How to Deal with a Toxic Job

A toxic job. It’s one where people are assigned more work than they can accomplish, micro-managed about how to get the work done, and surrounded by people who don’t have their back. Also known as the “toxic triad,” this combination of high demand, low control, and low social support leads to increased likelihood of depression, burnout, stress, sleep disturbances, and absenteeism.


Yuri_Arcurs / DigitalVision / Getty Images

The good news is that employees can experience positive outcomes, even in the most toxic work environments. A recent study by meQuilibrium of more than 2,000 workers found that employees with high resilience can overcome workplace challenges better than those with less resilience. In fact, the study showed that those with more resilience were better immunized against depression, high absenteeism, and low productivity. And, the advantages of higher resilience were even greater under high-strain conditions.

Resilience is a set of competencies, not a trait—it can be learned, and as a manager you can help your teams build resilience capacity. Practice these three keys, and you and your teams will stay resilient, even in the face of a high demands and challenges.

Create a Flexible Work Environment

Jobs feel more demanding when bosses control how employees spend their time. As a manager, you may micromanage the tasks assigned to your employees. But allowing them to manage when and how they complete these tasks (as long as they still align with deadlines), gives them that sense of control that removes one leg of that toxic triad.

With a greater sense of autonomy, employees will produce better results. They’ll be working at times when they know they’re most productive, and they’ll have better endurance because they won’t be forcing themselves to work at times when they know they’re not at their best—a recipe for burnout. Encourage them to tune into these cycles of productivity. It will promote self-awareness, which is a key foundational pillar of resilience, and foster self-efficacy by entrusting their schedules to them, while showing them that you believe they’ll still get the job done—their way.

Lastly, by allowing employees to manage their own tasks, they’ll feel that they have more ownership over them, which will foster a stronger connection to, and engagement with, their work.

Encourage (Peer and Managerial) Collaboration

According to the study, the negative effects of a demanding job were magnified when social support was low. In other words, being surrounded by a supportive work community leads to higher resilience. That’s because employees feel more equipped to face stress when they perceive a social safety net below them. Stress is magnified when you feel you are isolated in it. Having resources to reach out to, on the other hand, dramatically reduces its effects.

Provide your employees with support on both the peer and managerial level. Make time to regularly check in with them to establish a rapport in which they’ll feel comfortable reaching out, especially in times of stress. Also establish an open flow of communication amongst peers in the form of assigned teams for projects, regular meetings, and assigned mentors with whom they can check in. On a less formal level, foster a sense of community through unstructured social events that will show appreciation for employees while allowing them to get to know each other and form better bonds and stronger social foundations.

Frame Change in the Positive

When you model a positive growth-mindset for your team, you show them that there’s nothing to fear and that they have everything they need to meet the unknown. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, roll up your sleeves, and problem solve alongside with your team—all the while modeling positive mindsets that avoid negative self-talk and side-step emotional setbacks that could potentially result from challenges with uncertain outcomes.

This will show employees that they have the ability to adapt around whatever comes their way, which will help them maintain momentum, take risks, and be less affected by unpredictability. Research has shown that injecting positivity into the workplace is one of the critical paths to greater resilience and, therefore, greater agility during change and transformation.

Resilience provides employees with the tools they need to tackle difficult situations. By addressing each piece of the toxic triad, you’ll see that it is well within your power to empower your employees.

Andrew ShattéAndrew Shatté, Ph.D. is a Cocreator and Chief Science Oofficer at meQuilibrium, a SaaS platform that helps users build resilience, beat stress, and adopt healthy behavior for life. He is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Executive Education, a former professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and currently serves as a research professor at the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona.