When you’ve been in the dental field as long as I have, you’ve encountered a range of workplace environments either firsthand or through a colleague. Commiserating and being there for each other comes naturally to those in our profession. Through trial and error some of us have found our happy places in the employment realm, while others are still navigating the toxic waters and hoping to land in happy waters.
Those of you who find yourself in the latter group—you are not alone! One of the most important things for you to recognize when working in a toxic environment is that it is not a reflection on you or your skillset. This is a hard concept to believe because most of us have set very high standards for ourselves.
In a toxic office there is regularly a lot of beating down of others, passive aggressive behavior, destructive gossip, conniving opinions, and tons of negativity, to name a few examples. This type of daily behavior can get anyone down, even the happiest people! When you’re surrounded by this every day it can affect your self-worth. It’s important that you learn to separate the negativity you’re swimming in from the reality of who you are, and to grow positively forward.
Have a positive mindset and find humor in everyday work situations
The power of positivity goes a long way, believe it or not. How you start and approach your day can set the tone for the rest of the day, or sometimes even week. If you look at your work situation from a negative viewpoint all the time, you just might lose your sanity. As an alternative for grumbling about your job, learn to laugh more about certain situations with your other positive coworkers, friends, or dental assisting colleagues. It’s what many social media networking sites are there for—sharing information and supporting each other!
Be able to tune out periodically and not engage in workplace gossip
This sounds easy, right? Some of us have mastered the tuning out portion with selective hearing, however, gossip gets to most of us and the juicier the gossip, the more enthralled we are. Certainly, gossiping can sometimes be good to do with your team members, but if you're continually participating in this negative activity, you might want to create some boundaries before things get out of hand. Tuning out periodically can have a calming and productive effect on you. The action lowers your heart rate and increases mental focus by tuning out outside distractions. Some people are able to tune out by “going to their happy place” mentally, while others may need music or visual cues to distract from the chaos in the workplace.
Finding inspiration elsewhere and checking the workplace baggage at the door
Due to our positions, some of us are at the beck and call of our employers not only during business hours, but outside traditional business hours as well. While venting about your negative emotions from the workday to your spouse or roommate can sometimes help you feel better, it actually could be doing more harm in the long run. We subconsciously think about the negativity the more time we focus on it outside of the place of toxicity. Check your baggage at the office door and clear your head on your way home by listening to some uplifting music. We each wear many hats in our professional and personal lives and need to find a good work-life balance. Some of us are so consumed by our profession that we can’t find happiness outside of dentistry. Finding inspiration elsewhere leads to a well-rounded and emotionally stable person. Do something you find joy in. For me it’s writing or reading when I want to be alone and cooking when I want company. Get outside and soak up some vitamin D for a few minutes each day. It will lift your spirits and calm your soul.
Focus on improving yourself while learning not to take things personally
The more experience we have in our careers, the easier it is to learn to not take everything so personally. Everyone is going to have an off day from time to time. If a team member’s aggression is continually directed toward you, perhaps it’s time to clear the air and find out what the issue is. Very early in my career, I was blamed for everything because I was the newbie on the team. Learning to assert myself and not take everything personally when the provider is in “one of those moods” comes easier with age and familiarity. Focus on improving something about yourself, whether it be punctuality, exposing better radiographs, or creating top-notch temporaries. Outside of the professional environment, learn something new on occasion. This will keep you motivated to get through the difficult times by looking forward to those dance moves or language skills you’re learning in your free time.
One of the most important coping tools is to realize that you cannot control what other people say and do, you can only control your own reactions to them. The sooner you accept that the better it is for your mental well-being. This realization allows you to let go of owning other people’s negative behavior and empowers you to focus on improving yourself, regardless of the surrounding environment. The more you can focus on improving yourself in a negative environment the better, because when you finally get the opportunity to escape the situation you are in, you will get to take all the personal growth you have made along with you and you will excel. No doubt that growth will help you to be even more successful as you move forward in your career.
Try to focus on directing your bad situations into positive learning experiences. Most often our strongest personal growth comes from living through the most difficult situations; this is what life is all about. When you are working in a toxic environment, pay close attention to the lessons you can take away from the experience. Perhaps you can learn what qualities in a team member you never want to imitate. In every unpleasant situation there is something you can learn that will help you become a better professional.
Regain your identity if you misplace it due to circumstances
It can be easy to lose your identity if you've been in a toxic work environment for too long. Your self-esteem could be suffering, and you might be feeling depressed. But that doesn't mean you can't bounce back. As difficult as a toxic work environment may be, never allow yourself to become less than who you are meant to be due to anger or spite toward your employer or team member. Always conduct yourself with integrity and the high level of professionalism you normally maintain. Always put in your very best effort for the position you were hired for. Be an inspiration for other team members who may be feeling the exact same way you are.
Dentistry is a tight-knit community so know and understand that your reputation will continue far beyond the organization you’re with today. There’s nothing worth trading your personal or professional integrity over, and if you’ve ever had yours challenged or questioned like mine was, you know what I mean by this. Put your best foot forward every day and do your best at all times. Your incredible character and work ethic will carry you further than you think throughout your career.
Don't be afraid to acknowledge that you may have to jump ship on your current position when it's gotten too toxic for you. Your health, happiness, and sanity are more important. Look for a new position that will inspire and challenge you professionally.
No one should ever have to deal with the fear of failure by working in a toxic office, but thankfully there are ways around it if you apply some of these tips. Don’t stress because life is too short to be unhappy all of the time. Best of luck to you and thank you for all you do!
Natalie Kaweckyj, BA, CDA, LDARF, CDPMA, COA, COMSA, CPFDA, CRFDA, MADAA, is past president of the American Dental Assistants Association.