'Toxic Resilience' Is The Damaging Workplace Trend To Watch Out For - Here's What To Know

One of the few positive aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the light that the situation has shed on the unsustainability and inefficiency of grind culture. Finally, issues like toxic positivity, leavism, and unhealthy work-life balance were brought to the forefront of the collective consciousness. The simple option to work an office job from home felt like a joyous luxury to many employees who had never before been afforded this type of accommodation.


This awakening was much needed, but the movement to acknowledge the value of workers must continue long past the end of the pandemic. The latest workplace phenomenon to be named and called into question is known as toxic resilience. This is what occurs when an employee is expected to put all human vulnerability aside and continuously produce regardless of the challenges presented. If you've ever sat in silent fear, afraid to voice your struggles in case you'll be labeled as unfit for your position, you've likely faced toxic resilience in the workplace. 

The mental toll of toxic resilience

Working a full-time job is taxing enough, especially if you have duties outside of your job, such as childcare. When you add unrealistic expectations from your employer, it can become mentally unbearable. However, most people don't have the option to simply quit their job when its stressors become too much for them to bear — at least until they can obtain employment elsewhere. Life's expenses, unfortunately, won't pause while you find a more suitable workplace. This can leave you in a position where you are vulnerable to the deterioration of your mental health.


The kind of chronic stress created by a workplace that engages in toxic resilience, according to the Red Cross, can lead to mental health issues including anxiety and depression. Employees who are struggling with their mental health both on and off the job are far from alone. Depression alone accounts for an estimated 200 million lost work days each year, as reported by Forbes, and half of the employees who suffer from it go untreated. 

The physical toll of toxic resilience

While it is common within the system of Western medicine to view mental and physical health as two separate entities, this is not the most realistic or holistic approach. In reality, the states of a person's mental and physical health are inseparable, per a 2017 paper in Social Science & Medicine. When your mental health is stable, your overall physical health tends to follow suit. The reverse is also true when your mental health declines.


Depression, for instance, has been linked to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer (per WebMD). On a daily level, mental health struggles like anxiety can present via a multitude of physical symptoms such as gastrointestinal upset, hyperventilation, rapid heart rate, and difficulty concentrating, per Mayo Clinic. Experiencing these symptoms in the workplace — and being expected to stifle them in accordance with toxic resilience — can create a potentially never-ending cycle of stress, poor mental health, poor physical health, and the suppression of symptoms, which creates even more stress. 

Start by evaluating your own beliefs

Part of what makes toxic resilience so difficult to spot is the way it plays off of social programming surrounding work ethic. In the United States, the belief that a person's value can be judged based on their ability to work hard and prioritize production over personal growth is deeply engraved in the cultural fabric. These beliefs are essential to upholding a capitalist society. When you have been raised in an environment that values your potential for production over your personal attributes, it's nearly impossible to not internalize those sentiments to some degree.


In order to realistically assess the level of toxic resilience you're dealing with at work, you'll need to take a look at how much you've been buying into the same ideals. What kind of expectations do you have for yourself? When you experience personal or work-related challenges, do you feel like you deserve compassionate treatment? You may find that your own lack of empathy for yourself is compounding your employer's absence of compassion. Examining your own beliefs around work ethic might make it easier to talk to your employer or supervisor about theirs. 

Learn the magic of assertive communication

Once you've confronted your own beliefs around work, value, and compassion, you may feel ready to start moving toward creating boundaries around your own personal well-being. This can feel like a rather difficult challenge, however, especially if you struggle with effective communication. Before you attempt to speak with your managing supervisor, spend some time brushing up on assertive communication techniques. Assertive communication expresses your needs clearly and calmly without apology and without accusation. It's the ability to stand up for yourself without trampling on others.


Coaching firm exec Lauren Zander noted to Harvard Business Review, "The right amount of assertiveness, respect for others, and intelligence is what makes a great leader. Being shy is not a permanent condition. Assertiveness can be learned."

Arguably the most effective assertive communication tool is the "I" statement. Framing your needs in this way turns a statement that could be perceived as an accusation — and elicit a defensive response as a result — into one that simply expresses a need or a feeling. "You have no sympathy for your employees," for instance, will surely be received poorly. "I feel unsupported when challenges arise," on the other hand, is much more likely to start a productive conversation that reduces the likelihood of defensive arguments. 


Set specific boundaries

The idea of protecting your time and well-being from toxic resilience sounds wonderful, but the concept can easily remain nothing but a vague idea without specifics behind it. You can't ask your employer for what you need if you aren't sure of what that is. Try to imagine the last time you faced a significant challenge at work and felt pressured to continue producing at a normal pace. What would have helped you the most?


Maybe you would benefit from the flexibility to choose to perform the more difficult tasks associated with your job description on low-stress days and the simpler tasks on higher-stress days. Perhaps you would experience significantly less distress if you were permitted to work from home on particularly difficult days. "It's important to have an honest conversation with your supervisor and your coworkers about expectations," says psychologist Kai-Rai Prewitt to Cleveland Clinic. "For example, make it known that you typically won't respond to any emails or text messages after 6 p.m. unless discussed ahead of time."

Figure out exactly what you need — in no uncertain terms — before you approach your employer. This doesn't necessarily mean that you will be granted everything you ask for; it simply provides a jumping-off point to start negotiations. More importantly, it identifies you as someone who is not willing to settle for toxic resilience in the workplace. 


Prioritize self-care

Once you start digging into the effects toxic resilience and societal programming around work ethic are having on you, the level of self-neglect you've been living with will become apparent. While it might be tempting to dwell on this loss, it is better to put your energy into immediately incorporating self-care into your regular routine. Even if you're able to set boundaries around your time and energy at work, some stress will likely remain. It is essential to find ways to release it and reset your nervous system. Self-care doesn't have to be bubble baths or yoga (although starting an at-home yoga journey certainly couldn't hurt). It might mean making time to catch up with friends or work on hobbies on the weekends. 


Self-care doesn't just happen at home, though. It may look like micro-meditations to center yourself during the work day. You can celebrate small wins on the job or even update your workspace, as your surroundings can have an impact on your productivity. You may have to do some experimenting to find what works best for you, and that is totally okay — as long as you make self-care a priority in some form. 

Be prepared to reassess

Identifying the toxic resilience that you've been encountering in your workplace, setting boundaries, and prioritizing self-care can make a drastic difference in your quality of life. Don't be surprised, however, if the same old feelings begin to creep back in after a number of weeks, months, or years. This doesn't necessarily mean that you or your employer have failed; it simply means that the circumstances have changed over time.


Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is a future of work expert who recommends people reexamine their lives every seven years. She told MarketWatch, "We'll need to get more skilled at letting go of what was — our old identity, relationship, competencies — to embrace what's next — as yet unknown, undefined, and ambiguous."

Every time you feel old patterns of stress sneak back in, be ready to assess the situation the same way you did before. You will likely find that your needs have changed over time. Using assertive communication, you can express those updated needs clearly and calmly and get back to a situation that works for both you and your employer. Eventually, it will become second nature to stand up for your needs and set healthy boundaries to protect your well-being in the workplace.