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Are All Workplaces Toxic These Days?

The pandemic fallout goes far beyond the physical.

Key points

  • Workers are under greater stress and prone to burnout since COVID-19.
  • It is essential to take steps to decrease stress and monitor self-care.
  • If a job has become toxic, it may be necessary to leave and find another.

I have been a career counselor for about 40 years. I have seen recessions with no job opportunities and boom periods with plentiful jobs, but this is currently the strangest and most stressful job period I have ever witnessed. And whether you are working or not, you are experiencing the fallout from it.

In my last post, I spoke of possibilities—ideas for what comes next in my life after leaving my job. But first, I needed time to wind down, to “detox,” as I jokingly said to my friends. But listening to them discuss their working lives and observing many workplaces, I realize that “detox” may not be hyperbole. We are experiencing a lot of stress and trauma in the workplace these days.

Taking a step away from work seems to be the solution for many. The media calls it “The Great Resignation.” According to a recent article in Time, more than 4.2 million people quit their jobs in August, and the “2021 quit levels are about 10% to 15% higher than they were in record-setting 2019.”

This is likely a temporary situation: unless everyone who quits is independently wealthy, they will need to find a new job at some point. But for now, the effect of fewer workers is immense.

Is Everyone Affected?

Almost every encounter with a workplace seems to further the message that things are not running well. No career field seems immune from the stress that Covid has wrought.

And not only are the workers affected, so are the consumers. We see daily reports from hospitals trying to treat the overwhelming number of Covid patients and the resulting stress and burnout the medical staff are feeling. And routine medical care is postponed because of the over-crowding.

Anyone going to a restaurant or store can see the effect of fewer workers. Sometimes, the only employee in a store is the harried checkout clerk who sees a never-ending checkout line.

The Facebook group “The Professor is Out” chronicles the stories of adjuncts and tenure-track professors who are fed up with the never-ending demands of students and administrators in higher education and want out. This is unprecedented in a field where people have trained for years for these careers.

An Example of the Effects of Workplace Stress

Because most places of business are short-staffed, everything slows down. Yesterday, it took over an hour to receive my flu shot at a national pharmacy chain.

When I met the beleaguered pharmacist for my shot, I said, “I can’t imagine how stressed you must be feeling. This place is crazy-busy.”

I thought he was going to cry. He relaxed for a moment and told me how everyone is quitting, and those who stay have no choice but to take up the extra work. He said that his pharmacy was administering Covid and flu vaccines with no additional support. It was just added to their daily roster of work. And they were already busy and understaffed. He said this was not why he went to pharmacy school. He emigrated to this country as a pharmacist, and it had taken him several years to retake all his tests to get certified in the USA. Now he’s thinking of leaving the profession.

Imagine being that dedicated and working that hard, only to be pushed mentally and physically to his limits by poor corporate management. When I got up to leave, he thanked me for my kindness and told me how much he appreciated it. He almost made me cry. I can’t imagine what his day must be like and what unpleasantness he must encounter. This company is about to lose a dedicated, compassionate, and hard-working employee. I suspect they don’t care.

Employers Need to Take Burnout Seriously

Employers are not taking burnout—and the emotional toll Covid has taken on the workplace—seriously. What will make them? Maybe the inability to hire new workers? Perhaps the competition from other companies that pay better wages?

When will employers realize that their platitudes and excuses aren’t working for either their employees or customers? Their marketing offices are on overdrive, telling us how important we are as customers or workers, but their behavior says otherwise.

Platitudes of “we appreciate you” or “we appreciate our workers” fall flat in the face of the real, everyday work conditions. Knowing you’re “appreciated” doesn’t help if your workplace is understaffed. You are asked to do more with less, you are handed additional duties and workloads without extra pay, and you are told you have no choice or say. Who cares if “your call is important to us” if we have to wait an hour to connect with a representative?

My car dealership asks me to give them the top ratings on the customer survey. Anything less than a perfect score will result in nasty communication from the corporate office. (I’m all for customer surveys, but this kind of duress doesn’t help the employees. Where is the opportunity to learn—why must every worker be under some hammer to “be perfect or else”?)

Major airlines cancel flights, and they leave their vastly understaffed front-line workers to handle the anger and abuse of the frazzled customers.

What You Can Do Now About Your Situation

Are you part of the “Great Resignation”? Or are you working and experiencing increasing stress—perhaps heading towards burnout? Here are ten suggestions to help us get through stressful times, whether you are an employee or a consumer.

  1. Be kind to yourself. Stop and remind yourself, “I’m doing the best I can.” When you’re feeling pressured, it’s easy to think that you aren’t doing enough—and many employers will imply that explicitly or implicitly.
  2. Be kind to anyone who is working. When you find your anger rising at whatever challenge you experience, notice a person in front of you, and that person likely didn’t cause the problem. They are trying to help, and they are there, and they are working. We are all stressed right now, and kindness is never wasted.
  3. Breathe. Simplistic? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. Stop yourself several times a day and just breathe. Just a minute or so of deep breathing (count in 1-2-3, hold 1-2-3, release 1-2-3) calms your body and brain.
  4. Monitor your off-work hours. What are you consciously doing to take a break? Talk to your friends. Enjoy an evening at a restaurant. Stream a movie or binge a comedy.
  5. Turn off the news. The media seems obsessed with anger and divisiveness these days; you don’t need more of that. If you feel you must keep up, watch a 30-minute news broadcast, and stop.
  6. Find time for engaging and engrossing hobbies or interests. Where you focus on one thing only. Whether that’s playing a sport, going for a walk or run, reading a book, trying a new recipe, etc.
  7. If your life is in a rut, get out of it. Take a few days to observe your patterns. What patterns are healthy, and what patterns create more stress? If you don’t change, nothing else will.
  8. As much as possible, stop multi-tasking. Stop scrolling on your phone while also watching a TV show. Do one thing now. And then do the next thing. (Believe me, this is a hard habit to break!)
  9. Do not neglect self-care. If you need to get a test or see a doctor, do it. You can feel safe getting your required medical treatments.
  10. Talk to a therapist, counselor, or career counselor about your job and leave it if necessary. Get their objective point of view—is your workplace genuinely toxic, or is this a momentary issue? Talking with someone will help you sort this out.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

©2021, Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved.