How to survive a draining workplace

I distinctly remember opening the front door of my old office building and feeling a wave of dread and exhaustion instantly wash over me.

No matter how much sleep I got the night before or what upbeat music I listened to in the car trying to start the day more positively … the moment I stepped into that building, my energy was sapped away.

I felt like a balloon with a slow leak, and by the end of the day, I always ended up completely deflated.

I’d look around that office, and everyone was hunched over their keyboard, guzzling coffee to keep their eyes open, hardly noticing when someone passed by their cubicle. I was surrounded by people, but it felt like none of us were really, truly “there.”

The air was stale, and the walls were grey. It felt like a building full of people who had mostly given up.

The energy of that office was so heavy that I couldn’t help but feel the physical effects of sitting in that space every day, and it weighed on me. It was destructive and unrelenting.

I USED TO THINK I WAS CRAZY FOR BEING SO AFFECTED BY MY WORK ENVIRONMENT

I seriously thought there might be something wrong with me because I couldn’t motivate myself in that office. I’d read all of the self-help books that told me my experience was all about my perception — that I could make any situation better with positive thinking.

And trust me, I tried. But as soon as I stepped into that office the next morning, the same feeling of dread crept in. I thought I was going crazy … like no one else fully understood just how dismal I felt in that place.

But after coaching hundreds of people about their career, I was almost relieved to realize that I’m far from the only one who’s experienced this.

In fact, I was just talking with one of my clients (let’s call her Lisa) the other day about trying to survive her completely draining (borderline hostile) work environment, and it’s downright exhausting.

Let me paint the picture for you:

Lisa is a seriously amazing woman who’s out to become a human rights activist … she’s got plans to travel the world, make a big impact, and change lives. And I have full confidence that she’s more than capable of making it happen. Lisa is a dynamo — she’s incredibly smart, driven, compassionate, confident, and a natural optimist, no matter what’s going on in her life.

And yet, she confided to me that her toxic work environment is dampening her spirit a little more each day.

There’s so much competition, stress, passive-aggressive gossiping, and exclusion flying around her workplace that she feels on-guard constantly. She hasn’t felt like herself in months, and her friends have even stepped in with an “intervention” of sorts to say, “Hey, we’re worried about you. You seem ‘off’ lately.”

YOUR ENVIRONMENT HAS A HUGE IMPACT ON YOUR ENERGY

No matter how resilient you are, we’re all affected to some extent by our environment. When you’re spending 8, 9, 10 (or more) hours every day in a place that’s inherently draining or toxic, it’s bound to get to you.

As much as you might try to shake it off (what’s up, T-Swift?) and act like your work environment doesn’t affect you, the truth is that you’re a human and it’s natural for you to soak up the energy around you.

Sometimes this can be amazing! Anyone who’s worked with energetic, passionate, inspiring, supportive people knows that, in the right environment, your motivation can soar through the roof. In the right conditions, you can feed off of the energy around you in the best possible way.

Unfortunately, the opposite is just as true, and many of you are probably experiencing that right now.

HOW TO SURVIVE A DRAINING WORKPLACE

Those of you who can relate at all to my situation or to Lisa’s story are probably wondering if there’s anything you can actually do about this. Is it even possible to re-energize a draining workplace?

Sometimes, yes. {Not always, unfortunately, but I’ll get to that in a second.}

But realize that, before you can begin to change the environment or the people around you, you’ve got to start with yourself.

Start by answering this question…

twitter-bird“What would need to change for you to feel energized at work again?”

Maybe you need more connection with the people in your office. Maybe you need more movement in your day. Maybe you need to feel more creative or challenged by your work. Maybe you need to feel like you have a few key people “in your corner” advocating for you. Or maybe working from home one day a week would make all the difference in the world.

Then, once you’re clear on what would need to change to boost your energy, it’ll become so much easier to figure out what to do to make that happen.

Sometimes it might require an uncomfortable conversation with your boss. Or you may need to speak up and share your ideas in the weekly meeting where you normally stay silent.

So ask yourself, “What potentially uncomfortable thing might I have to do to make a change?”

WHEN IT’S TIME TO PEACE OUT 

No matter how good your intentions are for shifting a draining work environment, some places are just toxic and not worth fixing. So how do you know the difference?

Here are a few signs that it’s probably time to peace out and find a better environment:

  • Ask yourself, “Would I actually want to work here if the environment/culture were better?” If the answer is no, then it’s not worth fixing. Time to move on!
  • If you’re feeling so drained by work that it’s affecting all the other areas of your life negatively and people outside of work are noticing how unhappy you are (like Lisa’s friends did), then it very well might be time to get out.
  • For me, I knew it was time to quit when my draining office environment started to make me worry that I was becoming a lazy, unmotivated, apathetic person. Because I was sitting in that energy so often, I actually got scared it was changing who I was as a person. And that was terrifying.

So now I want to hear from you: Are you struggling to survive in a draining work environment? What are you going to do about it? Let me know in the comments below!

Much Love,

Kristen (+ Rachel)

17 Comments // ADD COMMENT

17 comments

  • Gillian

    Yes, I’m currently in a terrible work environment. I’m actually really glad you made a post about this because I feel like I’ve been suffering for a while and it seems like no one really gets it. It’s general knowledge that you’re most likely going to hate your job but I’m sick of being told to just suck it up and deal.

    I’m actively looking for new employment but my confidence has been totally drained as well. I think my experience is more suited for what I’m currently doing and don’t know exactly how to break out. I bought the Passion Profile Short Course but haven’t had time to work on it. Also, this past weekend, I helped out another company run an event and I felt so energized by their positivity and how well-run it was, which is something sorely lacking for my company of employment.

    Really, thank you for this post.

    • Clarity on Fire

      So glad this post resonated with you, Gillian! And you’re definitely not alone in feeling this way. Sounds like you already know it’s time to move on, but transitioning into something else feels (naturally) overwhelming. We hope (and believe) the PPSC will make you feel MUCH more directed and confident about what you want next.

      Thanks for sharing your story with us!

    • Lauren M

      Gillian – I bought the PPSC too and haven’t finished it yet. Don’t worry, you’re not alone!

      • Gillian K

        That’s good to know! 🙂

  • Libby

    I work in a creative field, but over the last few years my on-site colleagues have dwindled and our office has reorganized to fill their spaces with accounting colleagues. On the other side of my cube wall sat the most negative, insulting, rude and obnoxious person I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting in a professional environment. After multiple friendly comments and requests to HR, the problem continued. I more and more frequently found myself putting on headphones to drown her out and try to salvage any positivity I had, but also more and more feeling defeated and depressed. This was one of the final deciding factors in pursuing other opportunities.

    This was a great post. Very reassuring to realize that there’s nothing wrong with you, but that the energy (or lack thereof) in your workplace is making you unhappy. Sometimes you can deal with it, as you point out, but by asking yourself those questions you can also determine whether it’s even worth it.

    • Clarity on Fire

      Working with negative, obnoxious people is so tough! And there’s definitely nothing wrong with you — anyone would feel drained by someone like that. Sounds like you tried to change both your attitude and the situation, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do but move on. Glad this post was reassuring for you!

  • Lauren M

    Great read and great timing. I needed this today. It’s so nice to know that other people pick up energy from their environment too. I have struggled with explaining this concept to family and friends over the years when they ask where I am “happy” when I’m trying to figure out things in my life like what kind of job I want to do, where I could see myself living, etc. Though we can try our best to combat the nature of the space around us, sometimes, it’s just not us; it is, in fact, where we are. Thanks for sharing!

  • Katie

    It’s nice to know that I’m not a big broken ball of negativity. The timing of this article is great. I’m reading Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” which talks about how all that negativity is contagious. I do exactly the same thing Libby mentions above – Headphone-a-rama – I pick spotify lists like “happy day” and “mood booster” to try to up the happy factor!

  • Sara

    This post was JUST what I needed to hear. I’ve been unhappy with my current workplace for quite some time now and kept telling myself to look at the positives and that it’s not that bad. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore. I’ve lost respect for one of my superiors because she chooses to not do her job which makes my job three times as hard. What also adds to it is that the firm has absolutely no structure and they make up their own rules and procedures as they go along. It’s so frustrating and I’ve been actively searching for other opportunities but haven’t found anything yet. I find myself feeling happy when I think about the day I’ll leave here! It’s definitely time for me to move on! So glad to hear it’s not just me and that some places really are toxic.

  • Jess

    This is EXACTLY my situation. I am so glad I’m not alone. After college I started a job in a rotational program at a large corporation. It was a typical large corporation in an office tower, where every floor looked the same with a classic cubicle layout. A few months into the job I realized I was not really aligned with the company culture nor did I particularly enjoy my job but I worked with some amazing people which kept me motivated to come to work every day. Once my second rotation came along it all just went downhill. I was thrown into the job without any proper training, my boss ignored me the first week and later he just bullied me and my coworkers just sat hunched over their keyboard and hardly cared to introduce themselves to me. I knew from the first day, that this job was not a good fit, and now with an unsupportive environment, it became harder and harder to come to work every day. It was a struggle to get up in the morning, I would constantly feel tired. I was so tired I thought that there was something wrong with me. I actually went and got a bunch medical exams to make sure I was ok, everything came back fine. Being so tired made me lose focus, it affected my relationships, I never wanted to go out anymore even my boss, was telling me to be more focused at work. This was so frustrating because I am an extremely driven person and this being my new “career”, it was really important to me that I made a good impression but I just could not motivate myself to work the whole day without getting distracted. The worst part was that I couldn’t quit. The company had paid for my relocation and I had to stay another year to avoid paying all of those expenses back. Luckily it is almost over and I have a few weeks to go, I definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel now, but this year has been pretty tough.

    • Rachel East

      Jess — I SO relate to your story. I wish more people understood how completely PHYSICALLY draining it is to hate your job! I bet there would be a LOT less money spent on unnecessary medical tests if more people realized how normal it is to feel drained when you dislike your work situation. That said, I’m really glad your year is almost up. I think the key to not getting yourself into this situation EVER again is by refusing to compromise. This sounds scary to a lot of people, because there are SO many people who believe that they’ve got to just accept the next thing that comes along, or else they’ll end up homeless and unemployed (which is obviously RARELY the case!) You’ve experienced what happens when you end up in a job that’s not aligned with who you are, or what you care about. It SUCKS. So have the courage to not be tempted into taking something that won’t inspire you or light you up. It’s SO not worth it, as you’ve had to learn the hard way! The good thing about your experience, however, is that you know how it feels to compromise. You can measure any future job against this one, and have a LOT of information about how to proceed!

  • Debbie V

    Ok, mines a slightly different, You would think at my age, 61 I should be winding do, but I’m not. I always have projects on the side to keep me motivated and engaged. But my company is run by men my age and have no desire to be progressive. I try to introduce programs or technology to better the company and make it more streamline but I constantly get shot down. I need to learn and be creative, but all I do at this point is have a “Why Bother” attitude. I have looked for other employment but it is even more difficult for some one my age. I have an entrepreneur mind and would love to start a side business, but what.

  • Lucy

    I feel like I’m the only one in this boat. It’s good to know I’m not alone. I’m not sure what my answers are to your question and I don’t know if I can make any changes due to my financial situations,but I’m sure of one thing. I can’t do this forever. I feel like I’m having nervous breakdowns before work. I’m so worried about what the boss will say to me as if I’d done something wrong. I just want everything to be perfect but there’s No such thing as a perfect world when you are working with other human beings. Sigh.

  • Jody

    I’m recovering from a neck surgery and started back to work part time now for 4 weeks. Being back at work has brought all the pain back, my guess is the tension makes it worse. Now it’s time to go full time and my body has become physically sick thinking how I can do this. I’m becoming depressed wondering what’s wrong with me. Before surgery I had to live my life around work because I’d get so drained. It’s like I can’t do both. Makes me wonder if it’s work in general or the place I work at. Then I wonder what is the right job for me that wouldn’t be so draining. Needless to say since I’ve started back to work after surgery I’ve lost 20 pounds. Anxiety is bad. Been at this job for 15 years. Besides neck pain I deal with vertigo daily so just getting to work stresses me out which I’m sure adds to my stomach issues. Neck doctor thinks I should be back at work and doesn’t think the pain is from my neck. The numbness in my arm and the pain are exactly the same as before surgery. Family doctor is concerned enough because my blood pressure remains high that he is referring me to a neurologist for my vertigo. Pain specialist is determined to find away to help but none of these guys can approve more time off. So I made the decision to quit work for awhile and concentrate on my health. When I submitted my resignation the director of my department asked me to rethink it. That they are willing to work with me. They are trying to set things up so I can work from home for a bit. But the company rules are so strict about missing work that I’m still concerned . It’s their busy season so I could see them letting me go at the end of the year after struggling to help them through that. In my heart I know it’s time to move on but it scares me because I don’t know what kind of job would be fulfilling .

  • Marie

    Thank you for being so open. I was convinced I was the misfit. I am normally an energetic, happy person. I dread going to work. The negativity and my coworker’s bad attitude is draining. I did give my notice and am trying to work out my last month the best I can.

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  • Andrea

    Thank you for this post it describes exactly how I feel. The problem is its made me feel totally drained and lacking in motivation. Everytime I have tried to move offices my manager has blocked it. If it wasn’t for the financial security it gives me I would quit.