Lawyer wellness in a toxic work environment
by Roger D. Whittler, LPC, Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program Clinician
Toxic workplaces are often described as excruciating. A person feels hopeless when one’s livelihood is wedged against the suffering anticipated with going to work. The hopeless feeling is punctuated by helplessness as one considers the dynamics of the situation.
A toxic environment is one where a lawyer does not feel psychologically safe. Einarsen, Glambek, et al., reported in the Human Resource Management Journal that workplace bullying is a severe problem affecting up to 15% of employees. One word that most lawyers in this situation will use is “trapped,” meaning there is no clear way to escape.
According to the Society for Human Resources Management, toxic people create havoc, hurt others, tear down people’s confidence, micro-manage, erode people’s self-reliance and confidence, disrupt meetings, bully subordinates, undermine success, back-stab or suppress others, and gossip in ways that divide and hurt others.
Research by Bensimon in 1997 indicates most employees experience an annoyance at work 10 times per day, and 25% of all workers experience anger in the workplace. Other research has focused on gender differences in anger at work. Pitch et al., 1994, found that women are reluctant to express anger at work for concern that negative consequences for relationships will occur, while men express anger to maintain power and status, less concerned with the consequences to relationships. More recent findings have shown women and men express anger at work with equal likelihood.
Although each situation is different, the number of lawyers complaining of anxiety about the workplace is becoming more common. A lawyer’s work can have expansive reach and a variety of professional relationships that require interaction and communication. The problem is how to maintain wellness when someplace or somebody related to our work makes us feel psychologically threatened. The psychological consequences of a toxic workplace include:
Fear of being discharged
Fear of being relocated
Frequent turnover and increased workloads
Increased substance use
Fear of making a mistake
Lack of trust among peers
While nearly every organization has a policy against gossip, bullying, and backstabbing, rarely are these enforced with any meaningful repercussions, which engenders the hopelessness so many feel.
Gianakos recommends organizations allow open communication from employees regarding their workplace experiences and open invitations to raise concerns. In addition, organizations can seek a consensus among employees regarding aspects of work that are troubling to employees and conduct frequent workshops or training briefs on workplace demeanor and civility policies.
As a clinician for the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program, when speaking with lawyers, I recognize that each person has different tolerance levels for a psychologically threatening workplace. Some express their desire to push forward and stay at their current position, while some talk about finding a new place to work, or a new career away from the legal field altogether. As you can imagine, I always ask the question, “are you sure that will be better?”
Depending on the circumstances, and realizing that each client is unique, I provide the following general guidelines for effectively dealing with a toxic work environment:
Conduct an honest self-examination of yourself and the relationships you have at work.
Identify realistic expectations. Sometimes we can be unrealistic in our expectations that everyone should get along all the time.
Carefully read any policies that apply to the workplace environment – and document any discrepancies.
Manage your health by monitoring food, alcohol intake, and sleep, and get exercise to reduce stress.
Consider which co-worker or supervisor would be best suited to understand your point of view.
Carefully craft language to communicate your concerns to this person in a way that does not blame others, but, rather, focuses on the problem.
Seek as much feedback as possible from others who may or may not share your feelings. If no one agrees with you, consider why they experience the workplace differently.
Investigate environmental changes available, such as a transfer, different assignment, different work hours, etc.
If you wish to stay employed at the same place, have alternatives ready to discuss with your supervisor.
Instead of presenting a single alternative, have several choices to improve the conditions.
Consider your future goals. If you have only been with the employer for two months, have you given the situation time? Will your potential new employer interpret your previous departure as premature?
Try to spend time with friends, around family, and doing recreational activities or hobbies to avoid dwelling on work during non-work hours.
Consider taking classes or other training to advance your career so that hope is in sight.
A toxic workplace can be psychologically threatening and cause severe personal distress. Some behaviors at work can rise to the level of serious criminal or civil liability. In each case, lawyers should consider their well-being and take steps to manage emotional and physical health while at the same time serving clients.
If you need to discuss your health and your work environment, the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program is here to help! Please consult the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program at 1-800-688-7859 for free, confidential counseling.