How to deal with ambient gaslighting at work

2023 is the year of the return to the office mandate. Workers, especially those in the knowledge economy, got used to remote working during the pandemic. Back then, the general consensus was that working from home was here to stay. Nothing would ever change again, surely?

Fast forward to this year and the picture looks pretty different. Seven out of 10 companies globally (72%) have instigated a return to the office, according to new figures Unispace Global’s Workplace Insights report, Returning for Good.

Some of the world’s biggest tech and entertainment companies are urging staff to come back full-time. Others, such as supermarket head offices and banks, have adopted more hybrid approaches.

One model adopted by a popular supermarket is to allow flexible working, but also encourage office-based collaboration for at least 40% of the week. Additionally, the company says during the month of August and half of December, staff can choose to work from home.

Overall, according to another recent survey, over a third (37%) of the workforce is now being mandated to work in the office every day. And with that return comes the sort of office-based problems many employees had happily forgotten about.

In-office no-nos

Commutes and over-priced lunch options aside, from trying to avoid the office gossip to chipping in for endless birthday cards and cakes––along with the unpleasant realisation that the colleague who cooks fish in the microwave is very much still at it––there are a number of things that workers really don’t like about being in the office every day.

One of them is dealing with difficult colleagues. From the person who consistently takes credit for your work to the boss who loves to micromanage, a third of employees also say chatty or difficult coworkers are deal breakers.

Then there’s the colleague who takes it a bit further. You object to an unreasonable deadline, plan or strategy, and you’re told that you need to calm down. Or that you are being too sensitive, or taking things personally. You check up on something, only to be told, ‘I never said that, you’re remembering it wrong.’

You may be accused of reading too much into what was said, or that you seem to be overly-emotional. You felt your objections or queries were warranted, but now you are second-guessing yourself: welcome to the world of gaslighting.

The term rose to popularity via dating culture and is named after the 1944 film Gaslight, in which the lead character’s husband uses psychological tricks to force her into questioning her sanity.

At work, the practice is also common. More than half of users who responded to a poll from a UK-based HR software firm said that they had experienced gaslighting at work.

The effects of this behaviour can’t be underestimated. Being the victim of gaslighting can destroy a worker’s self-esteem and shatter their self-confidence, forcing them to question their judgement.

In turn, this can lead to poor work outcomes including indecisiveness and inadequacy, and unsurprisingly, it can also decrease your commitment to your job, according to a 2023 study.

Ambient gaslighting

One of the most pernicious forms of workplace gaslighting though, is an insidious variety called ambient gaslighting. Here, much as the name suggests, you’ll experience a general air of something being off in your work environment.

It is more subtle again, but some signs include co-workers who delight in passive-aggressive communication where they undermine you, to management dismissing or denying problems or concerns, to a supervisor who constantly questions your decisions, to having your accomplishments ignored.

The net result is a workplace where you feel wrong-footed, unsure and uncomfortable.

If you feel like something is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on what it is, you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, find it hard to make decisions and you’re always apologising, then the signs that you are being ambient gaslit are all there.

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Identify the behaviour

But what should you do about this behaviour? Emotional manipulation is, by its very nature, hard to get to grips with and harder to prove. But there are some things you can do. The first is to identify that it is definitely happening by keeping track of the instances. You may find that this happens most when you question your gaslighter’s intentions, for example.

Collecting proof is the next step. Document it, and keep comprehensive records in case you do want to escalate your complaint into HR. Looking for support both inside and outside of work can be really helpful too.

You can sense-check with people who are not directly involved, which can help with feelings of inadequacy or second-guessing yourself. Having someone to talk to is important for your mental health and can act as a valve to release pressure.

While it can be very hard to set boundaries with a gaslighter––by their nature they tend to be people who like to make people uncomfortable––trying to give yourself some distance can help.

If none of these things help, then the next solution is to look for a new job. After all, life is too short to stay at a company where every day feels like a form of psychological warfare. And with thousands of jobs available at great organisations all across the UK, the time is now.

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