A workplace survival guide


A workplace survival guide

The inhabitants of your office can lift you up… or bring you down. Learn how to deal with them.

Health Agenda magazine
July 2016

Family, friends, partners – when you think about who you spend the bulk of your time with, chances are you’re omitting a pretty significant group: your co-workers.

You might not choose to spend time with Susan from accounts, but while you both work for the same employer more of your life will be occupied with her than your own mother. And if Susan is a toxic colleague, that’s bad news for your health.

A Swedish study published in the PLOS ONE journal found that long-term occupational stress is associated with a reduction in brain volume similar to that seen in post-traumatic stress disorder. So when your toxic colleague rolls his eyes when you speak during meetings, it harms more than just your sunny mood.

We talked to two Australian business experts about the kinds of colleagues who can ruin your work day and affect you long after you’ve headed for home.

“Our fight or flight hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are activated whenever we sense danger in the workplace,” explains behavioural specialist and consultant Julie Alexander. “High levels of these hormones over time have been linked to all sorts of problems, from common colds to chronic illnesses.”

Learn how to identify any toxic teammates – and put them on a detox action plan.

The big noter

These narcissists suck the confidence, ideas and happiness out of people, says change management consultant Kylie Watson. “They have an excessive need for attention from others and usually a big ego, plus a belief, due to having little or no emotional intelligence, that nothing is their fault.”

Coping mechanism: Avoiding this person is difficult if they are someone you report to. “It’s good to record conversations you have with them and keep a diary in case you are ever in their line of fire,” Watson advises. Try to be busy enough to avoid becoming the big noter’s captive audience or blame game victim.

The buck passer

This chronic work-avoider takes delegating to a new level. “They moan that they have all this work on their plate and then offload it all,” says Alexander. “Known for their ability to warm a seat without actually getting much work done themselves, they often use their personal situation outside of work to manipulate others into doing their tasks, or leave their colleagues in the lurch when a deadline looms.”

Coping mechanism: Just say no. “Set clear boundaries. If you say yes, you only have yourself to blame,” she says. “If they try to delegate say, ‘I’d love to help but can’t with my workload; if I come across someone who has time I’ll send them your way’. Don’t feel guilty – you’re actually helping them learn new behaviours.” Meanwhile, avoid partnering with them, pad out deadlines, organise tasks into a daily to-do list – and hold them accountable.

The schmooze artist

“They spend their time socialising with people of significance and doing very little work,” says Watson. “They somehow manage to look professional and take most of the credit. They are good at keeping their flirting professional and will quickly move on if you aren’t valuable to their fast track to the top.”

Coping mechanism: To avoid having the schmooze artist steal your thunder, don’t play their game. “Be polite, but focus on your own skills and behaviours and you will be rewarded through your own merits. Seek a mentor at the same level but in another business area so someone else in the hierarchy knows how good you are.”

The backstabber

They’re usually the nicest at the start. “They manipulate you to take them into your confidence and then they use the information you have given them against you,” says Alexander. “They will exploit any opportunity to make you look bad in an effort to look good or ingratiate themselves with the boss, from spilling the beans on your mistake to airing your personal life.”

Coping mechanism: Simply put: keep your mouth shut. “Don’t disclose anything you don’t want everyone to know about – unless you want to spread information. Then just ask them to keep the information confidential and your message will quickly spread. The only way this one will change is if their behaviour doesn’t get results so stop feeding them anything.”

The whinger

They’ve been around forever – and their whinges have lasted almost as long. “They might be respected for knowing the system but they rarely get promoted and they don’t like change,” says Watson. “They complain about everything and think that nothing will work, regardless of the approach.”

Coping mechanism: Ignore them and get on with the task at hand. It might be tempting to join in but that will usually backfire, she warns. “If you ally too closely with them you’ll be seen to empathise with them.”

Three co-workers to treasure

The mentor
They love to give feedback and support, and their knowledge can be invaluable. Learn how to accept it.

The worker bee
Enthusiastic about everything, they keep workflow on track, even when the task isn’t particularly exciting.

The left field type
Their thinking outside the box might seem a little loopy, but keep an eye out for these gems.


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