Navigating Workplace Culture [Series]: How to Survive Negative Work Environments

You’ve applied, made it past the interview(s), and have accepted a new position! But soon you realize that your job or internship isn’t what you were expecting – in fact, it’s quickly going downhill. It started with a few questionable comments from coworkers and has spiraled into microaggressions, lack of support, toxic relationships, and maybe even harassment. Drawn from my own experiences and talking with others in the field, this article will discuss strategies for surviving negative workplace environments. It will focus specifically on student internships and jobs but is also relevant to those in temporary positions. See the first two articles of this series (applications and interviews) for more information. 

First, make sure you reach out to people about what’s happening, whether that be a supervisor you can trust or a union representative. Sometimes people don’t realize what kind of environment they’re creating, so bringing up issues (especially through someone else with more power) might help improve the situation. Of course, this doesn’t always work, especially if someone has been doing the same thing for years without repercussions.

It is also important to acknowledge that not all of us can afford to quit a job, especially without a backup plan. If you do find yourself in a position you can’t leave whether for financial or other reasons, here are a few tips I’ve gathered and learned from others and my own negative experiences:

  • Remember that the position is temporary but your health isn’t. A month into the worst position I’ve ever had I could already tell that my mental health had taken a hit. I was overeating, not exercising, and likely not drinking enough water. By the end of this short internship, I was so depressed that I considered dropping out of library school and switching fields. Whenever I found myself in this mindset I forced myself to remember all the other wonderful and positive positions I’ve held in the past. This experience was an outlier, it was temporary, and I was about to leave. I was – still am – young and had never experienced something like this. Now I feel more confident on how to practice self-care whenever I find myself in situations like these: drink more water, think more carefully about what you eat, indulge in a hobby unrelated to work, and talk to those you care about. 
  • Create or turn to support systems. When you’re in toxic environments, those in power often manipulate your feelings. You begin to doubt yourself – did I overreact to that person’s comment? Is this just something in my head? Having someone to talk to, whether it be a therapist, trusted friend, or family member can help reassure you that these negative feelings are not just you being reactionary or being too emotional. Having someone to talk to outside of the experience and the organization helps put things into perspective and hear another person’s opinion on a situation. It also became an important space for me to vent what was happening when I felt powerless.
  • Don’t let name recognition affect you. You may be working at a place that others gush about or are in awe about, but that doesn’t make microaggressions, harassment, and other toxic experiences acceptable. I once had someone high up in the company, after I complained about harassment and homophobic comments, that I should just be honored to work at a place like that. He meant that I better keep quiet and stop complaining or I would be sent home (and he did ask – or rather threatened – if I wanted to leave the internship early). No matter where you work, you deserve to be treated with respect.
  • Document everything. I wrote short weekly reports about not only what I did project-wise, but also the experiences – good and bad – that I had. That way I had a concrete list I could refer back to since, after awhile, it became too much to remember. I would often write down everything that happened after a particularly bad experience right away. Save emails so you have tangible proof as well. While you may not be able to do anything with it while you are in the position, I have found it to be a good resource to look back on and grow from.
  • Create future plans. One thing that helped me survive my negative internship was thinking about the future. I was heading back to school and needed a job, so I spent a lot of my free time applying for jobs. It was a way for me to avoid mulling over whatever awful thing had happened at work that day and feel productive in working on a plan on how I was going to move on after the internship. My internship was only a couple of months, but you’ll definitely want to do this if you’re in a job with no hard end date (such as a position that is dependent on your student status).

No one deserves to be stuck in a toxic workplace, especially if you’re still a student. You have limited time to take advantage of opportunities that are afforded to you as a student and these experiences should be positive and helpful towards securing you a job after graduating. But if you do find yourself in a bad situation, know that you are still learning. My negative experiences have helped me learn what makes a good manager (by looking at the opposite of that), the importance of researching an organization ahead of time, and that the prestige of an organization doesn’t matter if you’re miserable everyday. Surviving a negative job isn’t easy but necessary for you to continue on.

For more advice, check out this article:

Featured photo by Tim Gouw.

Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.

1 reply

  1. Thank you for this article!! I’m a university library supervisor and I loved my job but was asked a year ago to take on more responsibilities at another library on campus “temporarily” due to staffing issues. The boss at the other library has made my life extremely difficult (sounds a lot like what you’ve experienced) and the position is starting to feel less and less temporary. I’m already doing a lot of what you suggest but it’s really nice to know that there are other people who are struggling with similar issues and coping in similar ways! Also that other article you linked to was a really helpful read. I’m glad more people are talking more about how workplace issues and difficult/cruel bosses affect your mental and emotional health and how that’s just as important (if not more so) as everything else related to your job.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s