It’s no secret that the workplace can be a toxic environment. Whether it’s a hostile boss, gossipy coworkers, or a high-stress atmosphere, these workplaces can take a toll on your mental and physical health. According to research from the MIT Sloan School of Management, around 30 million US workers – or one in nine people – experience their workplace as toxic.
We all get a case of the Mondays now and again, but if you’re consistently feeling stressed, angry, or demoralized at work, it may be a sign that your workplace is toxic. But how can you tell the difference between a tough week and toxic workplace? Below, we explore some common traits—and how to deal.
What is a Toxic Workplace?
A toxic workplace is defined by consistent hostility, psychological distress, and interpersonal conflict. It can be the result of an aggressive boss or manager who doesn’t support employees, a dysfunctional organizational structure that leaves employees feeling helpless and unmotivated, or a negative work environment where people don’t respect or care for each other.
The Effects of a Toxic Workplace on Employees
A toxic workplace has been shown to have negative effects on employees’ mental health, leading to increased stress-related illnesses such as anxiety and depression. In addition, it can impact their physical health as well – for example, by causing absenteeism due to illness caused by stress. Such a workplace can also impact your sense of self-worth, as it can be difficult to detach from these office dynamics and understand that a toxic workplace is not about you.
8 Signs That You’re in a Toxic Workplace
- You feel stressed out all the time: Stress is a natural part of most people’s jobs, but when stress becomes chronic it can be a sign of a toxic workplace.
- You’re consistently angry or irritated: Are you snapping at your partner all the time? Does a bad driver send you into a rage? Anger or irritation can be a sign that the environment you work in is toxic and negatively impacting your mental health.
- There’s a lot of gossip and drama among coworkers: There’s a difference between friendly chatter and toxic gossip that spreads negativity and tension among coworkers. If you’re hearing a lot of negative talk, it may be a sign of overall discontent among your fellow colleagues.
- You feel helpless and unmotivated at work: A toxic workplace can leave you feeling hopeless and lacking in motivation to do your job well. This lack of engagement can have a negative impact on your performance, and ultimately, your career prospects. Remember: it’s not about you. We are all impacted by our environments in small and large ways.
- Your physical health has deteriorated since you started working there: If you’ve noticed that you’re not sleeping well, suffering from headaches or other health issues, or feeling run-down since starting your job, it may be a sign that your job is taking a serious toll on your well-being. Changes in our bodies are often the first sign that something is wrong.
- You don’t feel respected or valued at work: Whether it’s a domineering boss, colleagues who make unwarranted comparisons, or a general lack of recognition for your hard work, it can lead you to feel under-appreciated and disheartened.
- Your job is negatively impacting your personal life: Have you noticed that your job is causing stress on your family or relationships outside of work? Do you find yourself taking out your frustrations at home or coming home late because of work? These may be signs that your job is having a detrimental effect on other aspects of your life.
- Your boss is hostile, aggressive, or abusive: A hostile or aggressive boss who puts down employees, yells at them, or otherwise creates a toxic environment can turn your job into a nightmare. If you find that your boss is constantly pushing you to do more and more, or creates a sense of fear and uncertainty in the organization, it may be time to start looking for a new job.
How to Handle a Toxic Workplace
One of the most important things you can do if you find yourself in a toxic workplace is to take steps to manage your stress and protect your mental and physical health. We all deserve to feel valued, protected, and safe. Here are some ways you can do this:
- Seeking support from friends, family, or colleagues. These are the people who know you best, and they can remind you of who you were before all of the work-related stress—and who you will be again.
- Practicing self-care by focusing on activities like healthy eating, exercise, rest, socializing, and hobbies that help you relieve tension and stay balanced. Utilizing a day or two of PTO to rest and reflect can improve your health and help you create a game-plan for leaving the role.
- Asking for help or guidance from your HR department or a trusted mentor at work (if your boss or manager is the source of toxicity in the workplace). They may be able to help you switch roles, access conflict resolution support, and more.
- Talking to a therapist or counselor about how to cope with the stress and anxiety that can come from working in a toxic environment. There are professional coaches whose expertise is in work-related stress. Your company may even pay for it if they are noticing an increase in burnout across your team.
- Looking for opportunities to develop or advance your skills and career so that you have more control over your work life and are less dependent on your current job or employer. This can also provide a healthy dose of self-confidence and remind you of why you entered the field in the first place.
- Taking steps to improve communication and teamwork within the organization, such as by reaching out to colleagues who may be feeling isolated or marginalized and connecting with them to build stronger relationships. If a workplace is toxic, you are not the only one feeling the impact. Making connections can help ease the stress and trauma.
- Looking for other jobs or career opportunities that better match your interests, values, strengths, and skill set. By being proactive about finding a healthier workplace environment, you can take back control of your professional life and protect yourself from the negative effects of toxicity in the workplace.
How to Advocate for Yourself and Others in a Toxic Workplace
There are several steps that you can take if you find yourself in a toxic workplace and want to advocate for yourself or others. These include:
- Learning about your rights as an employee and how to navigate the reporting process at your company, including any available resources or support systems such as employee assistance programs (EAPs) or human resources departments. It’s okay to feel intimidated at first, but remember that these resources were developed to protect you: the employee.
- Understanding what constitutes harassment, discrimination, bullying, or other harmful behaviors in the workplace and being aware of any policies against these types of behavior within your organization. Remember to document any instances of abuse and save them in a safe, protected folder.
- Building relationships with colleagues who share similar experiences so that you have a support network to turn to when things get difficult and know you’re not alone.
- Developing a plan for addressing conflicts and problems in the workplace, including how to escalate issues if they are not resolved by your direct manager or HR representative. Identify leadership you trust and, if possible, come up with a plan before the conflict escalates.
- Seeking out professional guidance, such as from a workplace or employment lawyer, if you need support or legal assistance with a specific issue.
- Staying calm and focused in the face of negative or toxic behaviors, being clear and factual in your communications, and speaking up for yourself and others at all times.
- By standing up for what is right, you can help create a more positive and equitable environment in your organization that supports everyone’s success. But remember, it’s okay to set boundaries and return to a conversation later if you don’t have the capacity in the moment. The weight of a toxic workplace doesn’t all belong on your shoulders!
Taking Care of Yourself After Leaving or Being Forced Out of a Toxic Workplace
Leaving a toxic workplace can be an incredibly stressful experience, both mentally and physically. Here are some tips for taking care of yourself after leaving or being forced out of a toxic work environment:
- Give yourself ample time to recover and mourn the loss of your old job. It’s normal to feel sadness, anger, frustration, or confusion after leaving a toxic workplace. Allow yourself to grieve the loss of what could have been, and don’t be hard on yourself for feeling these emotions. They will help you understand what you do and don’t want in a future workplace.
- Make time for self-care in your day-to-day routine. This may include things like journaling, meditation, getting enough sleep, relaxation techniques, and spending time with supportive friends and family members. If you have the resources, don’t force yourself to immediately find a new job.
- Seek professional help if you’re struggling to cope with the stress of leaving a toxic job. Talking to a therapist or counselor can be incredibly helpful in managing negative feelings and helping you move on from the experience. They can help “right-size” the feelings by reminding you that this is a singular instance, not a referendum on your future.
- Stay positive and focused on what’s ahead. It can be easy to get bogged down by negative thoughts after leaving a bad work situation, but it’s important to remember that there are other opportunities out there for you. Focus on healing and stay focused on your goals. With time and determination, you’ll find the right job for you, and have the resources to navigate it with more confidence after this rough experience.
If you feel like your work environment is toxic and causing you to consider looking elsewhere, you’re not alone. Three-fourths of employees have left a job because of how unhealthy the work environment was, and more than half said they would soon leave their current positions for the same reason. If you’re feeling the symptoms of a toxic work environment for stretches of time, it’s likely best to start looking for somewhere else to work.