Man in Hazmat Suit
by Erlene Grise-Owens, Ed.D., LCSW, LMFT, MSW, MRE, co-editor of The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals
Frequently, people ask about navigating toxicity. Toxic environments require hazmat suits! From my experience and observing others, I’ve learned to construct hazmat suits using ER-ADLS.
Education: Knowledge provides a shield against toxicity. Learn about the dynamics of toxic environments, including bullying, mobbing, secondary trauma, harassment, and so forth. Understanding these dynamics lets you know you are not alone and shows ways to cope. Also, learn about self-care and organizational wellness! Hazmat suits require a knowledge shield!
Radical self-care: This is the breathing apparatus of your hazmat suit. Make self-care the first thing! Create a self-care plan. Prioritize self-care commitments. Use any resources and benefits—such as counseling services, time off, and professional development. RADICALLY implement the comprehensive A-Z Self-Care Handbook!
Assessment: Do an environmental scan and power analysis. Like first responders in toxic situations, assess the environment. Identify primary stressors and avenues for addressing and buffering these stressors. Also, do a power analysis. What’s the history of this dysfunction? How has leadership handled this toxicity? Do others want to change the culture?
In one job, a cadre of social workers advocated for ourselves. The environment remained toxic, but we leveraged our combined power to offset the effects. Advocate for change; seek to address the toxicity. Yet, be realistic about your power base and the toxicity level. Your hazmat suit must be designed with materials that can withstand immense toxicity, but be aware of the limitations of that suit.
Diversify: Toxicity can sap spirits and diminish motivation. Seek ways to re-energize! Ignite passion through pursuing an advanced degree or certification. Also, consider ways to re-imagine your job role. Re-design and diversification can provide new materials that reinforce your hazmat suit.
Limits: Hazmat suits are not meant to be worn 24-7! So, limit your exposure. With intention, you can minimize exposure to the most toxic elements. Even minor limit-setting helps. Placing limits isn’t easy, but your health requires it.
At a job, some people were just unethical bullies! At first, I thought I had to “get along” and “be liked.” It was freeing to admit that a relationship with them was impossible. I remained professional, but I limited contact. As Wade Drury wrote in the “R”--Relationships entry of the A-to-Z Handbook, every “garden” of relationships has weeds, gnomes, and roses. Limit exposure: “weed out!”
Be stringent about boundaries and expectations. Role confusion is a common stressor in toxic environments. Clarify your job role. And focus on it—not “extras,” unless by choice. New mantra: You are not that important, and not everyone is going to like you!
Support: Nurture a support system, internally and/or externally. Network: Be intentional about having lunch with colleagues in other organizations, attending professional conferences, and so forth. Have an accountability partner for your RADICAL self-care. These supports are the thread that keeps your hazmat suit strong!
Finally, as with all toxic environments, have a “Plan B” - more on that topic in a future blog. And, contact me if you want to contribute a post in our ongoing conversation!
Peace, Love, & Self-Care, Erlene Grise-Owens firstname.lastname@example.org
Erlene Grise-Owens, Ed.D., LCSW, LMFT, MSW, MRE, is currently a full-time professor in social work. She is lead editor of The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals. More than a decade ago, she and a small (but mighty!) group of colleagues began an initiative to promote self-care as part of the social work education curriculum. She develops and facilitates continuing education trainings on self-care and wellness, consults with community agencies about organizational wellness, and contributes to professional scholarship on these topics. Previously, she served in clinical and administrative roles. She has experience with navigating organizational toxicity and dysfunction, up-close and personal! Likewise, she sees students enter the field and quickly burn out. As a dedicated social worker, she believes the well-being of practitioners is a matter of social justice and human rights. Thus, she is on a just mission to promote self-care and wellness.