Toxic Relationships at Work

Dr Josephine interviews Beulah Joseph, a Registered Psychologist, researcher, author and Employee Assistance Program Guru about the nature of toxic relationships at work.

We discuss how to identify a toxic relationship or workplace environment, and importantly, what to do if you find yourself in one.

Here are some tips from Beulah about how to deal with Toxic Relationships at work:

What to do when in a toxic relationship

1. Find others who feel and think similar to you.

a. Create a social space where you can refocus on positive aspects of your current context

b. This can become a group that looks out for one another

2. Set clear boundaries between work and life

a. Work is not the only thing in your life. Draw a line under your workday and do something else.

b. Do things that are fun eg gym, catch up with friends, pottering around the house, family dinners, etc.

3. Plan for unwinding

a. Block time out during your work day and outside work hours to unwind. This is just as important as completing work tasks. It could be as simple as stepping away from your desk and taking 10 deep breaths or listening to music. Ask yourself what helps you relax and set aside time to do these things.

4. Create lists to help you focus on your work tasks

a. This can help draw your attention to the tasks themselves rather than the negative environment or relationship

5. Document everything you do

a. Save emails, comments/decisions from meetings, phone calls, etc. This will help if you do need to make a complaint down the track

6. Consider your exit strategy

a. Things may improve but it is always handy to be aware of what opportunities are out there.

Options of support:

1. HR – can be accessed for informal support i.e. finding out about roles and responsibilities, internal policies about appropriate workplace behaviours, advice on how best to informally and/or formally manage a work issue

2. EAP – most workplaces offer their staff support through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider. Sometimes immediate family members can access these supports. Check with your provider

3. Coaches – can be accessed through Geared for Growth or Beulah Joseph herself

As always, please give us your questions and stories: [email protected]

Listen to all episodes on Apple Podcast

Christy Mori (00:09):

Welcome to Gears, Action, Growth, shifting business culture, one conversation at a time. My name is Christy Mori. And this week we have Dr. Josephine Palermo, whose superpower is to create business cultures that transform organizations team by team in the host seat, she’ll be interviewing psychologist, Beulah Joseph on how to deal with toxic relationships in the workplace. Hope you get value from it.

Dr Josephine Palermo (00:36):

Hey Beulah, how are you? How are you today?

Beulah Joseph (00:39):

Hi Josie. Thanks for having me.

Dr Josephine Palermo (00:42):

Oh, look, it’s my pleasure. We’ve been trying to do this for a while, so I’m so glad we finally connected this morning. Yeah. Fantastic. Well look, let’s go straight into the conversation because what I wanted to start off with is if you could tell us a little bit about you and your career and sort of basically how you, how you ended up today, where you are.

Beulah Joseph (01:04):

Okay. Well I’m a psychologist, a registered psychologist and our work in the organizational psychology space. And that can be quite broad, but what I’ve really enjoyed and what I’m really passionate about is workplace wellbeing. And I’ve worked in that space for about maybe 10 to 12 years now. And I really enjoy it. So I work across different sorts of industries and sectors. So there’s a lot of variety in the different types of workplace contexts dynamics different sorts of personality, different sorts of management styles. So it’s been quite a diverse career. And I work in the employee assistance program industry. So an EAP which some organizations might have it’s a third-party organization that offers support services to the employees. So it’s, it’s a program that’s separate to the organization, but is contracted by the organization. And so we do lots of different sorts of things training and workshop coaching we do short-term counseling. And so it really enables us to be in that space where we can talk about a more proactive approach to supporting people’s wellbeing at home and in the workplace as well. So it’s not just when things build up and that’s where you access that support is actually let’s think and talk about wellbeing on an ongoing basis as well. So that

Dr Josephine Palermo (02:38):

You’re getting a more preventative approach there.

Understanding Who We Are

Beulah Joseph (02:41):

Definitely. I mean, consult support people when there’s something that’s going on, but I think normalizing that wellbeing conversation is so important. Just talking about it on every day. How, how are we looking after ourselves and one another? Yeah. Oh, that’s wonderful.

Dr Josephine Palermo (02:56):

And Beulah. I know that I mean, you, I have known each other for a long time in many different contexts, and I’m really keen to, to know how you got to sort of, you know, was being a psychologist, something you always wanted to do. How did you get there? What were the kind of path, path milestones along the way?

Beulah Joseph (03:18):

Well, actually started off as a classroom teacher many years ago. So I come from a family of teachers and it made sense that that was something that I wanted to do. Especially as I was trying to stay in Australia. And according to the skilled migrant visa requirements, that was one of the things that we were looking for teachers. So I was, I was like, that’s a good career choice for me. And I did that for a while. Really loved it. It’s a very demanding, but really creative and potentially very joyful career path. And I enjoyed that a lot. Except then I started having a family and so I had to deal with kids in the home as well as at work. And that got a bit too much and I wanted a break enough of kids, my own and other people’s and I just wanted some variety. And so I thought, oh, you know, I’ll go back to school and I’ll learn something else and try something different, maybe work with adults. I’ve always loved psychology and trying to understand why people do the things that they do and how can we be better? So psychology was a logical choice for me when I went back.

Dr Josephine Palermo (04:27):

I, you know, I love the description there. You know, why you love psychology? Cause I think a lot of people that listen to this podcast really are very curious about psychology. They love psychology and they are curious about how it applies to work. And I love that you say it’s sort of, you know, really about understanding who we are and sort of how we can be better. Cause I think at the core of things, a lot of people have that curiosity and that question as well. So yeah, I love that. I love that you described that

Beulah Joseph (04:54):

Definitely. You know, psychology initially in its inception was all about identifying illness. But it’s really evolved into lots of different streams and particularly in the workplace wellbeing space, it is about how can we do what we’re doing better so that we are thriving individuals. And there’s a real recognition of that flow on effect between home and work. We’re not just a worker, we are a person with lots of different facets. So how can we you know, really kind of realize our full potential in all those domains. So that that’s something that I’m really passionate and interested about. Even after all these years, I still love to work in that space.

Dr Josephine Palermo (05:40):

Mm mm. And you know, I, I really appreciate that. And I always sort of had this mantra about bringing your whole self to work as well, because I think it’s, you know, we, we, you know, it’s such a, you know, early 20th century, 19th century concept to really just compartmentalize work and in everything else we do in life. So so just on that, you’re like, what do you want to tell us about anything related to your whole self? So you’ve got this wonderful career. Is there anything else that you wanted to share about what makes you, you just, so we get an idea of that?

Beulah Joseph (06:13):

Well, my life has changed dramatically in the last couple of years, I have to admit I was a very active performer in Bollywood dancing and belly dancing and I did west African dancing. So I had lots of, you know, I’ve always been a performer. I come from a family of performers as well. So it’s something that I’ve just always done and singing in lots of bands. And unfortunately I got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two years ago, which is a autoimmune disease. And so that’s really made me have to change my lifestyle quite a bit. So I’ve had to give up a lot of those things because I just can’t do them anymore. It just I don’t have the physical strength or health or stamina to be able to do those things. So the last two years, it has actually been a very interesting period in my life where I’ve really had to transition and shift my mindset.

Beulah Joseph (07:13):

So there’s a lot of grief in you know, saying goodbye to the things that I used to love and was passionate. And that’s where my social networks were. And having to say goodbye to a lot of that, and then being left with what felt like nothing. And then having to sort of think about, well, I can’t do those things well, what can I do? And it’s begun the exploration of different sorts of pathways. That’s led to me writing a book with an old school friend that’s going to be published this year about motherhood. Yeah, it’s led to me sort of starting to think about, well, it’s still very early stages, but trying to think about how I can create a well-being hub, perhaps in a more regional area where the services aren’t as easily accessible. And I’m sort of thinking about how, what that might look like and how I can sort of craft that. So there’s other things that will happen. It has been quite a journey. Yeah, and it it’s been interesting and I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had some really good supports around me to to sort of guide me through it.

Dr Josephine Palermo (08:20):

That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. It’s amazing. That that’s amazing resilience. And I think, you know, maybe, maybe we can bring you on for another conversation about resilience. It stem some stage. Cause I know you actually, you know, you, you actually know a lot about that in your work, but it’s also something I think that you yourself had lived through and are living through. And so I think that inspires a lot of people. So thank you for sharing that that we, I really appreciate it. The other thing that I know that you’ve just done as well, cause you’re such a super woman is you’ve just completed the first draft of your PhD, you know, that’s, that’s just, just the little thing. But so can you just give us a sneak peek of maybe what you found in your PhD? Are you allowed to do that?

Industry and Workplace Wellbeing

Beulah Joseph (09:09):

Yes, it looks, this is what seven and a half years into it. Cause you know, working and having a family means you can’t do it all in one hit. But initially this started because years ago the CEO of the organization, I was at one at some research done and I thought, well, why not do a PhD? And so the PhD is about the impact of employee assistance programs on individuals and organizational outcomes. And so it’s been a really interesting journey into having different sorts of conversation and running different studies and essentially what we found. So I’ve got a paper that I’m hoping to publish soon. And that’s the culmination of the entire narrative of the thesis. And what we looked at was what are the trends with people who do use EAPs versus those who don’t and what was my favorite finding out of all of that is that the people who are presenting with the highest levels of distress with more severe presentations of anxiety or depression and stress they are accessing that support.

Beulah Joseph (10:20):

And that is a huge shift from, you know, 10, 20 years ago, where there was even more stigma than there is now in terms of seeking appropriate professional supports. So that for me is such a heartening result that people are understanding that it’s actually okay to, to ask for help. And it’s a better option than trying to keep it together. So the people who really need the support are accessing the support. What I also did find was that there’s a lot of scope for people who aren’t at that crisis point to access support as well. So again, that early, early intervention preventative piece and that’s our next step, I think, as an industry and workplace wellbeing, that’s normalizing that conversation. So we’re checking in earlier rather than later.

Dr Josephine Palermo (11:11):

Oh, that’s wonderful. And, and look, I wish you all the best, cause I know the first draft is part of that sort of journey towards getting the final PhD. So I wish you all the best with that deal. It’s really important work. And I love that you’re chronicling the change in really business environment and culture, which then allows people to feel more able to you know, really bring up those issues and then seek, seek that support. So that’s really, really important work. But we are here today to talk about relationships because it’s a little bit other aside to some of the conversations we had with Christy Christy and myself had in February around just relationships at work because, and again, it’s part of, you know, we bring our whole selves to work and sometimes we are in certain relationships at work that either enhance us or not.

Dr Josephine Palermo (12:07):

And today we wanted to talk about those relationships that perhaps do not enhance us. And sometimes we sort of can label them as difficult or even toxic. So I, I really wanted to get your advice on particularly what you’ve seen in, in your own practice or perhaps even in, in some of the maybe the research you’ve read is this a, is this an issue that, that people present with at work in terms of getting support and particularly, you know, what is it, what is a relationship that’s toxic or a relationship that doesn’t enhance us? What, how do we, how do we know that, that relationship isn’t good for us? So if we could kind of open that up Beulah and perhaps you could give us an idea of what that definition is to start off with.

Conflict Serves A Purpose

Beulah Joseph (12:57):

I think I would start this conversation with one of the most important points is that conflict and toxic different conflict and disagreement, a normal and healthy part of any relationship for many of us, it’s not a comfortable space to be in and we avoid it or we become hypersensitive and going into that conversation, then that triggers an escalation point. So conflict is actually, you can’t have a work environment. You can’t have a relationship without some conflict and conflict serves a purpose. It helps us become aware of problems that might exist. It gives us that momentum to find a better way forward. And when you have environments where conflict is valued, change can be a positive thing, a way of making things better. So it, it can be an opportunity to help teams become more effective have better decision-making and strengthen that relationship.

Beulah Joseph (14:01):

So I think sometimes the word toxic is used too often where they actually talking about conflict that people are struggling to resolve. However toxic does exist. Of course. And, and the difference I think with toxic is it’s, it’s more when we’re talking about a toxic relationship, we we’re talking about something that’s really characterized by this pattern of unhealthy manipulating behaviors and attitudes. So you might see a consistent pattern over time where someone might lack some empathy or have this desire to exert power over the other person and gain satisfaction from it. So that real kind of tug of war with power and control, and it can be even more if the person that you’re struggling with is in a position of power, like a manager or a team leader. So they’re in a role that has established power already and it can make it really challenging and certain some of the work that I do, I do come across those kinds of dynamics and people struggling to navigate that in that sort of scenario, it’s even harder to disagree or voice your opinions or contributions.

Beulah Joseph (15:17):

So it is a real thing that happens in workplaces and it can happen in workplaces. And people can even describe a workplace as being toxic, where it’s in an environment that is characterized by that. You know, that lack of respect and civility where, you know, people regularly dismissed or unvalued, you might find a toxic workplace where there’s a lot more favoritism. And it’s not necessarily a merit based approach. It’s, you know, whoever the favorite is. And then that then worsens those power plays as well. You know, rewards and acknowledgement. It can be sort of directed to those who may not even have contributed significantly significantly to a project or to any of the targets. What you tend to find in those kinds of environments is that people can be quite on edge and become a lot more hypersensitive.

Beulah Joseph (16:22):

There can be a lot more increased conflict. You might also have an overemphasis on self advancement and much less efforts and focus on moderating inappropriate behaviors or actions and words. You might also find that information is used as a means of exerting that control or power over others withholding information or giving particular information to different groups, even playing one group off another group in these sorts of environments as well, cliques can be quite common where people gang up together and take sides on particular conflicts that there may or may not be directly involved in as well.

Dr Josephine Palermo (17:10):

Hmm. Hmm. This sounds like a really terrible environment to be immersed in. And I know that people find themselves in those kinds of environments almost in a way where they, they suddenly become aware of the pattern. Cause I, I really love that you’re talking about a pattern of behavior because sometimes I, I think that’s why we ended up in these environments. They kind of sneak up on you cause the passion very much. So examples. Yeah. Do you have any examples of where that’s happened to someone be alarmed? Just wondering if there’s something, you know, just to bring it, bring it to life because I think that’s why difficult sometimes to avoid some, some situations or some relationships

Beulah Joseph (17:56):

I, myself I’ve had experience with that where I have eventually then left the work environment because it was just so horrible to be in our, you know, and they can have really significant impacts on your overall wellbeing. You know, people will, you know, I felt when I was working in this particular organization, waking up in the morning was horrible. What was the motivation to get out of bed? And then to go in and face that kind of, you know, high conflict, political environment. And all I wanted to do was the work it’s really debilitating. You might also get the sorts of environments might become a bit more common when there’s been organizational change over a period of time. And some people might be struggling a bit more with that, or some groups might find opportunities with that as well. It’s not necessarily the case that that’s what it’s going to be like for an extended period of time.

Beulah Joseph (19:00):

Sometimes things can resolve and become better. But it is something that can be very common. It also is about what kind of culture does the organization have and is that culture valuing things like effort and cooperation, collaboration you know, versus, you know, whoever’s got the right connections or whoever’s said the right things, or you might even have you know, a boys club where then there’s, you know, gender equality and there’s discrimination. And yeah, so it, it’s, it’s such a common thing. And I think I really liked what you said earlier in terms of it can sneak up on you. It’s, it’s so easy for it. It’s not necessarily the case where it’s really obvious and, you know, yep. That’s a toxic workplace. It can be really difficult because over time we adapt and we accept. And it’s really hard to actually take that step out and go, well, yes, this is actually a toxic workplace. And I need to think about my role in this space. Mm

Dr Josephine Palermo (20:11):

Yes, that’s right. Because I think we when you join an organization, you join a team, you join a company, you have all kind of, you’ve got a positive outlook in the main, you know, you don’t join something thinking, you know, looking for the signs in some ways you sort of get excited about the role or, you know, it’s a new team or whatever that is. And so I think that that’s, that’s difficult sometimes to navigate when you do get some behaviors and maybe I think also people might attribute that issue to something they did rather than seeing it as perhaps, you know, a part of this pattern. So I think that that also happens, doesn’t it Beulah

Beulah Joseph (20:54):

Very much so. And I think, you know, what you, you’re saying in terms of being a new starter in a new environment, that’s even harder because you don’t necessarily know what the norms are in that workplace. And you’re still trying to work out a whole bunch of stuff. And it’s, it’s even harder to identify where things are okay, and where they’re not, and where you would draw the line. It makes it even more challenging. Sometimes to the, the opposite can be true, where if you’ve been somewhere for a really long time to actually identify something as toxic and not something that you want to put up with, it makes it really difficult because we do adapt and we do accept and we get used to things and that becomes then the normal. And so separating that out and actually looking at that and saying, is this a toxic workplace? You know, what is not working in this environment? How am I feeling about it all, it’s really hard to find that space.

Dr Josephine Palermo (21:59):

And I think what happens is people like you were saying, they, they end up with some symptoms, if you like. So there’s either a lack of motivation or sometimes they’re even physical symptoms that can occur, I think is [inaudible]

Beulah Joseph (22:13):

Very much so, I mean, what I hear a lot about increased stress and anxiety levels. So, you know, things like nightmares waking up in the middle of the night in a sweat thinking about work you know, that dread going into work you know, racing, thoughts you know, even heart palpitations and sweating and feeling dizzy and weak. They can have huge impacts on our overall wellbeing and it can make it really difficult for us to be engaged at work. I mean, what’s the motivation to be engaged in a workplace like that. It’s so much harder. You know, and our, our relationships at work can be affected. You know, you might find people who become a lot more withdrawn. You might have people who are become a bit more angry and aggressive in the communications. It can really have a flow on effect to all aspects of our lives.

Dr Josephine Palermo (23:13):

So, so what do we do? Cause it sounds terrible and, you know, I would not want to stay there. And, and, you know, obviously in your experience you left the organization, is that the only course of action for people who find themselves in this situation?

Defining Values and Expectations

Beulah Joseph (23:28):

Definitely not. I think, I mean, I am painting, we are talking about toxic workplace and toxic relationships. So we have talked a lot about the bad stuff or how horrible it can be, but there’s lots of ways that people can deal with it mean for me, this was years ago when I left this organization. But that, you know, for me, that really, that experience really helped me identify what’s important for me, what am I looking for in a workplace and what my expectations are. And so since then I have ensured that the environments that I’ve been in have really kind of met my values, my expectation. So it was a difficult experience at the time, but it’s really helped. And so I think the first step, if you’re not sure if you’re struggling with something like this, the first step is to create some space and time for yourself to reflect and reflect on what is it that it’s, what are your values?

Beulah Joseph (24:32):

What are your beliefs what’s important for you? What are your needs and what about this particular environment or this particular relationship doesn’t feel right? Yeah. Are there particular interactions or their styles of communications or are there actions that have really grated and rubbed you the wrong way? Unpack that a little bit. Why is that? Is that blocking me fulfilling? One of my needs, is that going against my values? You know, what about this relationship or workplace isn’t really working for me. And I think a lot of people miss that part, and it’s almost the most crucial part of, you know, really understanding yourself, but also what is going on around you and how that is impacting yourself. And sometimes, you know, engaging with a coach or a counselor or a mentor or someone who’s had that experience before can be really useful in facilitating that sort of reflection piece.

Dr Josephine Palermo (25:34):

And, and I think, I think sometimes people find it difficult to a reflect on what they want into, in terms of their values and expectations, because perhaps they don’t value it themselves. They don’t value their role, they don’t value themselves. And so and that can be due to some, some issues that are not even related to the workplace. So how do you start, you know, cause I think for some people, they, they do that, you know, intuitively they can go into their value base and they can be, be sort of, I guess, strong in terms of their, their non-negotiables, but for others, I know that that itself is a struggle. So yeah. Do you have any advice for people like that?

Beulah Joseph (26:20):

That’s where our to reach out for some support whether it’s accessing a professional, whether it’s speaking to someone senior, you know, in a different organization or, you know, a family member or a friend just to help have a different voice in your head to help you kind of start to piece together a bit of a picture. And the thing is you might not necessarily have a complete picture at the end and that’s okay. Yeah. I think it’s really important to ask the question whether or not you have an answer in that moment, that’s not really an issue. It’s continually asking yourself those questions because that enables you to check in with where you’re at versus what’s inside you. So I think as a daily practice, a weekly practice, that’s something that we can all do regardless of whether or not we’re in a toxic relationship or workplace that really empowers us with some clear information about what’s going to work for us down the track.

Dr Josephine Palermo (27:29):

I love that. That check-in because it is, it is really sometimes for example, I’ll check in on myself and I, I, I know I just through experience, I know that if something doesn’t feel right, I get this sort of ache in my, in my tummy. Like, it’s that, that’s my area that solar plexus area is my area where I feel that, you know, there’s something wrong. I feel the dissonance there. And so, but checking in on values over time is important because sometimes those beliefs can change sometimes different values come up to the surface in terms of priorities too. So what was okay before may not be okay now.

Setting Up Boundaries

Beulah Joseph (28:07):

So yeah, yeah, definitely. I think also what can help is, you know, to think about the people in your workplace and start to find people who feel the same way that you do to develop those friendships, because sometimes you can be surrounded by very negative people who complain a lot maybe, and that can also bring you down and make it difficult for you to create that space. So if you can look at your workplace and sort of start to find and investigate what options there might be of people who might feel and think in a similar way to you, you can get that support and you can start to build that support network in a challenging environment. I think the other thing that’s also really important is to set boundaries for yourself. So really to see that work is still just work. There are other things in your life. There are families, there are hobbies, there are friends, there are different types of activities. So actually set some boundaries around work rather than work, seeping into everything in anything that you do like I did over COVID yes.

Dr Josephine Palermo (29:21):

And even now with so many people working from home, I think that, yeah, that’s really good advice because I think our boundaries can get too porous when we’re in, we’re in an environment where we’re also, you know, our home is, is where all those other activities take place. So yeah, that’s, that’s really good advice Beulah. So, so we, we, we do have to wrap up, we’ve had, I think we could keep talking about this and we might, we might get you back on to talk a little bit more about the other aspects of employee experience and how psychology and support and particularly support in terms of employee support can actually help a lot of the perhaps people in situations that I’m sure there are other topics that we can talk about. So we might get you back on if that’s okay.

Dr Josephine Palermo (30:07):

If you’d like to come back on and you’ve enjoyed this experience, but just, just to wrap up. So what we’ve been talking about is basically, and I had to recognize that that conflict and, and toxicity, and not necessarily the same thing. So, and I’ve been talking a lot about that too, in terms of leaning into conflict. So I really, I think you and I are definitely on the same page around that. But, but, but that pattern of, you know, manipulating behavior is not okay. And that, that, that does sort of lead you to maybe define an environment that is more toxic and it’s not just about dealing with conflict. So there’s some things that I think people can do for those people that perhaps work in businesses that aren’t connected with EAP services what can they do be, or lack of it? Can we have sleep some notes some, some links in our show notes for those people to get some support if they don’t have that in their workplace?

Beulah Joseph (31:07):

Definitely. I mean, I think that there are lots of supports and you know, I can certainly send you some after this that you can add. There are always supports around. And I think the important message is that you are never alone. It is about recognizing that you are important, you are valued and what we can do, sort of add those those links for you at the end. If you don’t have access to an EAP, I think the other thing too is just to keep in mind that your if you’ve got a partner or a EAPs can also be available to immediate family members. So you might, even if you don’t work in the organization, your partner perhaps might actually work in an organization where you can access some of those sessions. So there are some options as well, so it’s worth investigating.

Dr Josephine Palermo (31:58):

Thanks. So we’ll, we’ll put some of those links in the show notes and we hope that that everyone’s got some value out of this compensation. I’m sure they have, and really looking forward to having you back, but in the meantime, have a wonderful Easter break. I hope you’re getting a bit of bread.

Christy Mori (32:15):

Well, you know, we’ve got the Easter bunny coming. My 18 year old has decided that we have to have Easter bunny. So we’ve, we’ve sent an email to the Easter bunny to make sure that he or she still arrive. So yeah, we’ve got plans.

Dr Josephine Palermo (32:30):

All right. Awesome. Let’s give a high five today, Easter bunny.

Christy Mori (32:35):

Thank you. My pleasure. Take care. Bye.

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