Have you ever worked in a toxic workplace? Perhaps your boss was a disaster to work for, or your colleagues formed nasty cliques and made work life unbearable. Maybe you were even the victim of office gossip or bullying.
If any of this sounds familiar, then you know how damaging and demoralizing a toxic work environment can be. If not, congratulations — you’re among the meager 30% of employees who are fortunate enough to have never experienced this type of negativity in the office.
So, what does it mean to work in a toxic work environment? What are the telling signs? And more importantly, what can you do to protect yourself and manage the situation?
In this article, we’ll explore all of those questions. Let’s dive right in!
What does a toxic work environment look like?
Great question. To some, the hallmarks of workplace toxicity may be obvious; to others, however, you may be working in a toxic culture without even realizing it. The following are some of the most common signs that a work environment is toxic:
- A hostile or negative atmosphere, characterized by constant arguing, bickering, and cliques
- An abusive boss or colleague who regularly puts down employees, verbally assaults them, or makes them feel uncomfortable
- Workplace gossip, which can lead to bullying and social isolation
- A lack of trust and transparency, which can cause employees to feel isolated and unsupported
- Unclear or constantly changing expectations, which can leave employees feeling overwhelmed and uncertain
- A lack of job satisfaction or meaningful work, leading to feelings of boredom or apathy
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s likely that your work environment is toxic. However, there are a few other less obvious signs to watch out for — signs that manifest through your own behavior and wellbeing.
The following are some signs that you may be working in a toxic environment:
- You feel constantly stressed or overwhelmed
- You’re having trouble sleeping or eating, and you’re not sure why
- You’ve developed a sudden case of anxiety or depression
- You feel irritable and easily frustrated, both at work and at home
- You’ve stopped enjoying the things you used to enjoy, including your hobbies and social activities
If you’re experiencing any of these signs, it’s important to take a step back and assess your situation. It’s possible that you’re simply going through a tough time, but it’s also possible that your work environment is to blame.
Why you should worry about a toxic work environment
When confronted with a toxic work situation, most of us want to jump into action and make a change (or quit — whichever is quicker!)
Unfortunately, some people are raised to think that “work is work” and they should just “grin and bear it” — but this is not only unhealthy, it’s also counterproductive.
The reality is that you deserve to have a healthy and positive work environment. If left unchecked, toxicity can lead to a number of problems, including:
- A decrease in job satisfaction and productivity
- An increase in stress and anxiety levels
- Depression, burnout, and even physical illness
- Social isolation and a lack of support from colleagues
Simply put, a toxic work environment can have a serious negative impact on your mental and physical health. So, it’s important to take steps to address the situation before it becomes too damaging.
How to deal with a toxic work environment
Now that you know what a toxic work environment looks like and some of the dangers it poses, let’s look at how to deal with it. There are a number of steps you can take — so if you’re in a bad place, don’t despair!
Assess the situation
This course of action should take place before anything else. It’s always a good idea to assess the current situation: what is the issue? Who or what is the source of the issue? How is the issue impacting you and your work?
It can feel tempting to lash out and start blaming people as soon as you identify a toxic work environment, but it’s important to be objective and stay calm. This will help you think more clearly and come up with a better plan of action.
If it helps, talk to a close colleague and ask for their input. They may have a different perspective on the situation and can offer useful advice.
Talk to your boss
If the issue is with your boss, it’s best to talk to them directly. This isn’t always easy, but it’s important to be honest and open about how you’re feeling.
Again, it’s crucial to stay calm and to be clear about what you want. You might want to ask for a change in duties, for example, or even for a transfer to another department.
If your boss is the source of the toxicity, it may be time to start looking for another job. Yes, really — your boss has an enormous influence on your work life, and if they’re making it a living hell, it’s time to move on.
In a toxic work environment, it can be difficult to maintain healthy boundaries. You may feel like you have to do everything and please everyone. But this is not sustainable — and it’s also not good for your mental health.
Start by setting some boundaries for yourself. Decide how much work you’re comfortable taking on, and say no to anything that feels like too much. It’s also important to have “down time” away from work — make sure you take regular breaks and weekends off.
If your colleagues are the source of the toxicity, you’ll need to be more assertive in setting boundaries. This may mean refusing to gossip or engage in negative conversations, for example. It can also mean distancing yourself from them physically — moving to a different part of the office, for example.
Here are some ways you can clearly, but politely, set boundaries with colleagues:
- “Sorry, I’m just not comfortable discussing other colleagues like that.”
- “I’m not sure that’s appropriate for the office.”
- “I’d rather not talk about that right now.”
- “I really need some time to myself right now.”
Talk to a therapist
There may be times in your life where you are stuck in a toxic environment for extended periods of time. While no one should remain in an unhealthy work situation, you may encounter issues such as an extended notice period or a long job search.
In these cases, talking to a therapist can be incredibly helpful. They can provide an outside perspective, offer coping mechanisms, and help you maintain your mental health during this difficult time.
Therapists can help to counter the following effects of a toxic work environment:
- Feeling isolated and alone
- Feeling like you can’t do anything right
- Having low self-esteem
- Experiencing anxiety or depression
If you live far away from a therapist, there are plenty of practicing psychologists who work remotely via Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime.
It’s also important to remember that you are not alone. Many people have experienced a toxic work environment, and there are resources available to help you get through this difficult time.
Attempting to resolve a toxic work environment
Of course, you may decide that all hope is not lost, and that your work environment is worth salvaging. This is especially applicable to bosses and managers — if your ship is sinking, it’s time to act fast.
If you decide to take this route, there are a number of things you can do:
Improve your company culture
First of all, assess the culture of your company. Corporate culture is often the source of toxicity in the workplace. If the culture is toxic, it will be difficult for any one individual to change things.
If you’re not happy with the culture, start by talking to your boss or HR department. They may be unaware of the issues and are more than happy to make changes.
There are a number of things you can do to boost morale and change the culture of your workplace, including:
- Encouraging team-building exercises
- Celebrating successes
- Holding regular team meetings
- Offering training and development opportunities
Address the issue head on
If the issue is with a colleague, address the problem head on. This can be difficult, but it’s important to have a clear and honest conversation.
Start by expressing your concerns in a calm and rational way. Avoid using accusatory language and try to stay positive. For example, you might say “I’ve been feeling really stressed out lately, and I think it’s because of the way you talk to me.”
If the colleague is receptive, they may be willing to change their behavior. If not, you may need to take further action, such as reporting them to HR.
Seek outside help
If the issue is with your boss and you’ve tried talking to them directly, it may be time to seek outside help. This could mean talking to a lawyer or filing a complaint with HR.
It’s important to remember that you are not alone in this — there are plenty of people who can help you get through this difficult time.
Are you currently experiencing a toxic work environment? If so, we hope this article has given you some useful ideas on how to deal with it. Remember to stay calm, be assertive, and to seek help from outside sources if necessary.