Toxic Workplaces and the Cult Survivor

In my last year in the Unification Church, I worked for a non-profit called The International Interreligious Federation for World Peace (IIFWP), one of the Church’s many front groups. The core work involved putting on conferences and related events that surreptitiously forwarded the mission and ethos of the Unification Church, and my job had me traveling all across the world as support staff. The rest of the staff was also made up of membership of the Unification Church, which meant that we worked long hours in conditions that did not meet labor standard, without sufficient breaks, and with very little pay.

Sometimes, to save money, leadership would call on other members to volunteer and swell the staff ranks so that we could pull off the events that Rev. Moon demanded. Often I could at least fight for the volunteers that worked under me to receive an honorarium and have their accommodations covered. Usually it meant that we slept packed like sardines in a hotel room, the ground completely covered with sleeping bags. But we were used to it. That’s how it always was when you worked for the Church.

Then during the first day of a conference in New York City, my boss came into my makeshift office in the New Yorker Hotel. I had been tasked with heading up ground transportation, and my team was deployed at the city airports greeting guests and dignitaries. I turned away from the wall plastered with maps of the city and marked with routes to the local airports to greet my boss. He cleared his throat and wouldn’t meet my eyes as the voices of my team crackled from the walkie talkie I had holstered at my hip.

“Is everything ok?” As a woman, I knew I shouldn’t speak first. It wasn’t a hard and fast rule; still, it marked me as aggressive. But I just couldn’t help myself.

“Ah,” my boss coughed slightly, like he was stalling for time.

I pressed my lips together, fighting the urge to demand an answer. That would definitely mark me as aggressive, not at all an admirable quality for a woman in the Church.

He took a deep breath. “Dr. Yang has decided that your volunteers can’t stay in the hotel. We don’t have enough room and need all of the spaces for guest.” Dr. Yang was the continental leader for the United States; his word was practically as sacrosanct as Rev. Moon’s.

It took me a moment to process the information before I bit off a reply. “Excuse me? What do you mean we don’t have enough room?”

My boss shrugged. “Dr. Yang says that the volunteers should be grateful that they’re working for True Parents and the Providence, and that they shouldn’t expect accommodations.”

I fought the urge to growl my answer and instead articulated every work as slowly and precisely as possible. “We have always taken care of accommodations. Of course they should expect them.” I paused and looked at my boss as he changed color from pale to pink and back to pale again. Women definitely weren’t supposed to speak so forcefully.

He started to speak, to invoke Dr. Yang’s name again, but I shook my head.

“The Church owns this hotel, and there is literally an entire floor of the hotel that’s unoccupied.”

My boss rolled his eyes at my suggestion. “That’s because it’s being renovated for dorm rooms. There are no beds or anything in them.”

I turned towards my desk, grabbed a sheaf of papers that detailed the guests’ arrivals and brandished it towards my boss. “We’ll be lucky if we finish before midnight! I’d rather people sleep on the floor than have to find their way home from fucking LaGuardia in the middle of the night, and be back here at 5am!”

My boss blanched again; whether it was from my use of profanity or my defiance, I didn’t know.

“I’m not making anyone go home,” I said through my teeth, suddenly not caring if I got fired. “I won’t let anyone treat my team like this.”

My boss glared at me before turning to leave. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I waited for the door to click shut behind him before collapsing in my chair and burying my head on my desk. The discussion had exhausted me, and I still had hours to go. My day wouldn’t end until at least 2am, and I wasn’t sure how I would make it. But at least I was sitting; unlike my team members who were running from terminal to terminal to greet guests. I’d done that work for years, and wanted to do everything in my power to make their jobs easier. And if a spot to sleep on the floor was the best I could do, then I was going to fight to make it happen.

A rare moment of rest during my church job

Anyone who has worked for an abusive or cultic organization can probably relate to that story. In fact, that I ever got paid at all for my work is probably an anomaly in the cult world. Cults thrive on the unpaid labor of their members, and the conditions that those members toil under are exploitative. Of course, while one is in a group like this, that’s not how you are trained to look at it. You’re indoctrinated to believe that you’re volunteering for a cause, or doing providential work — and it’s an honor to be involved.

In his post The Goodness of a Cult Comes from Those it Abuses, investigative journalist and Conspirituality podcast cohost Matthew Remski writes:

“survivors were stripped of time, security, money, earning potential, educational opportunities, social status, family bonds, bodily autonomy and inner dignity. I hear stories of endless hours of unpaid labour, undertaken with the promise of salvation. […]These details constitute the cultic crime scene. An organization has exploited its members, and left human wreckage. Their stories can be told, corroborated, fact-checked, and published. […] The invisibility of the survivor’s work is a feature in many other cases of institutional abuse.”

Remski’s thesis is that beauty that survivors and members remember from a group often comes from the organization’s encouragement and exploitation of the skills of those it abused. And I really want to hone in on the latter part of the sentence: the fact that people who are involved in these groups are exploited, and experienced institutionalized abuse.

Cult survivors make great little worker bees (and I say this with a lot of love, respect, and a huge dose of sarcasm), at least in the minds of bosses; especially second and multi-generational survivors. But this is because we spent years working in an exploitative and abusive system that formed the basis for our work ethics. And the stakes were always high: if we didn’t run ourselves ragged, we weren’t contributing to the salvation of humanity! And if we weren’t working as hard as everyone else, we were lazy or selfish (or inviting Satan in). Often it was hard for us to even recognize those systems as problematic, because they were so normalized within the cult framework.

It becomes even more difficult as we transition into the larger “outside” culture, because we can carry old black and white thinking with us. After all, if an environment isn’t the cult, it should be healthy, right? Obviously, most of us know that the answer is “wrong.” But a cult specialist once told me that second generation survivors often over-estimate the world, and thus we don’t expect to be faced with similarly toxic dynamics as those we left behind when we broke free of our groups — again, if we are even able to recognize them as toxic.

Many cult survivors don’t expect to be faced with similarly toxic dynamics as those they left behind when they broke free of their abusive groups.

For example, years ago I was only a few months into a new job and my company wanted to send my team to a conference. But, to save money they wanted to put us up in a cheap hotel at the outskirts of the city and have me share a room with my male colleague. Despite the fact that I had moments of being outspoken in my cult days, I needed this new job to survive, and was afraid to say that rooming with a male near-stranger wasn’t something that I was comfortable with. Even when my colleague noticed my discomfort he kept saying things like, “come on, it’s not a big deal.”

Luckily my boss decided that it probably wasn’t good policy to have the lone female new-hire bunking with a male teammate, but that experience set a precedent for me. It taught me that my company did not value me, my comfort or safety, and that saving a few hundred dollars was more important. And this set the stage for the years to come. Despite being one of the hardest working employees, I struggled to set appropriate boundaries and took on roles way beyond my job description while being paid significantly less than my white male counterparts. (Most women and BIPOC workers can probably relate!)

There were also consequences for speaking up at this job. Once a VP pulled me into a back room and screamed at me for asking a question in a meeting. This same leader also screamed at me over the phone after I asked a question during a performance review. But leaders were just modeling the behavior of the owners, who often screamed at employees behind closed doors.

And unfortunately I didn’t know any better. Even though my gut told me that this was all wrong, I’d had several “outside” jobs where management behaved similarly. So I just kept my head down, working as hard as I could, hoping to simultaneously avoid being screamed at while hoping to be noticed for my good work. I’m not the only survivor who has experienced toxic workplace culture.

The Impact of Cult Membership on Career Development

While I think that many bosses probably do admire the work ethic of their survivor employees (and they usually are not made aware of the employee’s survivor status, because we often keep it hidden for fear of stigma), I think that there is little recognition of how the culture of the American workplace taps into and triggers the old wiring of survivors. So I polled my online community of mostly second generation survivors and asked if transitioning into the American workforce had triggered the toxic work ethic they had been raised with. Here’s what some of them had to say:

  • There is a constant fear of being stuck in a system which tries to control me. So I change jobs a lot. It made me extremely sensitive to narcissistic behavior of superiors.
  • I’ve had to work with my therapist to establish boundaries in the workplace.
  • Habits ingrained by the Unification Church have crippled my work abilities. These scars run deep.
  • I stayed and endured an abusive relationship with a boss for over a year. I think a lot of it stems from my learned ability to endure toxic systems/environments.
  • I was lucky to get into tech but took a low offer and struggled to learn to advocate for myself.
  • As an ER nurse I’m hyper responsive and it annoys my coworkers.
  • I still have a fear of leadership and put the company needs over my own (worked when sick, etc.). Also a feeling of disconnect from other employees.

In her dissertation The Impact of Cult Membership on Career Development and EmploymentAlissa A. Leisure Whitlatch, Ph.D. cites Dr. Margaret Singer and Dr. Janja Lalich’s book Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace, where they say that the central goals of cults are recruiting new members and raising money for the benefit of the leader. Several of the books included in Whitlatch’s research indicate that, in many cases, a cult strips its members of their identities and leaves them debilitated on many levels: financially, vocationally, spiritually, physically, sexually, and emotionally.

According to Whitlatch, little attention has been given to the benefits of vocational rehabilitation or career counseling in facilitating a former cult member’s recovery and reintegration into society. And yet, in my personal experience, it was both a fundamental and incredibly difficult aspect of both my survival and integration processes (because as a second generation adult I was not re-integrating).

Whitlatch says that in addition to the economic aspects of work, (a nice way of saying the fundamental survival aspect of it: roof over our head, food on the table), authors Edwin Herr and Stanley Cramer noted in their book Career guidance and counseling through the lifespan: Systematic approachesthat meaningful employment is associated with many positive psychological traits. These include self-esteem, personal identity, feelings of dependability and reliability and a sense of competency. However, Whitlatch says, these positive psychological traits are undermined by the cult experience.

She goes on to say that membership in a cult weakens an individual’s self-concept as this view of self is replaced by the beliefs and practices of the group. Therefore, she says that an important part of the recovery process for former cult members involves a restoration of the self-concept. Again this writing is very much first generation joiner-specific and does not address the second and multi generational experience, where one’s entireself concept is defined by the group, so there is no restoration of self-concept. Rather it is a complete disintegration of self-concept and a building from a kind of ground-zero.

There are many complications for people leaving cults, and some struggle with psychological difficulties in their integration/reintegration processes. In their book Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, authors Dr. Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobais say that some of the possible psychological difficulties include: trouble sleeping, restlessness, memory loss, depression, lack of direction, panic attacks and ongoing experiences of varying emotions such as guilt, shame, enragement, confusion, betrayal, paranoia and feelings of being lost and in a fog. In Cults in Our Midst, Dr. Margaret Singer and Dr. Janja Lalich identified several effects resulting from cult participation: depression and a sense of alienation, loneliness, low self-esteem and low self-confidence, phobic-like effects around people, fear of joining groups or making a commitment, distrust of professional services, doubt about their ability to make good decisions and problems establishing the values they will live by.

Whitlatch also references Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terrorby Judith Herman, who explains that trauma shatters the construction of the self and affects systems of attachment and meaning that link people and the community together. Herman also says that trauma destroys a person’s assumptions about the safety of the world, positive self-viewpoints, and the meaningful order of the universe. Therefore, she says, traumatized people feel alone, disconnected, and alienated and thus need support in rebuilding a positive sense of self and in restoring personal worth. In her book Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma, Herman states that Complex PTSD can occur with prolonged and repeated trauma, such as conditions where an individual is held in captivity under the control of a perpetrator and is unable to flee. She also says that Complex PTSD may occur in some religious cults, prisons and concentration camps.

Domestic abuse survivors and cult survivors have similarities in terms of the coercive control they experienced.

Unfortunately there is a the lack of research to date examining the relationship between work, career development and vocational rehabilitation services with cults members. So for her dissertation, Whitlatch examined these issues through the lens of other populations who are victims of coercive relationships and experience similar psychosocial traumas to those of cult members. One group that meets these criteria, she says, consists of victims of domestic violence including “battered women.” She posits that the insights gained from — again unfortunately limited — research that examines the importance of work and vocational rehabilitation for victims of abusive domestic relationships can be applied to cult survivor victims when appropriate.

She says that based on the emotional turmoil that battered women and cult survivors endured throughout their time in the cult and in recovery, an emotional disability or emotional impairment could develop that would qualify survivors for public vocational rehabilitation services. Both populations, she says, have to address dependence upon their abuser or cult leader, a sense of isolation, low self-esteem and a loss of independence. In addition, they both have to re-establish their identities and gain the necessary skills to reintegrate themselves back into society. And, of course, many battered women come away from their experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Unfortunately, as with everything else, there is also a lack of research on vocational issues among former cult members who have PTSD, so Whitlatch pulled in research on other populations that struggle with PTSD. For example, she cites a study called Posttraumatic stress disability after motor vehicle accidents: Impact on productivity and employment, wherein the research suggested that PTSD is a general risk factor for underemployment and reduced economic functioning.

Another study she references, Independent living skills and posttraumatic stress disorder in women who are homeless: implications for future practice investigated PTSD in women without homes and the role of occupational therapy in assisting in the development of independent living skills. The study found that symptoms of PTSD may interfere with the ability to perform activities of daily living such as avoidance and numbing symptoms, which are related to withdrawal from social networks and from participation in activities.

Whitlatch also cites several authors who state that many symptoms of PTSD could interfere with successful employment and vocational behavior including difficulty concentrating, anger outbursts, sleep disturbances, efforts to avoid things associated with the event, feeling detached, restricted affect, intrusive memories, flashbacks, distress when exposed to similar cues, foreshortened sense of the future, and heightened startle response. She says that if these symptoms are exhibited in certain vocational situations, the outcomes could be detrimental to successfully maintaining employment. Additionally, it could be particularly challenging if the work environment did not accommodate the individual to address these issues.

In her research for her dissertation, she did a search of professional counseling literature, and found that there appears to minimal information on actual accommodations in the work force of individuals with PTSD. But, she says, individuals with psychiatric disabilities can have productive and meaningful employment with the implementation of effective job accommodations. Examples of reasonable accommodations, she says, include modifications to the physical environment, schedule modifications, work procedure modifications, job restructuring, and changes in interpersonal communication. In addition, she emphasizes that it is important to be able to recognize traumatic triggers in the workplace to aid in coming up with solutions before problems occur.

Public vocational rehabilitation agencies exist in all states in the US, and provide services to individuals who have severe mental, physical and developmental disabilities that hinder their career development and employment. Whitlatch posits that these resources may be important throughout the cult recovery process and could play an important role in restoring the individual’s vocational and personal identities.

According to Whitlatch, policy makers’ failing to address the impact that cult involvement had on a person’s career development and vocational functioning may contribute to a poor quality of life as a result of chronic unemployment, underemployment and increased reliance on public support systems. However, I think it is also important to note that, according to Dr. Janja Lalich, in an interview with Stephen Mather on the What Should I Think About podcast, there are very few social services available to second and multigenerational cult survivors. In part, I think this is because there is such a dearth of research available on these segments of the population; we will need both research and advocacy in order to understand and then create the services necessary, as well as to advocate for the implementation of proper workplace aid.

Unfortunately, until workplace management and policy makers are convinced of the importance of implementing those kinds of supports and services, survivors have to learn to advocate for themselves and navigate these often toxic environments. So let’s take a dive into the culture of the American workplace, look at why it can toxic, how that toxicity can often parallel the survivor’s experience within a cultic environment, and what we can do to protect ourselves.

Toxic Productivity Dogma in America

In Amanda Montell’s book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, she refers to what she calls toxic productivity dogma in American culture when she writes:

The Protestant ethic remains very much a part of professional culture as a whole in the United States, and we all grow up internalizing its rhetoric- work hard, play hard; another day, another dollar. My partner and I have an extensive collection of coffee mugs embellished with little sayings, and the other day I looked up and noticed for the first time that they all just shameless evangelize toxic productivity dogma: One mug says “Sleep is for the weak”; another reads “A yawn is just a silent scream for coffee.” A silent scream? Are we all so conditioned to believe it’s romantic to be overworked and exhausted, so terrified of leisure and “laziness,” that we print cute jokes about it on drinkware? In twenty-first-century America, apparently so.

The former cult kid in me shudders, especially at the “sleep is for the weak,” because it’s something I so internalized growing up. But the messages don’t even have to be that blatantly culty. I have a shirt that I got for free at a marketing conference I attended years back that simply has the word “Hustle” emblazoned on the front. Without going into an analysis of late-stage Capitalism, I think we all recognize the ethos that that single word has come to represent.

In a 2019 Forbes article entitled, The Turbulent And Toxic State Of The Nation’s Work Culture: What You Absolutely Must Know And Do, psychotherapist Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. writes

The global work culture’s language reflects the pervasive acceleration, turbulence, sickness and burnout in today’s job environments: deadlines instead of lifelines; sick days instead of mental health days; rise and grind instead of rise and shine; work load instead of work schedule; side hustle (“hustle” is defined as force someone to move hurriedly”) instead of part-time work and job burnout instead of job engagement.

He goes on to cite a survey of 1,016 American workers that found a majority of the workforce has job burnout, widespread reliance on side jobs and declining confidence in their job security. Key findings of the study are:

  • 38% of American workers cite a lack of time for their personal lives
  • 40% say they work between eight and 12 hours a day
  • 23% report a negative workplace culture
  • 26% lack an opportunity for advancement
  • 1/3 have a side hustle
  • 21% cite unclear job expectations
  • 14% report bad relationships with the boss

The report The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) explored the impact of workplace culture on the well-being of workers and the bottom line of businesses and found a toxic workplace culture costs companies a fortune in turnover and absenteeism. Findings of the survey included:

  • 49% of American workers have thought about leaving their current organization, while nearly one in five have left a job due to a toxic workplace culture in the past five years.
  • 76% of American workers said their manager sets the culture, yet 36% said their manager did not know how to lead a team.
  • 26% of American workers said they dreaded going into work.

SHRM defines toxic workplaces as “where employees dread going to work, don’t feel they can be honest with their manager, and may witness or experience sexual harassment or age discrimination.” According to SHRM, toxic workplaces are a primary reason workers quit their jobs and they often hold their managers responsible for creating the toxicity.

Aditya Jain, an associate professor in human resource management at Nottingham University Business School, who has studied stress, wellbeing and mental health in the workplace, told the BBC that “a toxic work culture is one where workers are exposed to psychosocial hazards. They may have little or no organizational support, poor interpersonal relationships, high workload, lack of autonomy, poor rewards and a lack of job security.”

Jain says that the consequences of such work cultures are wide-ranging, and may include individual physical health impacts, like heart disease or musculoskeletal disorders, poor mental health and burnout, as well as organizational fallout, like reduced attendance, engagement, productivity and innovation.

According to the article, toxic work cultures originate with poor management, whose bad habits can be contagious. “Destructive behaviors at the top trickle down,” says Manuela Priesemuth, an associate professor in the management and operations department at Villanova University, who has researched abusive managers and toxic workplaces. “If executives engage in toxic behavior, people in the organization assume this behavior is accepted and they engage in it, too. Soon enough, a toxic climate is formed, where everybody thinks, ‘This is just how we act around here’.”

Interestingly, it seems, American management hasn’t gotten that memo. After I left the abusive, non-cult job I shared about, I went on a round of interviews. One CEO said to me, “It sounds like you left your last three jobs because of toxic workplaces?” Even though I hadn’t said as much, I had cited circumstances that did point to toxic behavior in management, so I nodded. “And yet,” he drew the words out and did that condescending templed finger motion before continuing. “The common denominator is you.”

Needless to say I was not offered that job, nor would I have taken it. (Bullet dodged I think.) But this story does highlight the unfortunate tendency of management to deflect blame around culture issues back on employees. And there are several things about this behavior that feel just a little bit culty to me. No wonder more than a quarter of Americans dread going to work!

With the previously discussed statistical findings in mind, psychotherapist Bryan Robinson asks the question “why does productivity come at the expense of health and well-being? They’re not mutually exclusive, and there’s no reason today’s work world can’t have both. Still statistics show a rise in employees who are reluctant to take off days when they’re sick for fear of reprisal from management.” He also cites a Gallup poll that says 70% of American workers hate their jobs. (And of course all of this data pre-dates COVID, where trepidation around working conditions increased and the work-life balance practically disappeared for many who were lucky enough to work remotely.)

Overall Robinson’s article is directed more towards company leadership, telling them that it’s in the company’s best interest to address worker’s complaints. He puts it into purely capitalist terms when he says, “If allowed to continue, the toxicity and dissatisfaction will hurt the company’s bottom line. Workplace performance will drop, and the organization’s integrity will be compromised.”

In the job that I shared about earlier, when workplace performance dropped and the company’s bottom line suffered, leadership decided to track performance even more closely. They held long meetings, presenting to us about our Key Performance Indicators and even went into each person’s client portfolio on a monthly basis, tracking what upsells we had and hadn’t made. Even though selling wasn’t technically our job, we were ridiculed in front of over employees if we didn’t sell our clients on a new service every few months. (Is anyone’s else thinking about Lifton’s cultic criteria, “The Cult of Confession” that I discussed in my previous post Were you brainwashed?)

Unfortunately, leadership didn’t know how to address the toxic culture, so they minimized it and retaliated against employees. But, according to Robinson, all this does is makes a company a “revolving door for workers,” and he says “it will be more difficult to attract and retain talented employees who can always find a mentally healthier and more attractive work environment.” And he’s right. Every single toxic workplace that I’ve ever experienced also had mass exoduses of employees.

A ass exodus can occur in companies with toxic cultures.

Robinson says that, “workers fare well when management communicates praise and encouragement, fosters clarity about workplace expectations and provides tools an employee needs along with the opportunity to feel challenged.” He cites Tony Schwartz-whose organization, The Energy Project, studied the invisible phenomena that stand in the way of organizational transformation and sustainable high workplace performance, who said, “Burnout will only get worse so long as organizations fail to challenge the ‘more, bigger, faster is better’ mindset.”

Toxic Workplace Warning Signs

In the wake of allegations of toxic workplace culture at the Ellen show, CNBC published an article with three warning signs to look out for.

1. A lack of respect

Linda Seabrook, general counsel and director at Futures Without Violence, told CNBC that “a toxic workplace is one in which employees don’t feel safe or respected,” and said that while many workers know if they’re not being respected, there are also specific warning signs to look out for.

“For example, if you feel the weight of intense hierarchical structures, that is not a good sign. Like, Do I have to let my supervisor know if I’m going to the bathroom? Or if workers don’t feel that they have the ability to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation,” she says. “It comes down to whether you feel heard and valued and respected.”

2. Retaliation for raising concerns

Another telltale sign of a toxic workplace is an inability to raise concerns, says Ana Avendano, an adjunct law professor at the City University of New York School of Law and the co-founder of Survivors Know, a nonprofit that aims to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. In a toxic workplace, workers “are not really allowed to complain,” she says. “If they do, complaints are either ignored, or you’re punished for it.”

3. Power imbalance

In their article, CNBC Make It said that many of the experts they spoke with said that when an imbalance of power is used to take advantage of others, it is a telltale sign of a toxic workplace. Stephen Boardman, communications director for the Service Employees International Union, says “My definition of a toxic workplace would be a place where employers use their power and leverage to take advantage of and abuse their workers.”

How Toxic Work Culture Can Become Cult-ish

So now that we know that nearly 20% of Americans have left toxic work environments, let’s talk about what happens when work culture goes from toxic to cultic. In the Harvard Business Review article Is Your Corporate Culture Cultish? executive coach, psychoanalyst, and management scholar Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries says that “healthy corporate cultures can easily turn into corporate cults, whether leaders intend for it to happen or not.”

In fact, he says that a number of companies that our culture celebrates already tread the fine line; he says that Apple, Tesla, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, and Harley Davidson are a few examples. Not only do they have what he calls a “cult-like following” among customers, but management encourages cultish behaviors in their workforces as well.

Like a religious cult, Kets de Vries says that the degree to which management controls employee’s thinking and behavior is what characterizes a company as cultic. Like we explored in my post What is lovebombing? the process begins in the recruitment stage. He says that employees are screened for their “fit.” Even in my old job, that was a criteria during the interview stage. Once we had interviewed someone, we were always asked if the person was a good “cultural fit.” While that certainly doesn’t indicate a cultic environment on it’s own, management’s looking for a specific type of personality can ensure that workers are less likely to rock the boat.

Then, Kets de Vries says, once an employee is hired, management then sees “that on-boarding processes and incentive systems tend to reinforce the need for alignment. This drives the way people communicate, make decisions, evaluate each other, as well as hiring, promotion and termination decisions. In such a climate, individualism is discouraged, and group-think prevails.”

He says that some cult-like companies even go so far as to position the workplace as a replacement for family and community. Whether intentionally or not, this serves to isolate the employees from support networks that can provide an important counterpoint to the workplace culture. In these companies, he says, leaders encourage people to center their lives around their jobs, which leaves little time for leisure, entertainment, or vacations.

There are two ways, he says, to tell if a company is or is becoming cult-like: language and ritual. Cultic environments use the loading of the language (read more in my post Were you brainwashed?) which creates their own terminology. This reinforces the sense of belonging within the group, and creates an us-and-them divide with outsiders who don’t understand this specialized language.

And while ritual is not always problematic, it can be a sign of larger issues. The language within ritual is also important because, according to author Amanda Montell, ritualistic language can be used to abuse power. In her book “Cultish,” she talks about the power of religious language, and says to keep it ethical and healthy it must be confined to “ritual time.” She says that often there is a symbolic action to both enter into and end that ritual time (lighting a candle, singing a song, etc.) but that oppressive groups never let you leave ritual time because the language is all consuming. And if a company strives to keep its employees in “ritual time” that can also be a sign of problematic culture.

Kets de Vries says that three ways to determine if workplace culture trends towards the culty is to ask the following questions:

  • Do employees believe in the company’s vision because they understand and agree with it or because that’s what they’re supposed to do?
  • Does the company encourage them to have personal lives?
  • Most importantly, does it encourage the individuality and non-conformism that drive breakthroughs?

If the answer to any of these is no, there is a problem.

Some Solutions for Dealing with a Toxic Work Environment

If we look back to that BBC article, both Jain and Priesemuth say that getting rid of toxic work culture involves companies identifying and addressing the root causes of the dysfunction, which, again, is often bad management. But, they say, that doesn’t mean employees have to wait around in the hopes that things will get better. They say that educating yourself on your rights, whether via your company’s employment policies or local laws, can be an empowering first step — and I think this is an incredibly important one for cult survivors who may have been indoctrinated into believing that they somehow deserve poor treatment.

Jain says that not only will understanding employers legal obligations help workers hold them accountable, but also “having this awareness can also help in pushing back on managers whose expectations have become unreasonable or unfair since the transition to remote work.”

Priesemuth says that “gathering evidence of hostility can be a useful tool to substantiate any claims that might be raised through HR or senior management.” So if someone is behaving in an unprofessional manner, saving emails or chats, or writing down what was said on a call can be helpful. “Also, it’s beneficial to try to find allies — perhaps colleagues who have similar experiences or witnessed any transgressions — who can serve as a support system or help address the problem,” says Priesemuth.

In one of my old jobs, the company was too small to have any HR department or a meaningful system to address grievances. But having colleagues who had similar experiences was incredibly helpful in the face of management’s behaviors. It helped me verify my reality (something really important after the gaslighting many cult survivors have experienced) and understand that my feelings and reactions were valid.

If changing jobs isn’t feasible at the moment, Priesemuth recommends taking measures to make yourself less vulnerable to toxic behaviors. “Setting stronger boundaries between work and your outside life has been useful for employees,” says Priesemuth. “Research has shown that it can reduce job-related stress and increase employee wellbeing.” Some of these boundaries might include turning your phone off after a certain hour of the evening, signing out of email and simply making yourself unavailable.

Take steps to protect yourself. Set boundaries, whenever you can, to insulate yourself from toxic behaviors and environments.

To go back to psychotherapist Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. ‘s Forbes article that I referenced earlier, he has seven suggestions for actions you can take to protect yourself:

  1. The first step is to arm yourself with consistent self-care. This is a really hard one for cult survivors, because we often don’t even know what self care looks like. But Robinson says to make sure you realize that you’ve hit a breaking point before stress-warning signs set in. So basically, try not to let your body breaking down or regular panic attacks be the sign that something needs to change. He also suggests consciously building rest time into your day by building cushion time between meetings, not agreeing to unrealistic deadlines and unplugging at the end of the day.
    Of course, I can think of a number of companies that simply don’t allow for this kind of behavior, to the point of being exploitative. In my opinion, no human being should ever be exploited in order to put food on their table or a roof over their head. And if you’re a cult survivor, this kind of environment is probably incredibly re-traumatizing, and it would be wise to do everything you can to find different employment.
  2. Don’t compromise your physical or mental health for your job. Robinson says that instead of waiting for the company to decide what’s best for you, be assertive. He says that you should decide how far you’re willing to go to meet company demands and to be prepared to put your foot down when you believe your employer oversteps those bounds.
    This is a really hard one for cult survivors because most of us were taught not to have boundaries in the first place. So to a) set them and b) defend them is probably incredibly stressful. But, this is a really good skill for us to learn. Because even in a non-toxic work environment, a lack of boundaries or permeable boundaries can turn what might otherwise be a decent job for “normal” people into an overwhelming and, again, re-traumatizing one for cult survivors.
  3. Pinpoint your discontent. Robinson also recommends defining what exactly what is it about the job that makes you dissatisfied? Is it the boss from hell? Boredom with tedious work? Not enough money? Long hours? Heavy workload? Unreasonable company expectations? Performance pressures? Once you can isolate exactly what the factors are, then decide if you can correct them.
    Again, this can be a little bit more murky for the cult survivor because many of us have issues with authority, so a fair boss can still trigger us. A rote job that is secure and a little tedious might feel meaningless because it’s not based in a greater “mission” — after all many of us were tasked with saving the world. This is where I find it helpful to talk to either a cult-aware therapist or other survivors who can help us connect the dots between our experiences, expectations and discontent.
  4. If your concerns are intolerable and unfixable, enlist your employer as a resource if possible. With this recommendation, Robinson says to take a perspective of problem solving and trying to help the company achieve its goals without simply venting. This can put you and management on the same team to solve issues around workload, work life balance and deadlines.
  5. Think things through carefully. Robinson admits that everyone has a breaking point, but that no one can tell you to quit your job without knowing the intimate details of both your work and personal life. He says that it’s important to weigh the financial consequences in light of your job’s negative aspects, plus the other factors in your life such as the people who are dependent on you, amount of debt, and so on.
  6. Practice mindfulness. I’m actually going to share this one with a big caveat, in that Brown neuroscience lab has found that over 50% of participants to have experienced adverse effects from clinical mindfulness-based programs. In an article on The Science of Psychotherapy, David A. Treleaven, PhD, writes, “For people who’ve experienced trauma, mindfulness meditation can actually end up exacerbating symptoms of traumatic stress. When asked to pay focused, sustained attention to their internal experience, trauma survivors can find themselves overwhelmed by flashbacks and heightened emotional arousal.”
    However, Robinson suggests that for this, to find one aspect of your job that is enjoyable or meaningful while you wait it out. He says it won’t fix the problem, but it can get you through until you make the decision about whether to stay or leave.
  7. If you’ve tried everything to sustain your current position and things are going nowhere, it might be time to move on. He says to pay special attention to this if your misery starts to manifest physically. Watch for symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety or depression, panic attacks or gastrointestinal problems. Hopefully, he says, if you’ve tried all other above actions and things haven’t improved, hopefully you have figured out your exit strategy.
  8. I do want to make the connection that a lot of the symptoms that he describes are similar to the general symptoms that cult survivors experience in their post-cult life. So finding a support system, such as other survivors or a helping professional, in reducing or managing these symptoms could be beneficial in both our work and personal lives.

The good news is in all of this, according to Robinson, is that more companies are starting to realize that job stress and burnout is a major health and safety issue and that it is to their advantage to have healthy employees. In fact in 2019, the World Health Organization declared job burnout as a bonafide medical diagnosis. Robinson says that happy employees are productive employees, and major corporations are starting to develop unique ways to support employees and humanize work environments.

So hopefully this will eventually extend towards creating a more humanized work environment for trauma survivors as well. The more we recognize the commonalities across the various segments of survivors, I think the more we can create safe spaces for us to live, work and thrive.

If you have been in ANY high control group or religion, share your story with the hashtag #igotout. Share on your own platform OR if you need to be anonymous and / or would like support, there are resources at the I Got Out website.

When you see a survivor share their story, let them know they have been heard. This is such a meaningful part of the movement. We all need to know we’re not alone.

If you know someone who has been harmed by a high demand group, share #igotout posts you think would help them.

Together we can bring awareness to how many of us have been harmed by high control organizations and end the shame or stigma we might feel about our experiences.

Tell your story. Impact lives. Change the world.

Originally published at on July 16, 2021.

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor