How to Handle a High Stress Work Environment

One wonderful advantage of financial independence (or at least a strong financial foundation) is that you don’t have to deal with stressful or toxic work environments. You can simply start searching for a different job as soon as the environment turns negative and handle any financial bumps in the road that such a search may cause.

However, many Americans aren’t in that situation. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford financial bumps, and other Americans might be in a job that pays very well compared to alternatives or offers some other particular benefit. In both of those cases, sticking with a high stress or toxic work environment might be the only option for them.

If we stick with the assumption that your job is toxic/high stress but a job change is exceedingly difficult right now, how do you handle that challenge?

For a year or so early in my professional career, I worked in a toxic environment. I was in a small group of three people working together tightly on a project and one of those three people was toxic to the point of (I believe) being intentionally so.

This coworker insisted on particular lighting for our shared office that gave everything this strange unearthly blue tint. During our weekly meetings, she would promise to deliver certain things during the coming week, then never deliver them. She would often “work” from home in the mornings (which were times that felt like a relief), but then accuse us of trying to “hack” her laptop remotely, which was her reason for why she didn’t get anything done at home. She would meet with the supervisor of the project privately and tell him that we were conspiring against her, leading him to check in on us and hear our side of the story. (There wasn’t a conspiracy against her – I barely even thought about her outside of direct interaction time. We didn’t have time for a conspiracy due to our project deadlines!)

This finally culminated with her giving a disastrous presentation during our first annual project review, which led to her immediate removal from the project. Our team of three was down to two, but it became far less stressful and actually more productive after that change.

However, getting through that time was very tough. I needed that job. It was my first real professional job after college and I needed it to be a home run. It was perfectly in line with what I studied in college and was clearly going to be a foundational step in my career path because of the skills I could build and the connections I could make.

I was lucky in that my work environment eventually improved significantly. Others aren’t so lucky.

Still, there were a number of strategies I employed that made it possible for me to make it through that period. Not all of these strategies will work for you because not all environments are the same. Instead, consider these strategies a toolbox for handling high stress and toxic work environments.

Connect Strongly with Like-Minded Colleagues

Who are the people in your workplace who have a similar perspective as yours? Who are the quiet people who just seem to want to get their job done without all of the stress and the antics? Intentionally seek those people out and build a positive relationship with them.

The key thing here is “positive.” Don’t make your relationship with them center around negative talk about the workplace. Instead, focus it on the positives of what you’re both trying to do. What are you actually getting done? What are your successes? How can you help each other? What are your common positive interests? Don’t weigh those things down with negativity and complaints about the workplace.

At the same time, try to build those types of positive relationships beyond your workplace. Seek out peers in your field and build positive relationships with them. Share knowledge. Help people. Have good positive conversations. Get involved with your online professional community and any professional groups associated with your career path. Attend conferences and conventions. This takes time – give it time.

Again, the important thing here is “positive.” Look for positive things to day and avoid negativity. Your relationships should be based on positive exchanges rather than just dumping out negative feelings.

Stay Healthy (and Channel Negative Feelings While Doing So)

The stress and toxicity of a negative work environment can feed on itself and leave you feeling miserable. You dread going into work, feel exhausted when you get home, and often find yourself slipping into a routine of bad habits. High stress jobs often correlate with lack of exercise, unhealthy eating habits, and lack of sleep.

Don’t let that happen. Make a conscious effort to maintain healthy habits in your life. Eat well – I trust the simple mantra of “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” as general guidance, meaning trying to eat things with a tiny ingredient list, not eating until you’re stuffed and eating only when you’re actually hungry, and eating mostly plant-based items. Get exercise of some kind regularly (I’ll come back to that). Perhaps most importantly, get a healthy amount of sleep – aim for eight hours a night and try to create nights of sleep where you rise naturally instead of at the behest of an alarm clock.

A key point about exercise: it can be a great channel for negative feelings. Over and over again in my life, I’ve found that vigorous exercise just channels away a lot of negative feelings that I have. “Vigorous exercise” means different things for different people – I’d say just find something you reasonably enjoy doing and do it at a pace so that you’re somewhat out of breath for a while. I do this while running/jogging/walking (I just seek a pace where I’m panting but it’s not getting considerably worse or better and stick with that pace) and with taekwondo practice. It’s quite impressive how such exercise melts away stressful negative feelings.

In addition, let me recommend two other practices that have helped me handle stress over the years: meditation and journaling. Meditation basically boils down to spending some time turning off the constant monologue in your head. I do it by sitting calmly in a chair or on the floor for fifteen minutes (you may want to start with a shorter time) and simply focusing on my breathing, in and out, and bringing my mind back to focus on the breathing whenever it wanders. It really calms he mind in the short term and actually helps me focus better over the long term. For journaling, I tend to do a daily “brain dump” where I just write out whatever’s on my mind for a few pages, which is the most stress reducing part of the practice.

Document Everything

Documentation is a good practice for any work environment, but a particularly good practice in a high-stress and potentially toxic environment. Document. Everything.

The best way to do this is to keep a work diary where, each day, you document the tasks you worked on and how you moved forward on them along with any significant interactions with others, particularly ones that were stressful. Write it all down and keep it in a place where you have access to it and it can’t be deleted or removed by IT professionals at work.

This document serves two purposes. First, it clearly outlines your positive efforts at work in rather intense detail. It’s pretty hard to argue against a lengthy work diary that correctly outlines your efforts over a long period of time. Second, it provides documentation of potentially negative relationships that dip into extreme toxicity and damage your career.

It’s well worth your time to spend a few minutes a few times a day documenting what you’re working on and what some of the potentially troublesome interactions that you had were like. Being able to refer to specific actions and specific dates in detail at a later time may end up saving your career.

Avoid Office Gossip and Negative Talk

Negative workplaces tend to have a very active gossip mill, where negative stories are shared about others behind their backs. Gossip is poison to a workplace because it eventually creates an environment where lots of people don’t trust each other, and a lack of trust makes it very hard to get work done in any sort of collaborative way (or to even enjoy a day at work at all).

Just avoid it. If you hear office gossip, assume it’s false. More importantly, don’t say anything or add anything to it. Never offer anything on your own and if you’re asked about it, just shrug it off and say something noncommittal like, “I’ve never noticed that.”

If you find that some people regularly gossip, tone down your water cooler relationship with those people and find others to hang out with. Intentionally seek relationships in the office with people who don’t gossip and who almost entirely speak positively of others.

Do not let your reputation get tainted by being a gossip, even if it feels good. Don’t find yourself in a position to ever have to defend negative words you spread behind a person’s back. Don’t ever open yourself up to the criticism of “Well, you deserved the gossip about you because you were doing it to him/her!”

What about criticism in meetings where it’s warranted or requested? If that’s the situation, then some criticism is fine. You should never criticize anyone in a way that isn’t directly to their face and you shouldn’t say anything in a setting beyond one-on-one conversation that you would want anyone to say about you behind your back, ever. If you absolutely must criticize, focus on the problem as specifically as possible and, if you can, make sure to mention positives along with the criticisms.

Pick Your Battles Wisely, But Stand Up for Yourself When Needed

There are going to be times where you are going to have to fight for yourself in a negative workplace. You are going to have to stand up for yourself against unfair criticism and poor treatment. If you allow yourself to merely accept it, it will never get better and it will likely get worse.

My advice is to pick your battles wisely. Decide which issues are important and which issues are not, and decide clearly where the line in the sand is. If something crosses that line, fight that battle; if it doesn’t, just recognize it as something that isn’t genuinely important and roll with it.

Simply figuring out where your line in the sand is can be vital. For me, I decided that the big “line in the sand” for me was criticism of the code I was writing, which I knew was good code. For my various faults as an employee and person, the big thing I was confident about was the computer code I produced – it was well documented and formatted with good error handling and variable names and clear data structures, pretty much everything you would want. I would stand up and defend my code, but other things would wash over me. (I had other “lines in the sand,” but this was a clear one.)

When you choose to stand up for yourself, be firm and don’t back down. Make sure you know what you’re talking about and stick to your guns. At the same time, don’t get angry; if the other person gets angry, just listen to their anger but don’t respond with anger. Simply stick to your guns. It is hard to do this sometimes, I know, but if you give in to what someone else demands when it’s wrong and crosses your “line in the sand,” the results are not going to be positive for anyone involved. This is very hard, but it must be done.

Start Building Your Long Term Escape Plan and Give Yourself Light at the End of the Tunnel

One aspect of highly stressful and toxic work environments that compounds the negative feeling is the sense that there is no way out of this mess, that you’re stuck here in this swamp, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. You should never, ever put yourself in a situation, good or bad, that doesn’t have light at the end of the tunnel.

If you feel like this, then you should start trying to build that light. Build a long term escape plan, starting today, and put as much effort as you can into making it work.

The first part, of course, is building a firm financial foundation so that you can afford to make a switch. This means doing everything you can to spend less than you earn, and that means cutting back on as many expenses as you can and putting that money aside. You should build yourself a small emergency fund (just money in a savings account for emergencies that you refill when it’s depleted – aim for $1,000 for starters, but more is always good especially when facing a big life change in the future) and then start paying off debts so your monthly bills are as low as possible.

The other part of this is planning for the next step in your career. Do you want to stay on the same path but just in a different position? Start really working on sharpening your resume and building professional relationships (especially beyond your workplace) and doing things at work (and beyond) that will look great on your resume, like big projects or educational endeavors. If you want a career change, focus strongly on the financial planning needed to make that happen and prepare yourself for that leap. Where do you want to be in two years? Start making that happen now.

Look on the Bright Side

A final strategy, one that’s always worked well for me, is to look on the bright side of things. There are always a lot of good things going on in your life, even if there’s stress and negativity on your plate, too. Reminding yourself often of the good things can really help with the stress and toxicity.

I keep a gratitude journal where, each morning, I note five things that I’m really grateful for in my life. Those are always universally good things. I try to stick with details – rather than saying I’m grateful for my kids, I look for something about them that I’m grateful for, like my daughter’s kindness or my son’s creativity or my other son’s burgeoning leadership. I try to avoid repeating them too often.

Over time, those gratitudes really build up. I can look through a few months of gratitudes and I can’t help but realize how great my life really is, even when parts of it are hard. That buildup seeps into my everyday thinking, too. I feel good about my life, even when some elements are challenging, and I attribute that to a constant focus on gratitude.

Final Thoughts

A high stress work environment is something that is incredibly damaging to one’s well being, both physically and mentally. It’s an environment that people should normally avoid, but many people find themselves “stuck” in such situations.

Still, there are many tools on the table that can help with such situations, from better practices for handling stress to finding ways to improve your workplace, from ensuring that you’re doing all you can to protect yourself from the chaos to building a better path to the future.

Take advantage of these tools. Build a better future for yourself. It’s all up to you.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.