Geeks Vs Loneliness: how to survive in a toxic workplace

In this week's column, some top tips for keeping your chin up when you're dreading the office...

Years ago, before I came to work full-time at Den Of Geek and our parent company Dennis Publishing, I found myself in a pretty shitty working environment. It was a very small business that consisted of a boss and a few underlings sitting around one big desk. It seemed like a cushty little gig to start with – and, having struggled to make a living from my writing, I was happy to have landed any job – but red flags soon started to pop up from all angles.

It probably isn’t wise to list all of the reasons why this job was so awful in a public forum, but suffice it to say that our customers were regularly complaining, all of my colleagues wanted to quit, and you couldn’t trust a word that came out of my boss’s mouth. He also dished out regular one-on-one bollockings for our perceived wrongdoings in the building’s one tiny meeting room. To this day, I’ve got a fear of two-person meetings and the phrase “can I just borrow you for a minute?” still sends a shiver down my spine.

Long story short, the other underlings and I became quite paranoid and we really hated showing up for work every day. There was no HR department to turn to, nobody higher than the boss in the pecking order to confide in, and there were very few opportunities during the working day for private discussions among the staff.

Thankfully, everyone I worked with under this horrible boss eventually managed to find other work and leave this stomach-churning environment behind them. But before we made our escape, we picked up a few tips for surviving in a toxic workplace when you can’t afford to quit. I’ll run through these now, in the hope that other people might be able to benefit from them…

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Talk about it

Although the office itself felt like an impossible environment in which to talk openly, chatting to people outside of working hours helped me get through some of the stress. My partner, my family and my friends would regularly lend me their ears and allow me to vent my frustrations, and they helped me to notice that the experiences I was struggling through were not normal workplace goings-on. It took me a while to open up about my workplace worries, but sharing the load quickly proved to be better than carrying it alone. One colleague also found it useful to call the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and get a totally impartial stance on what was going on at work. With a bit of outside perspective, it soon became clear that working there could not be a long-term solution.

Try to switch it off

On the flip side of that: you won’t always want to talk about it, and that’s okay. Because I told so many stories about my awful boss, my mates from my local pub quiz team almost always asked me for an update as soon as I walked into the bar. Sometimes, though, I really didn’t fancy regaling the most recent awful anecdotes, so I tried my best to explain that and refocus the chatter on something else. I’d actually really recommend pub quizzes as an environment in which to switch off the workplace blues: the barrage of quiz questions provides a steady stream of alternative talking points, allowing you to focus on something else and use a different part of your brain. (Is that how brains work? I don’t actually know.)

Take all the breaks that you can

Another thing that sucked about this job is that we only got given a 20-minute lunch break, and we weren’t allowed to take any other breaks in the average day. All of us were quite young and impressionable (and in need of cash), so we all went along with this, despite the fact that it’s clearly not normal. Rather than admitting defeat and eating a sandwich at my desk, I insisted on making the most of my 20 minutes by going out for a walk every lunchtime. There was a Waitrose nearby that did free coffees with any purchase, so I would power-walk over there, pick up a treat and cherish the free drink. This gave me a little something to look forward to every morning.

Make the most of a loophole

At one point I noticed that whenever my mum was in town, my boss would show a rare lenient side and let me take a longer lunch. Perhaps he was worried that an actual adult, like my mother, might dob him in with the authorities if they thought I was being mistreated. Whatever my boss’s reasons were, I made a point of inviting my mum into town quite regularly but telling the boss that she just happened to be in the area. I got to have some nice long lunches and catch up with my mam, and also I got a bit more respite from the office dramas. My mum, being a nice person with a flexible schedule who only lived one town over, was very happy to help me game the system like this. We both felt quite pleased with ourselves, smuggling me away from the toxicity, one trip to Harris & Hoole at a time. You’ve got to love a loophole.

Turn to your favourite tunes

Some mornings, on the way into work, I’d properly be dreading it. What fresh ways of winding me up would the boss find today? He was a man that would sometimes sit there with a Nerf gun and fire pellets at his staff, giggling to himself as we squirmed in discomfort and tried to put on a brave face. On mornings when going in was feeling particularly difficult, there were certain songs that would help me work up the courage to walk to the office: I found unexpected solace in Kate Nash’s “Yesterday Was Forever” album, which has various guitar-driven bangers and lots of lyrics about putting a positive spin on a naff situation. It also has a song with the refrain “I really f**king hate you”, which put a nice spring in my step (of course I was singing it to my boss in my brain) and helped me put on my game face.

Try to squeeze in skills that you actually want

Most of my work was pretty menial in this office, but I did manage to convince the boss that his business should have a podcast and that I could help him get it started. Of course, I didn’t actually think that anyone would want to listen to the self-aggrandising nonsense that came out of his mouth. I just wanted to learn how to edit a podcast and get it on iTunes, because those are skills that I didn’t have but quite fancied developing. Having a huge ego, the boss went along with it, and I got to spend some of my time in the office working on developing my own skills. It was a nice break from the bollockings, and it allowed me to add some new stuff to my CV.

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Do some exercise

When you’re spending your working hours sat in a stuffy office and feeling miserable, doing something physical with your evenings can really help to lift your mood. Playing 5-a-side football is something that I love, and I took real solace in my team’s weekly matches during this period: the games themselves allowed me to focus on something totally different for forty minutes, and the camaraderie in the pub afterwards was also a nice change of pace. And much like the pub quiz, chatting through some post-match analysis provides a neat alternative to talking about work.

One of my colleagues and I also tried out a boxercise class a few times: seeing as we shared a lot of the same frustrations, there was something really cathartic about pummelling the punching-pads together to a soundtrack of pop tunes. Doing an activity outside of work together also gave us a space to have honest conversations, compare notes from our private bollockings, and come to the conclusion that we both had to find something else.

Plan your escape

After a few months, I started to take job-hunting seriously, admitting to myself that anything would be better than going into work, feeling like shit, and regularly getting told off in a tiny room.

Having worked as a freelance journalist for years prior to taking this naff job, I was lucky enough to have friends and former colleagues that could point me in the right directions and put good words in. I had to put my pride aside to confide in them, but it was definitely worth it. My other colleagues at the naff company all started looking for gigs, as well, with one of them going off to launch their own now-very-successful company. Hunting for jobs can seem daunting, but there’s never any harm in putting applications out there and seeing what comes back. After all, you won’t hear anything if you don’t apply in the first place.

I’m very pleased to be able to say that all of us underlings escaped eventually. It felt like hell at the time, but using the mechanisms described in this article, and with a lot of support from our loved ones, we managed to get through it. Now we can move on with our lives. To borrow the words of an unnamed Gungan from George Lucas’ special edition of Return Of The Jedi, “Weesa free!”

If you’re having a bad time at work, you might like to check out the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and the Campaign Against Living Miserably – both services are totally free and they connect you with trained advisers that want to help. 

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