How To Foster Healthy Relationships & Avoid Toxic Ones In The Workplace

819d7f2a1eb39bb3e9aff7ac3b3cf931-huge-piAll of our relationships go through ups and downs — even workplace ones. Most of the time you can’t control with whom you work. So, what can you do to ensure the interactions you have with coworkers are healthy and positive? And how do you know if a particular relationship is toxic — and if it is, what should you do?

We spoke with Eileen T. O’Grady RN, NP, PhD, Certified Nurse Practitioner and Wellness Coach, and Founder of The School of Wellness, about tactical ways to promote good relationships at work, as well as what to do with toxic ones. For both types of relationships, you need a proactive mindset, awareness, and courage.

First, let’s dive into fostering healthy relationships. Eileen suggests that we need to:
  • Communicate about how to communicate: Every nursing unit should have regular meetings about communication. Everyone needs to be on the same page about what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. This creates norms and sets expectations, and it also helps avoid communication breakdowns that often contribute to toxic workplace cultures. Discuss questions like, “How can we do this better? How can we make this more fun and bring more joy to our unit? What do we need?”
  • Listen with intent to hear: So many people listen to react, rather than listen to hear. Listening is one of the hardest but most important things you can do as a respectful coworker. Even if you’re listening to something you disagree with, approach the conversation with an open-mind and patience.
  • Create a Candor Chart: Every breakroom should have a chart that lists all staff in the unit. Each staff member fills in details like their pet peeves, deal breakers, things they love, and things they hate (all related to work). Read it and get to know your coworkers’ likes and dislikes, as well as what they consider crossing the line. This is an effective preventive measure to help avoid negative interactions and disagreements.
  • Start a positive gossip campaign: If you talk poorly about one coworker to another, who’s to say you won’t talk about everyone behind their back? Of course, some forms of gossip are pro-social (don’t hire this person because they were caught stealing in their last position, for example.) Gossip that vilifies people who are not in the room is destructive to workplace environments. To combat this, focus on positive gossip within your unit. Create and communicate a practice that when someone leaves the room, instead of talking negatively about them, you say something positive and true about them.
  • Don’t ignore your own needs: You can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t foster healthy relationships without being healthy yourself. Don’t arrive to work without meeting your own basic bodily needs. Make sure you’ve had sufficient sleep, a nutritious meal, a chance to clear your mind, and some physical activity. To be a good coworker, you need to be healthy enough to have something to give.
  • Don’t avoid confrontation: Healthy relationships deal with conflict, even when it’s uncomfortable. If you’re not good at confrontation (or just don’t like it), practice will make you more confident over time. Don’t ignore or avoid a conversation just because it makes you nervous. Have courage and confront the person in a kind, respectful way.

When You Can’t Avoid Toxic Relationships at Work
We’ve all experienced it: A situation at work when we’re forced to be around someone who brings us down. Maybe they act like a bully through disrespect, manipulation, or selfishness. Or maybe they’re a clear-cut narcissist — someone with an inflated sense of their own importance and a lack of empathy for others. Whatever the case, you can’t always avoid them.

It’s important to do something, however. Your own well-being depends on it. For example, one study found that being in negative relationships puts people at a higher risk of developing heart problems (such as a fatal heart attack) than those in healthy relationships. There are also plenty of mental health implications when you’re in any kind of toxic relationship.

“You’ll know you’re in a toxic relationship because the body has early warning signs, like a smoke detector,” said Eileen. “You’ll feel it in your body. Most people have a specific place where they get anxious or uncomfortable, like their chest or throat. When that happens, your body is telling you: Pay attention! This isn’t good.”

In the workplace, those who are often the driving force in toxic relationships usually exhibit one or more of these red line behaviors:
  • Yelling
  • Swearing
  • Name-calling
  • Toxic gossip
  • Unwanted physical contact

“If any those things happen, your only job is to end the conversation,” says Eileen. “You shouldn’t argue, defend, or even respond. Your duty is to end the conversation immediately and make it safe for everyone, including yourself, especially if the toxicity is coming from a person is in a leadership position.”

If one of the above behaviors occurs, or an encounter causes you to fear for your safety, remove yourself from the situation immediately. Use one liners such as, “I’m ending this  conversation now,” or “This is not productive, let’s discuss it another time.” Once you remove yourself from the situation, report it through the appropriate channels.

While you can’t always avoid long-term toxic relationships at work, you can arm yourself with the right approach to them. Eileen recommends following these 3 steps for dealing with difficult coworkers:
  1. Triage the person and the situation: What kind of difficult person is this? Is it a bully, narcissist, or someone else? Analyze the situation.
  2. Ask for validation from an objective third party: It’s easy to overanalyze or overreact to certain situations or disagreements. Don’t act on it right away. By pulling in an outsider and explaining what’s going on, they can tell you whether the situation calls for further action. First, use that outside opinion to find out if it’s you or your coworker that is the problem. What’s getting triggered in you?
  3. Summon your courage and address the toxic relationship: If your confidant validates your concerns, don’t leave the negative situation hanging. Circle back the next day and ask, “What happened yesterday in that meeting?” Use “I” statements, like “When I don’t get the information I need, that hurts patients and our jobs.” Tie it to a value and to the work you’re both trying to accomplish. Address it head-on so you can come to an agreement about what is acceptable behavior and what’s not.
We all want to have positive, healthy work environments. Who you spend the majority of your time with has a significant impact on your health. It gets complicated when difficult personalities, most of whom you have no choice but to work with, disrupt this. Do whatever you can to foster the good workplace relationships while keeping toxic ones from affecting your own well-being and patient care.

For more information, explore ANA’s resources on violence, incivility, and bullying in the workplace.

How do you promote healthy, respectful relationships in your workplace? Share with us in this discussion


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Posted by Holly E Carpenter, RN, BSN on May 4, 2021 11:03 AM America/Chicago

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