How to start fresh in a new job after enduring a toxic workplace

May 27, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

Q: I’m wondering how to avoid bringing the emotional baggage and toxic-workplace triggers from a previous job into a new one. If you end a bad relationship, you can take some time to recover, but that’s not something most of us can do after getting out of a bad job. You dive straight into the next one. I’m worried that I don’t know how to function in a workplace that doesn’t gaslight its staff into overwork and where I can trust senior management to have their employees’ best interests at heart. I had a conversation with one of our interns recently, and they were just so very good at knowing where and when to explicitly draw their boundaries, which made me realize how non-existent my own are.


Dear Ashley, 

I’m sorry that you’ve been working in a place that has felt this way and that you’re jumping right into your next job. Toxic workplaces are rampant; in the U.S. alone, “millions of people face abusive supervisors and bullies at work,” writes Manuela Priesemuth for Harvard Business Review. The fact that they’re pervasive doesn’t make them any less harmful, and I see why you’re thinking about how this place has affected you and what it might mean in your next position.

Unpacking how toxic cultures affect us is hard work, but it is crucial work, and it is all of our work. We have a duty to reflect on how we internalize, reinforce, and embody damaging cultural standards and behaviors that negatively affect ourselves and others. As you work through how this is showing up in your own life, I want you to make space for better understanding how this is affecting you and your body. As you look forward to how you’ll show up in your next job, think about how you’ll be intentional in how you contribute to the culture there. 

While I wish I could focus solely on how you should take all the time you need before moving to your next role, I know that not everyone can take substantial time off between jobs because of the realities of costs of living, healthcare needs, and coordinating the end date of one job with the needed start date at the next one. That said, I do think that it’s critical that you make rest and restoring your personal health a priority at this time, however you can. 

If you can take a break between jobs, please do. The more time the better, but take what you can. If you can’t take a break now, plan some vacation time within your first two months or as soon as you can get some time on the books. Employers have different policies, and while it might be too late to negotiate taking a month off in between jobs, you can still look into when you can take time once you get started. Even if you only take a couple long weekends in the first couple months, and you book a vacation for five months in, you’ll be better off. Having space is critical to processing what you’ve been through and for you to get perspective on how you’re showing up in your next job. 

One inspiration for you as you think about how you can make time to rest and reclaim yourself is the Nap Ministry. Founded by Tricia Hersey in 2016, the Nap Ministry believes in the “liberatory power of naps” and rest as “a radical tool for community healing.” The Nap Ministry acknowledges the burden under capitalism for everyone to be productive and grind all the time, the disproportionate trauma inflicted on marginalized groups by the systems we live in, and the damage that this does to us. The Nap Ministry is active on Twitter and Instagram, where you can find tips and reminders to make space for rest, which might be helpful for you to add to your feed before you get sucked into the productivity cycle at your new job.

“So many things have to be felt with the heart, the body, the soul. You will not be able to figure everything out by reading, talking and studying,” the Nap Ministry wrote on Twitter this week and I couldn’t have asked for a better insight to pass along to you while you need to hear it. 

In addition to advocating for breaks from productive work, the Nap Ministry shares small ways you can take rest and check in with your body, from taking naps, to making time for meditation, to quiet moments you can build into your day. These moments of calm and self care are important. 

But those moments are also not going to help you shed the burdens from your past job immediately.  

“There are no quick tips for deprogramming from grind culture and crafting a rest practice in a capitalist world. Maybe that’s part of the problem- we want ‘quick’ magic bullets all the time. You will be unraveling for a while. The time to rest is now. Anyway you can,” Hersey wrote in an Instagram post earlier this year. 

Make space throughout your days to pause and remember that your time outside of work is your time. Resist the pressure under capitalism to “do” all the time, and focus on how you can just “be.” You’re the only one that can take the time off, just like you’re the only one who can set and hold the boundaries that you have in your next job.

That you seem to realize that you didn’t have many boundaries with work is an important step. And moving into a new environment that is less toxic than the one that you’re leaving is another important step. Since you said you feel your own work boundaries are “non-existent” that tells me that even if you don’t see yourself this way, there are ways that you may have been reinforcing some of the cultural norms that were common where you worked. That can be hard to accept, but it’s also true that we all do it. 

That’s because workplace culture isn’t just something that happens to us, like the weather. It is something we are a part of, that we are woven into, that we either passively or actively participate in. Research shows that in workplaces where leadership is toxic, it gets spread throughout the culture and that employees who receive abuse often internalize it and pass it along to other colleagues.  

According to the Toolkit for Cooperative, Collective, & Collaborative Cultural Work, “toxic behavior is embedded in us through the toxic culture we live in.” This toolkit is a useful resource because it identifies toxic behavior on a macro level from a person-first perspective. It’s part of a collaborative effort from Press Press, a Baltimore-based collective deeply committed to building community and amplifying marginalized voices, and the Institute for Expanded Research, an artist project and research initiative founded by multi-disciplinary Lu Zhang.  

I’ve seen the awesome work that Press Press has done in Baltimore for years, and I love how they embody their values in every project they create. As they expanded their work beyond Baltimore to Los Angeles, they undertook the broader collaborative project with the Institute for Expanded Research, digging into “emergent models and methodologies for collective work that aid in the efforts of cultural organizers” which seek to expand on and elucidate “the conditions necessary for cultivating and sustaining ethical and compassionate frameworks for being with and cooperating with others in the world.” The Toolkit is one of the generous offerings to the public from their collaboration.

The Toolkit synthesizes recommendations from a diverse group of people focused on collaborative work, “grounded in the values of equity, liberation, integrity, and difference.” It provides a treasure trove of ideas and best practices for working with folks, recognizing the systems that we operate within and how they affect us. If you want to find new ways of showing up in your work, this will give you inspiration and tactical tips on how to set up fruitful collaborations. 

Committing to unlearning some of your habits and exploring where you can better define and hold your boundaries is part of your work. Another way to think about your “non-existent boundaries” is as a lack of intentionality around what you’re doing. The Toolkit shares practical ways you can build accountability and intentionality into your work and the culture you’re creating at work. Setting expectations is critical from the outset. “Always create contracts or shared agreements before entering the project, collective, or working relationship,” the Toolkit recommends. “Contracts are an organizational tool. They are agreements between people for setting boundaries for the work and ourselves. They can be used for accountability processes. It’s helpful to set intentions together with your collaborators and lay out your personal goals directly and clearly.”

When setting your intentions about how you are going to work and collaborate with folks, think beyond, “What is my job title and how does that determine how I engage with people?” to “What does a good collaboration look like for us?” Some questions to consider might be: 

  • What do we want to come out of this project (goals and deliverables)? 
  • How do we set up the roles in this project in a way that speaks to people’s talent and skills? 
  • How do our roles impact each other?  
  • How are we going to communicate with each other? 
  • How will we make decisions? 
  • How will we hold each other accountable if someone isn’t meeting our expectations? 

Working through these questions can help you create an agreement about how you work together and codify them into team norms

“Establishing an accountability process from the start is important so folks have a system for addressing issues as they arise. Being tender and understanding to your collaborators’ needs, conditions, and life experiences is essential to any meaningful accountability process,” says the Toolkit. 

The Toolkit also gives practical guidance around how to deal with toxicity when it shows up. Pointing to the wisdom of Ngọc Loan Trần, who advocates for calling folks in, instead of immediately calling someone out publicly when something happens, the Toolkit provides details on how to work through toxic behavior with people you want to keep working and collaborating with. “Find ways of addressing toxic behavior directly with your group members. 1. Hold space for learning and growth. 2. Apply a restorative justice approach, 3. Ritual, reset and reconcile.” The work isn’t just about getting it right every time, or going somewhere where toxicity doesn’t exist. It’s also about finding ways to work through the challenges that show up when we bring people with diverse experiences together to collaborate. 

Lastly, I want to leave you with a viewing recommendation: Philly D.A., the fascinating docuseries on Larry Krasner, a former civil rights attorney and public defender who ran for District Attorney of Philadelphia and won. Krasner is currently in office and in short, the defense has become the prosecution and is intent on changing the office’s longstanding, toxic culture of mass incarceration. 

As you might imagine, it is incredibly hard to radically change the culture in a large government office, especially when many of the people who work for you were previously working against you, for decades. And while no one was more equipped to see the problems of how the office operates than Krasner, that also doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring his own challenging behaviors from his old job as a defense attorney. 

The series is important for understanding the realities of the justice system, but I’m also fascinated by it as a person who studies work culture and who cares a lot about how you change legacy institutions. Krasner fires about 30 people early into his tenure without much notice and without making any statements about it for days. His press officer later reflects that they should have handled the process differently so they could be more in control of the narrative. When Krasner touches on the mass firings  later, he isn’tt focused on the PR fallout but on the limits of his actions.  He told Boston District Attorney Rachael Rollins, “I should have asked more to go. They dig in like ticks; they undermine you at every turn.” You see the dynamics play out between the new administration and people entrenched in how the system has traditionally worked play out in every episode and it is always more complicated than anyone could have predicted. 

The eight-part series on PBS is a must-watch and is certain to give you some food for thought on approach and navigating work environments, especially as you think about how you can approach your next job with intentionality. What you do early on can often set the tone, so think about what habits you want to reinforce or reset in this new environment. You get to be in control of how you show up and work with folks every day. 

Sending you lots of good vibes,

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