Are You in a Toxic Work Environment?


Recreation Therapists choose their profession because they want to help others. It’s a labor of love and selflessness that helps transform lives. Unfortunately, the often unpredictable and chaotic world of healthcare and social service can create a toxic work environment. Dealing with a variety of personalities and egos–from managers, coworkers, and participants–can disrupt the delicate balance of a therapeutic environment.

So how does one survive, manage, and even thrive in a toxic work environment?  It’s not always easy. In fact, it may require a complete overhaul of how you view and interact with coworkers and participants. Sometimes you need to swallow your pride and meet others where they are at. Other times you may have to make changes helping you prevent burnout.

As a Recreation Therapist for almost two decades, I’ve experienced times when everything and everyone seemed to work together perfectly. And, as you could expect, there were times when I endured a toxic work environment. Sometimes it was temporary, and, in all honesty, other times it led me to make some hard decisions about my career choices. I will discuss this later.

Are you struggling in your current work environment? Does going to work seem more like a burden than an exciting opportunity to help others using recreation? You’re not alone. And, yes, there are some things you can do each day to lessen the effects of a toxic work environment.

What Creates A Toxic Work Environment?

There isn’t an easy answer for this question. Recreation Therapists work in several settings posing unique challenges. Let’s face it, working with other people can be difficult. While you have the best intentions each day, the interactions with others can slowly erode your motivations and leave you wondering why you chose this profession in the first place.

The first thing you need to know is you are not alone. Everyday, health care workers deal with unpredictable, stressful situations that often turn their “to-do” list into a recovery mission. How you handle these situations impacts your ability to thrive in the profession.

arguing coworkers in a toxic work environment

Reasons for a Toxic Work Environment

Here are just some of the ways Recreation Therapists and other health care workers just like you struggle each day.

  • Personality clashes. From participants to difficult coworkers, personalities and egos often play a role in toxic work environments.
  • Feeling underappreciated. Ever feel people minimize you or disregard your position? Some Recreation Therapists or Activity Professionals often feel misunderstood in their pursuits of transforming lives with recreation.
  • Difficult or inappropriate participants. We’ve all been there. The participant we can’t ever seem to help or please. While it’s easy to take this personally, know that you can’t always be everything to everyone.
  • Low moral. A toxic work environment brings everyone down. Too often, this creates a vicious cycle feeding on negativity.
  • Poor Communication. Ever feel like you were the last one to know about something happening in your facility? Or conversely, did you expect others to simply know something you didn’t communicate? An effective team needs great communication.
  • Long hours and lack of work/life balance. Recreation therapists often work nontraditional hours affecting their family and personal life. This can add stress to already difficult environments.
  • Ineffective leadership. While it may be easy to blame those “above our pay grade” for the problems in a facility, they often become the scapegoats for a toxic work environment. Sure, they may play a role, but the blame certainly can go around the facility.
  • Lack of support. Do you have an issue or question but don’t know where to turn? Since many Recreation Therapists work alone or with a small team, sometimes it is difficult to find necessary support.
  • Dealing with budget cuts. Sadly, health care is a business. As with any business, budgets fluctuate. Sometimes Recreation Therapy or Activity budgets get cut with little or no notice. This leaves you scurrying for ideas to make the few dollars you have stretch to enrich your participants’ lives.
  • High turnover. Have some of your favorite coworkers moved on to other jobs? The relationships you created with them suddenly disappeared? “Easy come, easy go” is not always what it seems. The high turnover in health care can create chaos in your facility.
  • Coping with the serious health/behavioral issues of clients. Let’s face it, some of our participants have major physical, mental, and emotional issues. When their situations take a turn for the worse, those that work with them feel the added stress.

Sound a little overwhelming? Yes, it can be. And health care professionals deal with these issues and more everyday. Should this dissuade you from pursuing your dream of helping others? Of course not. But you need to be aware of these issues and develop the ability to positively deal with them. It’s not always easy. Of course, it’s not impossible.

image of gossiping coworkersWhat Can We Do to Thrive as Recreation Therapists?

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an easy solution to these problems? Sadly, this is not the case. It takes adapting, creativity, and sometimes even swallowing your pride to turn difficult situations into livable, even enjoyable, work experiences. One of the first ways to turn things around is identifying the problems causing a toxic work environment. While it may be easy to point fingers and blame everyone else for the way things are, think of the role you play.

Your Day in a Toxic Work Environment

You may have that client that intuitively knows how to get under your skin. Or that coworker that has some type of criticism for every move you make. Unfortunately, some RTs deal with managers that seem to have no idea how to effectively run a team. How do you deal with them? Do you gossip behind their backs? Act passive aggressive or rude? You may not even realize how you truly deal with these situations because you are so busy “surviving” in the moment.

While you may think Recreation Therapy plays a crucial role in a client’s development, others may think of you as the “fun” person. They may find you valuable during holiday parties or when a client needs to get out of their way. Or maybe when the company needs a press release about how great it treats the clients. How do you react when you feel undervalued?

Even our most meticulously planned activities and outings often result in complaints. What we worked so hard to do may be followed by more criticism than praise. Ever been in the middle of a long outing when a client asked what the next outing is? I sure have. Many times. Have you ever pulled off a great event that appeared to be a positive experience for your participants? As you relish in the joy of success, has a coworker made negative comments about it? How did it make you feel?

Positive Change Begins with You

I’m not trying to put all the blame on you by any means. You are certainly not the cause for everything contributing to your facility’s difficulties. It’s just sometimes, without knowing, we are fueling the fire of a toxic work environment. I know, over the years, I’ve had weak moments where it was easier to follow the negative status quo instead of being an instrument of positive change.  

Self-assessment is key to thriving in a toxic work environment. While it may not change all the facility’s internal issues, it can change your attitude. As a result, it’s easier to let things go, troubleshoot changes, and be a beacon of light in a difficult environment.

So How Do You Cope…Even Thrive?

Working with different personalities and those with significant struggles requires a thick skin. Easier said than done, right? After all, most Recreation Therapists are caring individuals who love a collaborative spirit. We thrive when everyone gets along. More importantly, when our clients have a great time while building their skills.

There are some things you can do to help you thrive in a toxic work environment. My next segment will discuss things I found helpful in my almost two decades of being a Recreation Therapist.

In the meantime, think about your work environment and what you contribute to it. It’s not easy to think you may be part of the problem. But, in all honesty, are you fueling the fire or working for positive change?

As professionals, let’s grow and thrive this year. If something is holding you back, I hope this series will help you develop a mindset where you can truly enjoy the important work you do and not feed into the negativity of a toxic work environment.

real recreation therapist logoShare with Other Recreation Therapists

Your thoughts, opinions, and insights help others develop in their careers. Why not leave a comment to help those struggling? The Real Recreation Therapist Community is dedicated to helping those who use activities as a means to transform lives grow as professionals. Feel free to be part of the solution.

What issues do you face at your facility?

How do you work each day to diffuse a toxic work environment?

What tips help you keep sane during the most difficult days?

Comment below or on social media so we all can learn and grow together!

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[…] my last blog post, we discussed factors of a toxic work environment and how we may be contributing to it. So how can […]