How to Deal With a Hostile Work Environment

Nurse looking bored while sitting in an empty aisle in a hospital

It can be disheartening to work in a place where you do not feel comfortable. Healthcare workers want to be able to go to work and care for others. However, when they’re confronted with hostility from their co-workers or superiors, getting through the day can be unbearable.

Although everyone has their own definition on what a hostile work environment is, one thing is clear – a hostile work environment is not favorable and it is important to protect yourself from it.

Signs that You Work in a Hostile Place

You may be working in a hostile environment if you experience any of the following:

  • Feelings of anxiety creep up on your way to work or during the work day
  • You don’t get along with your co-workers or superiors
  • You or other employees are criticized often
  • There is discrimination going on
  • Jokes are made to put people down
  • Gossip is common
  • Inappropriate touching and/or use of sexual language happens
  • Some people try to intimate others
  • Threats or consequences occur (ex: “If you want to keep your job, then you should…”

If you find that you may be working in a hostile work environment, it may be helpful to start thinking of solutions to help you get through the situation. Check out these tips:

1. Legal Solutions

There can be legal consequences if a workplace is hostile. If an employee is experiencing harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination, this should be reported. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, one should report these incidents to their “…supervisory chain, their Agency Workplace Equality Compliance Office (WECO), or, for regional office employees, the Regional Administrator of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management (OASAM) in the region where the conduct took place.”

Reporting inappropriate workplace behavior is not uncommon. However, as with all policies, there are gray areas where someone’s situation may be viewed as harassment, assault, etc. while someone else’s situation is not.

Regardless, if you’re experiencing work hostility that is impacting your ability to perform your job, it is worth exploring in order to protect yourself and anyone else who may be subjected to similar situations.

2. Find “Your” People

Working in a hostile work environment is bad, but working in a hostile environment without a support system is even worse. Although healthcare workers are jammed packed with responsibilities and little downtime, it is important to find people that you feel comfortable with.

Having at least one friend at work who you can talk with, share jokes, and spend downtime with can alleviate stress and help you zone in to the good aspects of the job. Some helpful ways to find your people include:

  • Asking people open ended questions including what they are doing for the weekend, for the holidays, and what are their interests
  • Bringing snacks/food to share with the group during lunch
  • Bringing up places in the area that you want to visit and inviting those who seem interested
  • Checking in with people at the beginning and end of your shift to see how they are doing and if they need help

3. Ask for Help

Often, when people experience a hostile work environment, they do not ask for help due to fear that they will be seen as weak, less than, or annoying. However, not asking for help can lead to feeling isolated, frustrated, and can be detrimental to your work success.

The first person you should consider to ask help from is your supervisor or boss. They may not be aware of how hostile the work environment is and can make an effort to change it. Or, they may be familiar with the hostility and offer some advice. Speaking with non-hostile co-workers is also helpful. You probably aren’t alone in your experience! Talk to your co-workers about what is going on, see if they can relate and talk through solutions.

4. Find a “Safe” Space

A safe space is a physical area where one can de-stress. Finding a safe space at work may help with re-centering yourself in order to get through the day. Think about what a safe space would look like to you – would you be indoors or outdoors? Would it be quiet? What would you do there? Keep an eye out for any spaces in or near your facility that could be your safe space.

This can be as simple as a chair facing a window in a lobby or a community garden nearby. For most employees, the only time they have to sit in a safe space is during their lunch break. If this is the case, try to use every moment of your lunch break enjoying this time and letting go.

You may be wondering, but, what if a safe space isn’t enough to destress? If this is the case, it might be helpful to start implementing stress relieving strategies throughout your day. Healthcare workers are in a tough position as they have responsibilities they cannot turn away from. With this being the case, it is helpful to strategically incorporate stress relieving strategies into your work routine that can help you get through the day.

5. Look For Another Job or Transfer

There is going to come a time where you decide to stick with the job or let it go. It might take a long time to come to this decision and your choice may make you feel uncomfortable. If you decide to take another job, you might feel guilty, uncomfortable, or disappointed about it.

But, if you think about all the hours you spend at work, and how uncomfortable or miserable you felt during that entire time, changing jobs is the best thing you can do for yourself. If you do decide to look for another job, make sure you’re prepared for the interview. You can check out these helpful articles here and here.

No one should have to experience a hostile work environment. However, it happens all the time. If you have experienced workplace hostility, share your story below and how you handled it in the comments.

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About the author

Kristie Cabrera

Kristie is an occupational therapist, mental health advocate, and amateur urban farmer. Her experience with taking care of others in the healthcare setting and taking care of the land are both important pieces that make up who she is. As a life-long learner and creative, she hopes to create content that is centered around wellness and healing.

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