The Antidote to Toxic Coworkers: Set Healthy Boundaries

June 27, 2019

Office workers
Christine Yu

In today's fast-paced work environment where companies increasing rely on employees to work together as a team, your relationship with your fellow coworkers matters. For many of us, we spend more time with our coworkers than our friends and family. Our work friends can become a second family and trusted confidantes.

While everyone experiences some conflict with their boss or coworker, toxic coworkers can impact the success of your team or department as well as your mental health and how your feel about your work environment.

If you have uncooperative workmates or coworkers who complain about everything, there are ways to set boundaries and create a healthy working environment.

What Makes a Coworker Toxic?

While we all have coworkers we may not get along with, toxic coworkers can create a negative work environment that makes you miserable. Backstabbing, blaming, gossiping, complaining and sabotaging other's efforts — these are all common traits of toxic coworkers, according to Harvard Business Review. They may also drop the ball on their portion of a project or purposely keep information to themselves and for their own advantage.

While these bad behaviors can seem like no big deal, over the long-term, these unhealthy ways of interacting can breed resentment and distrust. You may be less willing to share ideas, opinions or cooperate when you are worried someone may undermine you. Not to mention spreading rumors and criticizing others creates negative feelings and excess drama, breeding a culture of disrespect.

Plus, these ways of interacting with others can breed and multiply through social networks like the workplace. For example, if there are coworkers in your office who complain about everything, others may feel like it is acceptable behavior, too. A 2016 study found that negative behaviors like rudeness can spread like a cold. Even moods like loneliness can cluster within social groups, according to research.

6 Ways to Set Boundaries With Toxic Coworkers

It can be difficult to separate yourself from a toxic coworker, especially if you work in a small company or in an open office space. While there isn't one magic solution to cure unhealthy work relationships, there are some ways to navigate your interactions with coworkers who complain about everything.

1. Turn attention elsewhere: Just like a spotlight illuminates an actor on the stage, the more attention you give to a drama-seeking coworker, the more they may seek the limelight and the more you may feel the negative impact of their behavior. Instead, turn your attention elsewhere and don't dwell on their actions by complaining to colleague. If possible, try to limit your interactions and how much you share.

2. Recognize what's in your control: While you can't control a coworker's negative spiral, you can control how you react to the situation. In an article for The Muse, Lea McLeod suggests several tactics for dealing with difficult coworkers such as not getting dragged into the drama or hone in on the real issue at hand and then walk away.

3. Set healthy boundaries: If you always listen to your coworkers gossip or complaining, they may not know that it's something that bothers you. Instead, set clear expectations and boundaries. Tell your coworkers that you aren't interested in the latest office speculation or ask for the facts. Alternatively, keep your interactions brief.

4. Talk to your coworker: Sometimes, coworkers who complain all the time or spew negative energy don't realize that they're doing it. Find time to speak with your colleague directly — but not in the heat of the moment! — and calmly and objectively discuss how their behavior is affecting you and others at work.

5. Talk to your boss or HR: If your coworkers' behavior persists, talk to your boss about the recent challenges and conflicts, and how the team as a whole can improve its working relationship. This can help to set clear expectations and boundaries. If your coworker has crossed a boundary, ask someone in HR to step in. While it can be intimidating, having a third party can be a way to defuse a situation and get an outside opinion.

6. Take care of yourself: Working with a toxic coworker can drain your energy so it's important to take care of your own physical and mental health. Find and practice healthy coping skills. Go for a walk outside, meditate or journal to give yourself a mental break.

So if you have difficult colleagues at work, take a deep breath. Remember that it's important to create healthy boundaries and protect your own emotional and mental health.

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