9 ways to outgrow toxic work culture

To celebrate pride month, I am sharing 9 gifts I gave myself this past year, and that I offer to anyone who is questioning whether they should stay or leave their current jobs to do something better with their lives. 1–5 are about you and ways to meet your needs. 6–9 are about your work environment and actions you can take.

First, a disclaimer: I am a white queer cis male latino immigrant living in the United States at the time I am writing this piece. I acknowledge that it takes privilege to be able to even consider the possibility of leaving your job. So before we begin, I encourage you to first evaluate whether you can take this risk.

Then why: The “perks” of spending your privilege on deciding to leave your job can have a material impact on the quality of your well being, and if done intentionally, it can also act as a catalyst for transformational change in the systems we are a part of. Therefore, I consider “mindful quitting” a prime way of corporate activism.

  1. Be present with your body. You will know if you are experiencing a level of burnout if you notice how frequently tired (up to exhausted and utterly unmotivated) you feel. Tired and unmotivated are about the most emotionally taxing and mentally torturous ways of working. Ask yourself: What do I need? Pro tip: Go to therapy. It helps to have the dedicated time and professional support to do a reality check about your full body, which by the way, includes your mind, thoughts and feelings, just in case you forgot ;)
  2. Take vacations. If you’re unsure if you are burned out, but feel tired and unmotivated, give yourself time and space to figure out what is going on. Taking vacations is your right for a reason. To take care of yourself is a sensible and responsible thing to do. People who appreciate you will always honor you owning this act of self-respect.
  3. Give compassion to yourself. Your body is suffering when it has no energy to give, but it’s still forced to do so by the system in which it is inserted. The feeling of hopelessness creeps in, and the anxiety pumps up. This can be haunting and traumatic overtime. So acknowledge you need to give grace and be kind to yourself.
  4. Be patient: Healing takes time. You may begin realizing how empty and depleted you were left by work during vacations. It will likely not be enough time to catch up with yourself mentally and emotionally. That is natural. Give yourself time and space to heal.
  5. Don’t keep busy. You are allowed joy in this life. Focus on what you need to get done, and prioritize your well being just as much as work. This is part of healing. Pride projects can give you energy. If you find yourself getting all the joy from things that are always unrelated to your core job, you probably need to re-evaluate whether it makes sense to stay where you are.
  6. Your needs matter. You are only human. If your body can’t cope with the work environment you are in, you may feel safe to voice what you feel and think to your manager, and you may or may not be heard — unfortunately, this is not up to you. It’s their loss if they don’t listen to understand. It will take courage, self-respect and compassion to walk away, but it will probably be the best thing to do.
  7. You win! A place where you hear things like having a “growth mindset” is valued to “thrive in ambiguity”, but where you are not given resources or space to actively contribute to make things better is simply toxic for you. The cognitive dissonance that you deal with daily is going to keep making you feel depleted each day. If you find yourself in a situation like that, walking aways is the ultimate act of “growth mindset”, because you simply cannot grow in a place that only pretends to care about you as a person. Instead, care about yourself as a person, find a way to be happy in your own authentic way. Life is too short to be miserable over a paycheck.
  8. Be honest about why you’re leaving. This is hard because you may feel like you are not helping others when you openly share your experience. In my experience, that is not the case. When I vulnerably shared my experience with peers and friends I had a close relationship with at work, I was met with an equal dose of vulnerable sharing. This is not a bomb that you’re dropping, but an invitation to reflect on how loving what you’re doing and criticizing conditions to keep doing it are things that can coexist. When you are open, honest and vulnerable, you can model a behavior that will likely provoke folks in your organization to rethink their operations. This is a gift not only to those whose job is to create a better organization (including managers), but especially to those that are likely struggling to raise their voices.
  9. Everybody wins. Like in nature, beings can bear different levels of toxicity: You may like chocolate or coffee, a cat or dog can die from consuming the same amount you would allow yourself to indulge in. Depending on the amount of privilege you enjoy in your work environment, certain levels of toxicity may seem appropriate or acceptable for you. By the way, if you’ve been reading this text thus far and you find yourself disagreeing with most of what I am writing, I invite you to have a privilege check yourself. You may me thriving in a highly toxic environment where some of us with less privilege may be suffering.

To close out, I offer you a quote and an image to help you settle in in case you need peace of mind in midst of chaos. The quote is from a song by Jaloo and MC Tha, both Brazilian artists I love, which I freely translate to:

“For the oppressed people, revenge can be honey and pleasure”.

It’s a metaphor, but in your mind, if you’re vegan, you can sub honey by agave, nectar or apple juice, and you're into buddhism or non-violence, you can sub revenge by Tonglen, using your breath to turn the shadows into your living force. I've been practicing this method for the past 8 years or so, and it definitely helps getting clarity over things that matter to me. The image below is a visualization of the practice I made in partnership with my lifetime friend Barbara Oliveira:

An egg shaped object floats in the middle of a spiral of translucent smoke and clouds over stars, under a rainbow and an iridescent blue sky
"Tonglen of Dreams" digital painting by yours truly in partnership with Barbara Oliveira

It is Pride month. Stay beautiful, go outside and take care.

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