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When the Toxic Coworker Is You: 5 Ways to Reset Your Attitude

Topics: Career Advice
toxic coworker
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We see it all the time on job descriptions: must be a team player. Looking for a can-do attitude who plays well with others. Indeed, when it comes to landing a job, it seems being personable and happy is all part of the deal. It makes sense, too; nobody wants to share an office with a negative Nancy who can’t stop complaining. And although we all tend to start out happy and excited to join the team, it seems like it’s never long before the tide starts to turn a little … toxic.

Maybe you find yourself feeling grumpy on Monday mornings. Maybe you’re less-than-enthused to join the rest of the group for happy hour. However it starts to show up, it seems like office toxicity is on the rise. And unfortunately, it’s easy to overlook or ignore if you’re the perpetrator. But there’s good news: it is possible to be less toxic at work. It just starts with admitting it.

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Toxicity on the Team

As tough as it is to admit, I’ve been the toxic coworker before. I’ve been the girl who gets irritated at coworkers for missing meetings, being unprepared, or taking too long to respond to emails. I’ve been visibly unhappy, unapproachable, and hard to reach. I’ve gotten too attached to my work and too upset when it gets thrown out. And frankly, I’ve overused the D Word in my day: deserve. “I deserve this work. I deserve this promotion. I deserve this raise.” (Of course, the fastest way to show someone you aren’t ready for responsibility is to start complaining and getting huffy over how much you deserve it). Truth be told, I was toxic.

A Toxic Attitude Is Contagious

But it’s not just that being unhappy at work makes others uncomfortable. It’s that it’s contagiously toxic. Too often, one employee checking out seemingly gives others the permission to do the same. When one coworker starts complaining about workload, clients, or colleagues at happy hour, it usually doesn’t take long before the rest of us follow suit.

More importantly, toxicity doesn’t start and stop at the office door. Work toxicity follows us home, shows up in our sleep patterns, interferes with our relationships, and damages our self-worth. Toxicity at work makes other, unrelated setbacks sting even more. It even follows us from job to job. In almost every instance, toxicity leaves a mark.

And while attitude is a huge piece of the puzzle for staying positive and motivated at work, I’m hesitant to say that attitude is everything — because it usually isn’t. Further, this platitude suggests that we can “positive attitude” our ways out of unsafe work environments, burnout culture, poor workflows, and bad fits — which, quite simply, is just not true. If there’s toxicity in the office air, it’s not going to go away until it’s neutralized. And more often than that, that takes stepping up to the plate and doing some tough work to get back on track.

How to Tame Your Toxic Attitude

If I’ve learned anything from being and being around the toxic coworker, it’s that more often than not, toxicity is a symptom for a greater issue. Usually toxicity comes from feeling unwell (either mentally or emotionally), unchallenged, unprepared, or under-appreciated. It’s tough to see through a coworker’s toxicity to unpack the real issue at hand — and even harder to cut through your own — but if you can manage to have an honest conversation about what’s going on, you’ll be more likely to get to the heart of the issue sooner (and handle it).

Managing Your Mood

If you find yourself unwittingly playing the role of the toxic coworker, try one of these methods of management.

  1. Find an outlet. If you’re obsessing over work or feeling unfulfilled during the day, look for an after-hours outlet to curb your frustration. Find an activity that isn’t too competitive and lets you relax a bit — bonus points if it’s active and keeps you away from your phone or computer.
  2. Set healthy boundaries. It’s great to trust and enjoy your coworkers, but everyone needs a little breathing room now and then. If you find yourself spending a ton of time with coworkers outside the office, it might be time to draw some lines. Keep your schedule full of evening activities, spend more quality time with family, or vow to turn your phone off for a few hours in the evening so you don’t have to say no to invitations. And if coworkers ask you why you seem distant, mention that you’re working on some big evening projects, and suggest a lunch at work instead.
  3. Check in on your health. Our bodies have a funny way of telling us that we aren’t giving them enough attention, and sometimes a physical health problem can manifest as crankiness or anger at work. If you feel disengaged, bored, irritable, or tired at work, make sure you’re eating well, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and are taking mental breaks throughout the day. If after checking in all that you still feel toxic, make an appointment with your doctor to check things out.
  4. …Including your mental health. If you’re feeling angry or upset at work, check in with yourself and make sure you aren’t mistaking that for a deeper issue. Maybe you’re worried about a sick family member. Maybe you’re working through a rough patch in your relationship. Maybe money’s tight and you aren’t quite sure how you’re going to balance everything out this month. All of these problems can be dealt with in a healthy way, as long as you have the foresight to ask for help. The quicker you start to handle whatever’s really bothering you, the faster you’ll be able to focus in on projects at work.
  5. Take a break. It’s hard to stay sunny when you’re worked to the bone. While the “power through it” method might seem like the easiest way to knock out a ton of work, it’s known to do more harm than good — especially if you’re trying to cram too many tasks into a short amount of time. Make sure you’re taking breaks throughout the day and giving your brain time to rest and resent. Heck, anyone’s bound to be angry after staring at a screen for a few hours.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you tamed your toxic attitude? Tell us how you did it in the comments, or join the conversation on Twitter.

Megan Shepherd
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