New policies, rapid changes and a lack of job security can impact the dynamics of a workplace and create a toxic work environment.1 Reducing workplace stress creates a healthy work culture and reduces employee time off. In contrast, a toxic work environment can increase levels of stress and anxiety in addition to putting one at risk to experience health-related consequences.2
What Is a Toxic Work Environment?
A toxic work environment is a term coined to emphasize a workplace with a poor or toxic culture. This environment often leaves people feeling uneasy and as if there is always a threat. There is a general lack of trust, and typically a lot of manipulation and gossip. The competition is beyond healthy levels and there are often reports of workplace harassment. As a result, turnover is high in these environments and accountability is low.
9 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment
A toxic work environment is caused by elements like sexual harassment, a lack of respect for boundaries, and micromanagement. Each of these elements can create stressful conditions in the workplace for employees and cause negative health consequences.
Here are nine common signs of a toxic workplace:
1. Sexual Harassment
Making inappropriate jokes, talking in lewd innuendos and inappropriate touching can all be considered sexual harassment. It’s important not to downplay or ignore any instances of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can come from supervisors, customers, coworkers and managers and it is harassment if it is unwelcomed.3
It should be reported to your human resources department and/or the appropriate authorities. You may feel ashamed or guilty and experience complicated emotions, but remember that sexual harassment is never your fault and you have a right to be in a workplace that is free of harassment.
2. Your Boundaries Are Not Respected
Having your boundaries consistently ignored is an indication that you are in a toxic workplace. A healthy work/life balance is important, so if you have set healthy boundaries between your work and home life and find that your colleagues and supervisor do not respect them then it’s time to think about next steps. An example of this could be receiving calls after hours, being expected to work outside of your schedule without advance notice, or constantly being called on to accomplish tasks at the last minute.
3. Lack of Input From Employees
Any place of employment that does not solicit feedback and employee led changes in policy is at risk for becoming a toxic workplace. Having a high turnover rate, constant absenteeism and poor morale on the job can be an indication that the needs of employees are not being met.4
If there is a significant gap between the agendas of the administration and the work responsibilities of employees, the environment can quickly become toxic. Feeling that your suggestions and ideas are never acknowledged or implemented can be an indication that your workplace really isn’t interested in growth or change – and that you might even have a narcissistic or abusive boss. This can lead to stagnation and decreased morale among staff members.
4. Unrealistic Expectations
All jobs have responsibilities and expectations. However, if you are constantly being held to a metric that is unrealistic or if you aren’t given adequate time to meet certain deadlines you may be in a toxic work environment. If your job is not providing you with the resources and support you need to meet their performance expectations, it can be the cause of increased stress and decreased satisfaction.5
One way to determine if the standards of your job are unrealistic is to see if you have colleagues who are struggling in the same way, and have become workaholics to keep up. Feeling like you can never measure up and consistently not meeting performance metrics may not mean that you’re lazy or unmotivated, it could be that the standards set are unrealistic.
5. Micro-Management Mentality
Being micromanaged is rarely a pleasant experience. While taking accountability and completing tasks within a reasonable time period is part of the expectations of most jobs, having someone constantly checking on you and giving you feedback can be frustrating. Micromanagement in the workplace can lead to increased depression and anxiety as well as decreased performance.6
Individuals who micromanage others often do it out of anxiety or insecurity that the work produced will not be up to the required standards.7 Micromanaging demonstrates a lack of respect and confidence in your abilities to get the job done without being prompted or reminded and can feel incredibly demoralizing.
6. Lack of Acknowledgement & Appreciation
If your accomplishments are never acknowledged or appreciated, you may be in a toxic work environment. Cultivating a culture of appreciation is essential for maintaining a positive workspace and environment for employees. They are more likely to be productive during their time at work and stay with the company for a long period of time.8 When your hard work is not noted and you only receive feedback when it is negative, it may be time to think about other job opportunities.
7. Inability to Move Upward
While there are jobs where structurally there isn’t any mobility, one thing that should be a red flag is if there are individuals who spend a significant number of years in the same position and are never promoted. Feeling motivated to do well in your job comes from a sense of pride and knowing that there is an opportunity to gain more experience and opportunities in various roles. If you are not ever given the opportunity to move forward and upward in responsibility, you may be in a toxic workplace.
8. Individualistic Culture
In a workplace with an individualistic culture, it can feel like it’s every person for themselves. There isn’t a team approach to providing services and you may constantly feel unsupported or that you aren’t able to reach out to colleagues or your manager for assistance.9 This type of work culture can be detrimental to your emotional well-being as it can cause you to feel isolated and unheard.
9. Lack of Communication
Communication is non-existent. There are expectations that are not shared and work demands that are not delegated—oftentimes employees are left to manage themselves. When this happens, there is always a conflict between employees due to the lack of both oversight and accountability, and if work projects go poorly everyone is quick to blame someone else.
7 Tips for How to Handle a Toxic Work Environment
Surviving a toxic workplace is difficult, but it can be done. Self care can help you to reduce stress and burnout you feel from work and planning an exit strategy can help you to plan your future.
If you’re dealing with a toxic work environment, here are seven survival tips:
1. Create a Self-Care Regimen
Look for opportunities within your workday to take a few minutes for yourself, even (or maybe especially) if workaholism is celebrated in your workplace. Listen to an inspirational song or podcast or engage in some stretching exercises to take a short break from the stress you’re experiencing. Create a list of things that you’re grateful for and think about picking up an active hobby.10 Make a plan to spend at least an hour or two every weekend engaging in an activity that helps you to relax and decompress and set an intention to be consistent with it.
2. Start Planning Your Exit Strategy
Start looking into other job opportunities. Reach out to your network and update your professional social media profile. Create a timeline for when you’d like to leave your current position and begin to complete job applications.
When announcing your departure, keep it professional and try not to burn your bridges by talking negatively about your experience in your job.11 If you don’t feel comfortable using your manager or supervisor for a reference, reach out to a trusted coworker who can speak positively of you.
3. Stick to Your Boundaries
Set healthy boundaries around your work duties. Consider turning off your work phone after a certain time each day and responding to emails within business hours. Practice clear communication in both spoken and written forms.
Make sure to document any instances of disrespect or abuse from colleagues or superiors. This can include bullying and being unnecessarily aggressive and abrasive.12 Remain calm and professional at all times.
4. Connect With Social Supports
While it may not always be possible to be friends with your coworkers while working in a toxic work environment, being friendly with them and having a professional working relationship can be very beneficial for you. Having social support in your life can help you to cope better with stress and increase your self-esteem.13 Don’t be afraid to branch out a bit in order to find a work friend who can support you and vice versa because they understand your work environment as they work in it as well.
5. Implement Mindfulness-Based Techniques Into Your Workday
Mindfulness techniques can be a great way to manage work-related anxiety and stress. Start doing a short, guided meditation during your workday, engage in some grounding exercises, or try some visualization techniques. Mindfulness exercises can help you to focus on the present and be more intentional about how you engage with the world.14
6. Report & Keep Track of Workplace Issues
Reporting issues and creating a paper trail for yourself is important to do, especially in volatile work environments. It’s common for people to avoid paper trails and operate off the radar, but sending follow up emails to meetings and calls, or taking notes and sending out meeting minutes with items discussed removes the gray area that may be present that many toxic work environments rely on.
7. Consult a Labor Law Expert
Employees have a right to work in comfortable work environments, and when these rights are violated, employees can take action. Speaking to a third-party expert outside your company can give you some leverage and tips on how to move forward.
When a Toxic Workplace Becomes a Legal Problem
A toxic environment becomes a legal problem when you are experiencing depression, anxiety and stress that has impacted your ability to function on a daily basis. If you find yourself struggling to get out of bed, dreading going into work every single day, or frequently calling out from work in order to stay home, then you may have a legal case.
There are employment lawyers who specialize in litigation and many of them offer free consultations. If you are thinking of pursuing legal action it’s important to clearly document everything that has occurred. You need to be able to provide proof of what occurred and show how it has affected you.
When to Leave a Toxic Workplace
It’s important to remember that a toxic work environment exists because of the people in the workplace. Making the decision to leave indicates your understanding of the fact that you can’t change other people—you can only control how you react and the actions that you decide to take. Prioritizing your needs and emotional health is more beneficial than staying in a toxic work environment and hoping that it will change.
While the decision to leave is rarely an easy one, having a strategy of what you want to do moving forward and starting the job search before you leave your current position can make it less stressful. At the end of the day, it’s imperative that you make the best choice for your professional future and for your mental health.