Wellness: Coping With A Toxic Workplace

How to deal with micromanaging bosses and catty colleagues.

By Sasha Gonzales      10 June 2021

Anyone working in a toxic environment before the pandemic might have felt it a dream come true to be able to work from home. Finally, you could do your job in peace without your supervisor trying to control you or your colleagues attempting to involve you in their gossip sessions.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Even though you’re not working in the office, you haven’t been able to escape your toxic work environment and it’s taking a toll on your mental health.

“Toxic bosses and colleagues can make you feel lousy about yourself,” says Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness. “Shaming, ostracising, harassing, bullying and other toxic behaviours may affect your self-esteem. You may feel emotionally burnt out, and, in extreme cases, even develop severe anxiety or depression.”

There are two types of toxic bosses and colleagues, Dr Lim adds. At one extreme, they may be over-controlling, critical and punitive. When working remotely, they may be afraid of losing oversight and control over their subordinates or peers. They may start assuming the worst about them and feel paranoid that their subordinates or peers are taking too many breaks or not doing their job properly. Their anxiety may cause them to become even more controlling, abusive and toxic.

At the other extreme, there may be bosses and colleagues who neglect their subordinates or peers by not providing sufficient mentorship and guidance. They may give only vague instructions and “ghost” their teammates during critical periods. These people are often difficult to communicate with when working remotely, because they may take a long time to reply to emails and messages and may even abandon their team when they’re needed most.

Here, Dr Lim shares some advice for managing different toxic scenarios when working from home:

Toxic scenario #1:

Your boss monitors your activity online using surveillance software and reprimands you if there’s a drop in activity or if you take too many breaks.

How to handle it:

“Don’t get defensive,” says Dr Lim. “If your boss has a reputation for being unreasonable and a control freak, then no amount of explaining will help. If the problem lies with him then there’s not much else you can do other than look for another job opportunity. However, it could just be that your boss doesn’t know you that well yet. In this case, once you’ve proven yourself to be an effective and productive staffer, he may stop micromanaging you.”

Toxic scenario #2:

You made a mistake on a report and your boss shames you during an online meeting in front of everyone.

How to handle it:

Dr Lim says you’re likely to feel angry and embarrassed, adding that it’s normal to experience such emotions. Nevertheless, it’s important to admit to and take responsibility for the mistake. “A good worker is someone who can do damage control and turn a mistake around at the same time.”

Toxic scenario #3:

Your cliquish colleagues organised an online meeting and excluded you from it, even though you’re part of that team.

How to handle it:

“Find out why you were excluded,” Dr Lim advises. “Speak to someone on the team whom you trust and ask why you were left out. There may be valid reasons that have nothing to do with you. For instance, it could be that the meeting was called at the last minute and your colleagues just didn’t want to bother you.”

However, if you were excluded because you’re disliked, you’ll have to decide if there are certain changes you need to make within yourself, Dr Lim adds.

Toxic scenario #4:

Your boss expects you to stay online past working hours to complete tasks, and tells you it’s okay because you’re at home anyway.

How to handle it:

Rejecting your boss is difficult because it may affect your career prospects, especially if working overtime is an accepted or even expected practice in your industry.

What you can do is appeal to your boss’ sensibilities, says Dr Lim. Let him know of your after-work obligations, which may include looking after your kids or running errands for your family. Reassure him that you’ll be able to do your work more effectively if you didn’t have personal or family issues to worry about and that you’ll resume your work tasks first thing the next morning, when the work day starts.

Toxic scenario #5:

Your colleagues open side-chats and use these online conversations to gossip about other people in the meeting – and they expect you to contribute to the gossip.

How to handle it:

If you don’t feel comfortable with this, then stay out of it. “Your colleagues may not like that you refuse to participate, but it’s important to do what you feel is right and not worry that they may judge you,” says Dr Lim.


Have you ever encountered toxic scenarios at work? Share your thoughts with us at magnsman@sph.com.sg!


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