How to Survive and Stay Sane in a Toxic Work Environment

My work-at-home origin story

I’ve been working from home for more than ten years. I left my last full-time office job in 2002: That job and office, working for Apple in Cupertino, was actually pretty great, but I’ve grown to appreciate working from home so much that I doubt I could ever return to that lifestyle.

The advantages to working from home are too great, and I’ve come to count on them too much to imagine ever giving them up. Alongside those blessings, however, there are also many challenges.

I want to share with you some of my advice for getting the most out of working from home, whether you’re relocating for a short stint, or it’s the start of a life-long change in how you do your work.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned fly in the face of those dreams we hold on to in the office: All those delicious freedoms turn out to be some of the hardest aspects to the setup. No alarm clock? Good luck figuring out when you start your day. No lunch time? Don’t forget to eat. No boss looming over you? Better make sure you actually get something done!

When I first started the work from home gig long ago, I praised an author whose work I admired for bettering my own work habits. He let me in on a little secret: the pieces he wrote that I so admired were not directed at me, but to himself.

He wrote them to persuade himself into achieving the level of performance that he aspired to, all while couching it as advice that might be pertinent to others.

And so, here I am with an article that embraces that kind of writing: I’ve been imperfect at following many of the guidelines I’m about to lay out, but I aspire every day to comply more with them. Hopefully these rules can help you embrace your own work-at-home ethos—whether or not you follow mine with any whole-hog mentality.


#5: Engage a social network

While the water cooler of jobs past never panned out as quite the center of workplace culture that it’s often portrayed as, it serves as a valuable metaphor for something that is lost when you work from home. Chances are you don’t have a water cooler, and if you do, there is no dynamically shifting population of people milling about it all day.

There’s no getting around the fact that working from home can be lonely. If you’re introverted and thrive when you’re left on your own, this may sound like paradise. For those of us who are either extroverted or possess traits that defy classification, we come to miss the casual banter that happens in any workplace’s common areas.

Ten years ago, the challenge of filling this void would have been harder than it is today. The internet, with its predominant social networks, not to mention direct instant messaging and texts, keep us theoretically far more connected to one another than we ever were before. It’s only a matter of picking up the keyboard and striking up a conversation.

Takeaway: Make friends online, or connect with existing ones. Chatting with people on Twitter, Facebook, Slack, or even a dedicated AOL group chat room is a great way to replace the social banter you used to get in the office.

SHOULD – Be Proactive Ask LOTS of Questions – (How to Survive Your First Day at Work)

I’ll always remember of my managers praising me for being an annoying arse:


‘I like how you always ask me questions and get things right, opposed to not asking me questions and getting things wrong.’


She wasn’t being sarcastic – it was true.


Like this dog, don’t be afraid to ask questions so
Like this dog, don’t be afraid to ask questions so that you get things right.


It is likely that, even if they don’t say it explicitly, your superiors have the same mentality.


So, if you are having trouble with something, swallow your pride and ask someone – it’s certainly better than not asking someone, and getting it disastrously wrong.


It shows proactivity and interest, and usually creates a better outcome than simply winging it and hoping for the best.


After all, as you’re new, they can’t expect you to have mastered everything. (And, really, this should be the case for at least the first 6 months.)


DON’T – Over or under dress

The one thing that is worse than dressing poorly is dressing incorrectly.


That is, turning up to your first day at a tech startup in a three piece suit.


That would be severely overdressing for the occasion.


Dress for the occasion.
Dress for the occasion.


Even if you look like James Bond, you’ll be out of place and come off as a bit of a snob.


Conversely, if you turn up in flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt, not only will you be dressing badly (see the previous point), but you’ll also be under dressing, giving the impression of incompetence.


You should have identified the company’s dress culture when you were finding out how to dress for your interview.

To not over or under dress, dress yourself at, or one step above, this ‘dress culture’.


Lack of Human Interaction

Your teammates are your social circle, and when you spend all your time online, you may feel lonely at the end of the day. Remote workers often work asynchronously and, if you don’t have family members home with you, perhaps you have only houseplants to talk to. “You have less social interactions with colleagues, so you might feel lonely or bored if you don’t invest in your “normal” life,” explained a Serokell employee.

You can also try working at co-working spaces to feel you’re a part of society – and, well, to find out you don’t miss office life at all. Anyway, all of us need to contact people in person at least from time to time. Continuous isolation can even lead to mental health issues, so it’s essential to be around others during non-work hours.

“If your personal life is not well-arranged and the social circle is not built, you can fall into a rut even worse than at the office. Social life is crucial for people,” thinks one of our teammates.

Wear shoes or risk becoming 100 percent shoe intolerant

I’ve been working from home since about 2013, and it’s a wonderland of never wearing shoes. Problem is, I discovered, when I would have to wear shoes all day like a normal person (like at an event or convention or something else) it just felt like my feet were being crushed in a vice all day. My body temperature would shoot up and I’d feel hot and sweaty even in heavy air conditioning. So I’d recommend wearing shoes at least a couple hours a day so you don’t completely lose your shoe tolerance. I am not a doctor.—Chris Livingston

Bounce ideas off your network

For some people, it can be harder to come up with good ideas without others to try them out on. “Look for people in your network, who are your creative, inspiring people,” says Archer. They might be former colleagues, or a mentor. “Ask to bounce ideas around, as long as it’s not confidential stuff that’s commercially sensitive.” If you don’t have that kind of network, make this an opportunity to start building one. A coach could be helpful; find one through directories such as .

Don’t keep a big jar of Nutella in the kitchen

Sometimes your mind drifts when you’re working from home. You might be experiencing a touch of writer’s block, or waiting for a video to render, or just need a break from the screen. And I can tell you from experience that if you have a big jar of Nutella in the cupboard, you’re going to find yourself standing in the kitchen eating from it with a spoon, probably while staring into space. Of course, you can replace ‘big jar of Nutella’ with whatever food-based vice you happen to have. The advice is the same. —Andy Kelly

Look for outlets

Operating in a high-pressure work environment means that you need to find healthy ways to fight stress. One of the most obvious methods is exercise. If you are rolling your eyes, one study conducted by Pedro Saint-Maurice, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute, shows that it’s never too late to start. Not only that, but research participants who exercised anywhere from two to eight hours a week had a 29% to 36% lower risk of dying compared to people who rarely or never exercised. Meditation is another great technique to build resilience to stress. All you need are at least 5 to 20 distraction-free minutes to sit in a relaxed position and clear your mind. Some fantastic apps that can help include Headspace, Breethe, and Insight Timer.

Managing your mental health

Whether you manage a business or you’re an employee, don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations with people. Have open, honest conversations about your company’s structure and values, especially with those who might not be living up to those values. It’s much easier to try to prevent toxicity than it is to reel it back in. If one or two specific employees are the ones creating a hostile environment, consider confronting them about it, or talking to your employer to see what can be done.

If you can’t prevent a toxic work environment, then make an active effort to keep yourself safe. Your mental health should be your number one priority when you’re dealing with a negative workplace.

There are things you can do to take care of your mental health if you’re stuck in a toxic environment, including ‘tuning out’ as much of the office drama and gossip as you can. Don’t let it distract you from your actual work, because getting involved in it will usually make things worse. Other tips to keep in mind include:

  • Not bringing drama home with you
  • Finding humor in certain situations
  • Taking breaks
  • Finding inspiration in other areas of your life
  • Practicing self-care

By keeping your mental health at the top of your priority list, you can disengage from the toxicity of your workplace and try to find some peace within that environment.

Enjoy a different environment

“The atmosphere definitely changes when the boss is away,” says Vincent, who works for a facility management company. “Everyone feels like they can just get on with their jobs, people are a bit more sociable with each other and we all seem to know more about what’s happening.” He and his colleagues do get their work done when their manager is away, but will sometimes play video games once they have finished, he says, which is “a brilliant way to have some time bonding, and makes the work environment better”. For many people, especially those with young families, there aren’t the opportunities to go out after work, “so having a little bit of time during the day really does lighten the mood. I feel like the work is more productive, and things get done faster.”

Daily Reminders [ ]

  1. Remember at the end of your shift you get to go home to your cat.
  2. Don’t give that one customer the power to ruin your whole day.
  3. Your coworkers all feel the exact same way.
  4. You can’t quit because you have bills to pay.
  5. You get to do this all over again tomorrow. 

Communication Difficulties

We may think that being remote means there’s less communication needed, so we are more effective as a result. But in fact, it’s the opposite – you need to communicate with your team a lot just to make sure everyone has all the required information. And as long as you communicate via text messages or voice chats, you need to be very careful in expressing your thoughts in a way that everyone can comprehend.

Plus, don’t underestimate the “social” aspect of work. Even though there are many tools for video chat and conferencing, the feeling of being disconnected from the team can be very stressful. This is how one of our teammates described this problem: “One of the hardest things for me is the lack of face-to-face relationships with colleagues.” “I sometimes feel like I have no one to muck about with during lunchtime,” added another.

What to do? Take responsibility for your communication practices. Use words carefully, try to avoid misunderstanding, be ready to explain everything twice and, in general, communicate a lot. Turn off notifications in Slack if you need a couple of hours for uninterrupted work. When you are resting, it will save you from annoyance.

And remember that your colleagues, wherever they are, are real people, and treat them appropriately: “I solve my communication problems in the same way as if I worked in the office. Except that now technically I can’t yell at people, which I never did anyway.”

Consider Whether it’s Worth it


Forget about 80+ hours a week; most people will quickly ask whether significantly smaller work hours would be unhealthy. For example,is working 12 hours a day to much? There certainly literature to indicate that there can be long term negative health effects from working more than a regular 40-hour week. Working 60 hours a week; let alone 80, would become incredibly taxing for even the hardiest and dedicated of workers. Even those who truly love their job and get great joy from their work might quickly be consumed by working such extreme hours. Perhaps, as a one off or irregular occurrence, the 80+ hour week can help you get back on track and catch up where you’ve fallen behind.When these become the norm, however, it might be time to start considering a job that is less demanding on your health. Work doesn’t need to be so crazy.


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