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Labeled ‘toxic’ or not, a difficult work environment can take a lasting toll, say St. Louis experts

Matt Grawitch (at left), director of strategic research for SLU’s School for Professional Studies, and Dena Bubrick-Tranen, a therapist with Middle Way Counseling and Consulting, offered insights on dealing with difficult work environments.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Ever felt stuck in a problematic job situation? You’re not alone.

The #MeToo movement has led to increased awareness and empowerment around issues of sexual harassment and assault in all sorts of industries. But other forms of mistreatment can crop up in the workplace as well, and employees sometimes feel trapped in difficult environments.

“People do need their jobs, and the more toxic the environment, the harder it can be to leave,” local therapist Dena Bubrick-Tranen said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

In conversation with host Don Marsh and Saint Louis University’s Matt Grawitch, she went on to explain that people in a toxic workplace often start to constantly second-guess themselves, judge themselves more harshly and expend more and more mental energy on what is happening.

“And the more focused you are on that current situation,” Tranen added, “the harder it is to come up with an exit strategy that can both benefit you emotionally as well as move your career forward.”

Grawitch, who is the director of strategic research at SLU’s School for Professional Studies, noted that while most workplaces have their “fair share of problems,” there are cases in which certain unhealthy behaviors are pervasive and reinforced – and it can all begin to add up.

“For example, people being disrespectful to each other, really consistently so – not just a matter of disagreeing but disagreeing in those very, very inappropriate ways,” he said. “Name calling, making people feel uncomfortable because of who they are, whether it’s because of their sex, their race, their sexual orientation – you name it.”

Grawitch and Bubrick-Tranen each offered insights into the issues that can contribute to such an environment – and how workers can find ways to cope, improve things or even move on.

While many of the problematic situations result from powerful narcissists, poor leadership or bullying, Grawitch emphasized that there are also genuine misunderstandings or other factors that can lead people to “faulty conclusions” if they don’t proceed cautiously.

“[There are] behaviors that someone thinks are appropriate and no one has really kind of explained to them, ‘You really can’t do that,’ he added. “Being able to start by trying to address some of those things in a constructive manner is oftentimes a good way to short-circuit some of those things that may be more a function of how we’re perceiving the world around us and not that objective reality.”

Grawitch said that the term “toxic work environment” is one he generally avoids as it’s become an overused and “very ambiguous” term. But Bubrick-Tranen said she believes it speaks to very real issues.

“When we use the word toxic, what we’re really talking about is something unhealthy, something that can make us sick,” said Bubrick-Tranen, who is associated with Middle Way Counseling and Consulting. “And there are many workplaces that are unhealthy for people to be in that make them sick – that cause undue stress and even physical illness. It’s a powerful term, but it is a real phenomenon.”

The guests offered concrete suggestions for audience members who are struggling with such environments at work, including the following tips:

1. “Trust yourself [and] believe the red flags.”

2. “Seek out support and make sure you’re taking care of yourself.”

3. “If you don’t have a sense that it’s going to be handled the way you need it to be within your company or organization, then it may be time to start planning an exit strategy sooner than later.”

4. “Also try to validate: Check and see if other people are seeing some of the same things that you’re seeing.”

5. “Don’t wait until everything adds up to the point where you feel like you don’t have any other alternative but to take perhaps action that is not going to be in your best interest.”

6. “When things aren’t working and you are experiencing those stressors for whatever reason, figure out: ‘How can I address them, how can I cope with them, and if I can’t, how do I start making plans so that these things don’t add up and put me at a huge disadvantage later?’”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.