• redmaplecoaching

Recovering From Co-worker Oppression

Updated: May 20, 2019

Raechel Pefanis, Professional Coach, MSW, RSW

Robyn Jackman, MSW, RSW



Nowadays, workplaces are a tough place to hide clearly abusive acts such as violence or blatant harassment. But what about the lesser-known cousins to these acts, such as vicious lies and gossip, blaming, shaming or intentionally maligning the views of others toward someone else?


Co-worker oppression shows up in professional coaching and therapy rooms over and over, where these symptoms can leach into our home lives and create even more problems. The mental health impacts of working in an unhealthy environment or with a toxic person can result in:


* Spikes in anxiety and depression, and the resulting workplace absence that many will then go to

* Trouble sleeping, eating, and getting motivated to do things

* Avoidance of specific spaces, people and projects at work to minimize feelings of threat 

* Feelings of fear and distrust in previously safe relationships

* Darkening views of how safe the world / work / other people are 

* Intrusive thoughts, both at work and home, about when we will next see that person, what they will do, what we will do, etc.  

* Strained relationships with family (partner, children, parents)


Recovery from workplace oppression takes more time than most of us would like, but there are some things that will help. Assuming that anti-bullying policies or respectful workplace policy or manager involvement are not options, consider the following.                                                                                                               

Stop Beating Yourself Up

The targeted, personal nature of co-worker oppression is designed to make you doubt and evaluate yourself. A good helping of self-doubt and self-evaluation is, of course, a virtuous thing, but only when it comes from a place of safety and concern for your growth. Co-worker oppression is not about your safety or your growth, and is, therefore, illegitimate. The oppression you faced from low quality people must be framed correctly: it said more about them than it did about you. Commit yourself to total refusal of the labels that your oppressor tried to slap on you, and look for kinder souls to help you with your actual growth.


Use Vicariousness

The healthiest and most productive response to oppression is to fight back, pushing the oppressor back into his or her own disempowered corner. Unfortunately, many of us will have no such opportunity for that to be done. Be it because of power differentials that are too great, or perhaps because of unwanted legal bills that come with obtaining justice, many of us will not get our day in court. However, a great deal of healing can come from finding someone else that is oppressed...and giving that person a hand up. Call it a righting of the universal ship, or paying it forward, or sewing and reaping, but fighting for someone else in their oppression can help us to feel like the bad guys didn’t get away with it. Know someone else that is enduring the same oppression? Did you hear gossip about someone that seemed unfair? Fight for them, and take it on.


Take Back What’s Yours

For a while, co-worker oppression will cause us to change our lives to avoid that person, be it the projects we sign up for or the route we take to the washroom. For a while, this can help us to feel safer. But when you are ready, take back your life. Did you like hitting the workplace gym over lunch? Then get back in there, regardless of whether your oppressor will do the same. Were you enjoying that project you were working on? Get back on it. Avoidance for a while is okay. Avoidance over the long-term increases the disempowerment your oppressor was hoping for. Get yourself a great pair of heels or a confidence-inspiring jacket, look your oppressor straight in the eyes, and take back your life.


Go High - Lean Into Your Values

Trust that people who oppress others will get their just desserts. You do not need to manage the universe, convince other people how horrible they are, or other expressions of stooping. Most of all, do not become an oppressor yourself. It may take a painful amount of time for your oppressor to be revealed as the person he / she is, but it will come. Use the time wisely by taking a moment to remember what your core values are and why you chose them, propelling yourself to walk above the oppression.

Remember what your core values are and why you chose them, propelling yourself to walk above the oppression.

The Rule of Thirds

If nothing else works, remember the rule of thirds, which states that good coping happens in thirds. 1/3 is what we put into our bodies through nourishment and compliance with medications. Another third is creating an environment that is healthy for us, including psychologically safe people. The last third is self-care through permission to be kinder to yourself when you need it, or permission for little routines such as a 5-minute breather or a much deserved coffee break.


How you respond to workplace oppression will partially determine your mental health. Take some time to process it, to feel your discomfort and anger, and eventually take control of it. And most of all – be kind to your self, even if someone else won’t be. 

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