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Help, My Work Environment is Super Toxic!

As Britney Spears famously sang, “Don't you know that you're toxic?” But toxic relationships are not just confined to the romantic kind. For some, the work environment can be as toxic, or even worse, than facing your nasty ex-boyfriend.

Whether you are a first-jobber or an old hen, dealing with office politics can be traumatising. Victims often develop low self-esteem and may even plunge into depression and anxiety, just like *Jessica and *Kelly, who shared their battle tales with us.

*Not their real names

Jessica: “I survived and thrived!”

“When I first joined my company as a junior marketing executive, I worked quite well with my manager. It was my first job and I didn’t mind taking on extra workload so on top of my own projects, I was often ‘lent’ to support colleagues from other departments. Being young and hungry to learn, I took these as valuable opportunities.

The good thing is my colleagues were truly appreciative and I made some good friends. But we could all see that our boss had a clear favourite in my team. This colleague, who joined at about the same time I did, was offered high-profile projects that could help her shine. But when she couldn’t complete her work, the less attractive projects would be passed to me at the last minute. I always made sure I delivered even though I often pulled late nights. This went on for a year before it finally dawned on me that I’d always be the dependable back-up but would only play second fiddle to her favourite.

My boss had a very caustic tongue. I was so jittery around her, I’d pray hard before submitting my work. She would make half-joking snide remarks about me in front of others, once calling my idea “common and low class”. But during a meeting with our big boss, he rejected the ideas she had presented and asked for fresh ones. I gingerly pitched the one that my manager laughed at – and the big boss liked it! At that moment, I could feel the resentment rising from her.

Oddly, she kept giving me more and more responsibilities. But the better I performed, the more strained our relationship seemed to get. She barely spoke to me except when it was work related. Even her pet (who eventually quit for greener pastures) told me privately that she felt our boss was being unfair to me.

Over the years, I persevered because I believed that my work would speak for itself. I got promoted until I was second to my manager. I never understood why she seemed to dislike me so much but it really affected my mental health. After she was particularly mean to me, I broke down in the toilet and wept. I even had a flash of madness: I wanted to grab the pantry knife, stab her and then end my own life! That was my wake-up call that I was sinking into depression and should not take this bullying any more. I contemplated quitting.

Unbeknownst to me, a colleague spoke to our big boss about what was happening. (I guess all those years of collaborating well with them paid off.) Thankfully, with my good track record in the company, my boss decided to promote me! My manager was transferred to head a different unit while I took over her position. The day I moved into her office, I couldn’t believe it! More importantly, my team and I worked well together and even hit new milestones.

On hindsight, I should have spoken up for myself earlier to save myself the years of anguish and self-doubt. But this episode also proved to me that even if one person in your team is toxic, if you are sincere and work well with others, there are still good people around who can make your work life not just bearable, but even help you to thrive.”

Kelly: “I cut my losses and quit!”

“In the three years I worked in my first job, I’d always enjoyed a friendly relationship with my colleagues and even made good friends. But when I joined a new company as a senior executive, I struggled to fit into my new team.

I liked my manager. But I was intimidated by P, who had worked her way up over the years from a junior assistant to becoming a senior executive, like me. She was the leader of a clique made up of two other junior girls. In front of my boss, P seemed cordial enough. But beyond the ‘welcome’ lunch that my manager had organised for me and the team, they won’t accept my invitation to lunch together. Sometimes, they would place an order for Grab food but wouldn’t think of inviting me to join in. Other times, they’d share their home-made meals. I tried asking if I could contribute a dish and join in. They’d say “Next time!”, but left me out again and again.

If we couldn’t be friends, I hoped we could at least work well together. I suspected that P resented the fact that I’d joined the company at the same rank as her, despite being younger and less experienced, because I was better educated. At first, she wasn’t rude but wouldn’t try to be helpful either. For example, when I asked for details on her old projects for reference, P would dismissively say, “It’s all there, just check the archives.”

But things worsened. When we disagreed, she would make cutting remarks about how being book-smart was not everything and experience counted more. Although the two junior girls didn’t actively join in, they didn’t speak up for me, either. They were supposed to support P and I in our projects but P often hogged their time. I don’t like confrontations so I’d work overtime to complete my projects.

The more I backed off, the greater delight P seemed to take in my discomfort. She even made personal remarks about my appearance to a new trainee! Shocked, the trainee warned me about P. I felt so embarrassed and upset, I quickly walked off to compose myself before I burst into tears.

I struggled with anxiety about facing P every day but I didn’t talk to my boss because I didn’t want to appear weak or unprofessional. One day, my boss told me that P would be promoted to Assistant manager soon and I would report directly to her. I couldn’t sleep that night, imagining the never-ending conflicts I would face. What kind of career prospects would I have if my immediate boss disliked me so much?

After discussing it over with my parents, who were concerned about my declining mental health, I decided to cut my losses and quit my job after a year. I was concerned about financial insecurity but it was time to stop letting P’s gaslighting erode my self-confidence.

This time, I was lucky to join a new company with great colleagues who worked hard and played hard together. Through this experience, I learned something important: If being in a toxic work environment is affecting your mental health, even having the fattest salary in the world will not be worth it. Value yourself and get rid of the toxic people around you. Your future self, and career, will thank you.”

If you face workplace harassment, don’t suffer in silence. Visit on how you can seek help.

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