I once had a job where the boss was a toxic leader. You know the kind: arrogant, small-minded, belittling, etc. (In short, what Bob Sutton refers to as the "asshole boss.")
But no matter how miserable she made my life, no matter how unhappy she made the lives of everyone in the office, I kept a smile on my face.
"Good morning!" I would chirp at the beginning of every day to my co-workers. "How are you? Great day, isn't it?"
I would listen to others whine about how the boss was piling work on them, about how the boss yelled and humiliated them in front of others, about how the boss called them at home over the weekend and made them come into work for some bogus reason.
I would nod sympathetically, offer some encouraging words and then try to get my work done. But of course, the boss would get on my case about something, and I would try to just stay calm and not let her rattle me. I always thought, "Well, if she's yelling at me, then she's not yelling at so-and-so. I can take it."
By the end of the day, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I had spent eight hours or more reassuring co-workers, making them smile or laugh, trying to instill a sense of calm in a workplace that resembled an asylum. I did all this, of course, because I felt like I was the stronger one, that I was grace under pressure. I was made of sterner stuff than others, I thought. The truth was, I felt like a nice breeze would knock me over.
Reality was catching up with me, and the reality was this: I had become a toxic sponge.
I was taking on not only the unhappiness of my own situation, but that of others. I absorbed the mental and emotional blows of a workplace gone bad, trying to shore up each co-worker's battered self-esteem as well as my own.
I'm sure you can guess the outcome. I developed bad headaches and could hardly get out of bed in the morning. The things that used to give me pleasure no longer had much meaning. On Friday nights, I would often fall asleep soon after I got home from work and not wake until late the next morning. By Saturday afternoon, I began to get a sick feeling as I contemplated that Monday was only a day-and-a-half away. Forget the Sunday night blues. I was depressed by noon on Saturday.
Of course, I finally got out of the job and learned a valuable lesson. I could not take on the woes of everyone in a workplace. The reasons behind me becoming a toxic sponge were noble in the beginning, but to continue down that path was dumb. And yet, how could I not be there for the people who obviously needed me?
I see many people in this exact situation today. As companies cut jobs for the sixth straight month, it's rough out there. Despair, anger and even hopelessness have hit many workers, and so the toxic sponges are stepping up their efforts.
These sponges can be rank-and-file workers -- as I was -- or they may be in management. But few will acknowledge they have fallen into this role. They like to think of themselves as optimistic, or upbeat or supportive, or some other term besides toxic sponge. But the reality is that they are absorbing much of the stress in the workplace for others and they cannot keep it up.
So, as a recovered toxic sponge, I'd like to offer a bit of advice:
* Talk about it. Get a mentor, either professional or personal, and let them know what's going on. What you need is an acknowledgement that your efforts are appreciated, but that you're going to harm yourself if you don't get some distance. A mentor can help you see different ways to offer support without taking on the world's woes.
* Learn to say "no." Don't step in every time someone needs help. Saying your plate is full or that you're overloaded and simply can't help at this time is not a federal crime.
* Take a break. It's critical that you physically remove yourself from the situation. If you can't take a vacation, take several long weekends. It will help you regain your footing and help you focus on things that make you happy or help you relax.
* Focus on your health. You will be especially vulnerable to physical ailments if you are under intense emotional strain. The thing that saved me during my toxic sponge days is that I had to walk quite a ways to the bus and subway to get to and from work, which helped release some of the stress. Make sure you focus on exercise, eating right and getting enough rest.
Could you -- or someone you know -- be a toxic sponge?