012) The Compassion Fatigue Workbook. New York: Routledge.

Killian, K. (2008) Helping till it hurts? in Traumatology, Vol 14, No 2, June 2008.


The author:
Françoise Mathieu, M. Ed., CCC., is a certified mental health counsellor and compassion fatigue specialist. She is the director of Compassion Fatigue Solutions, a consulting firm which specializes in topics related to workplace burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and organizational health.