A toxic workplace is one where negative behaviour rules.
In some work environments, employees are routinely used and abused. They’re bullied, manipulated, and disrespected. They’re harassed by unreasonable deadlines and demands. And they have little opportunity to learn or grow.
The cause of a toxic workplace can be systemic. That means the policies, values, ethics, and structure make it a bad place to work.
The cause can also be a toxic boss or a toxic colleague who is never satisfied, never listens, and makes people feel inadequate.
What does a toxic workplace do to employees?
A toxic workplace makes employees feel unsafe. They’re afraid to make a move. They don’t dare to speak up for fear of being humiliated, and they’re constantly worried about losing their jobs.
A toxic workplace demoralizes people. Over time it can cause sleep problems, burnout, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, panic attacks, and even thoughts of suicide.
Constant stress from a toxic workplace can also have physical effects. This type of stress can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. It can cause headaches, muscle aches, and digestive issues. It can also increase the risk of infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.
Toxic environments leave people exhausted and emotionally drained. They have nothing left for their friends or family. That can lead to social isolation and increase conflict at home.
What are the signs of a toxic workplace?
A toxic workplace makes employees feel disengaged. They feel like they don’t belong. They lose their sense of purpose. And they get burnt out.
Productivity in a toxic workplace is low. Staff turn-over is high. Stress, mistrust, backstabbing, infighting, and discrimination are common.
Here are 6 red flags that a work environment is toxic.
- There is no respect for a healthy work-life balance.
Deadlines and job expectations are unreasonably demanding. There are no boundaries between personal time and work time. Staff are expected to stay late, respond to messages at all hours, and prioritize work before everything else in their lives.
- Leaders, managers, and colleagues treat each other badly.
Rudeness, gossiping, backstabbing, and playing favourites are common. Smiling, sharing a laugh, and coffee-time chit-chats are rare. Thanks for a job well done are rarely given.
- There is no trust and no room to make mistakes.
Supervisors micromanage because they don’t trust their staff. Staff don’t trust each other either, so they don’t share information or offer a helping hand.
- Communication is poor.
Lack of communication leads to conflicts, mistakes, missed deadlines, and poor-quality work.
- There is no support for employee growth.
People have to figure things out on their own. There is no mentorship and no support for professional development,and there are few opportunities for people to move forward in their careers.
- Staff turnover is high.
A toxic workplace causes people to shut down mentally, disengage, and eventually leave.
Warning signs before you get the job
Sometimes there are signs that a workplace will be toxic even before you get the job. Recognizing the warning signs can help you make an informed choice.
Maybe you’re not in a position to reject a job offer even if you suspect the workplace will be toxic, but at least you’ll know what to expect. Plus, you’ll be able to protect yourself while you work your way to a better job.
Red flags in the job posting
- Promises of a “fast-paced environment” that require you to “tolerate a high level of stress,” or “work well under pressure.”
You’re a person, not a robot. And you have the right to training, support, and a decent work-life balance.
- Quirky job titles (like Tech Monkey or Director of Bean-Counting)
This kind of language can signal that a company will be fun to work for, but it can also be a red flag that the company isn’t clear on what the job requirements are.
- No list of job duties, a vague list, or a list that’s very long.
A lack of details can suggest that the company doesn’t have its act together. On the other hand, a super-long list of job duties can suggest that the company expects you to do the work of two people for one salary.
- Vague information about work schedules and workload expectations.
A lack of clarity about work hours can suggest that the company won’t respect your personal time.
- Extremely wide salary range.
This can suggest that the company doesn’t really understand what the position requires. If they know what the job is worth, they should be able to offer an appropriate salary range.
Red flags in the interview process
- You had to do a huge amount of work just to get an interview.
Assigning work before a first interview can be disrespectful of your time. It can be a sign that your work-life boundaries won’t be respected if you’re hired.
- The interviewer is vague about job duties, schedules, performance expectations, company values, professional development opportunities, the hiring timeline, or any other specifics.
It’s hard to succeed if you don’t know what’s expected of you.
- The interviewer boasts about the company’s commitment to “going above and beyond.”
An “above and beyond culture” can pit co-workers against one another and create an atmosphere of cutthroat competition.
- The interviewer asks how far you’d be willing to go to get a job done.
Questions like this send the message that doing a good job will not be good enough.
- The interviewer’s words or behaviour concern you.
An interviewer who appears anxious or distracted may be someone who is overworked, micromanaged, and afraid of making a mistake. These are clear signs of a toxic work environment. Another clear sign is if the interviewer bad-mouths co-workers or past employees.
- The interviewer refers to company employees as “family” or maintains that employees “show up for each other” or “are more than just colleagues.”
Words like these may suggest that the company disrespects the boundaries between work life and home life.
How to deal with a toxic workplace
There is no question that a toxic workplace is bad for your health. But it isn’t always possible to leave—at least not right away.
If you’re stuck in a bad situation, it’s important to assess how it’s affecting you and take whatever steps you can to make things better.
- Consider your options. Can you afford to leave your job? Or do you have to stay and make the best of things?
- If you have to stay, do what you can to take back your own power. Assess your feelings. Understand how you respond to toxic behaviour. And learn to create boundaries that protect yourself.
- If you can, identify and address the point of conflict. This might be a manager, a co-worker, or a team. Ask for a meeting to try and clear the air.
- Know your rights. Document any harassment and discrimination you experience, and get witnesses and supporting evidence.
- Remember your worth and learn to communicate it to others.
- Give yourself a break. Don’t act like you’re OK when you’re not.
- Figure out what you can do to take care of yourself. This might mean going into therapy or speaking with a career coach, or finding strategies that can help you cope with stress.
- Ask yourself who can help you. This might be a family member, a trusted friend, a colleague, a professional network, a mentor, HR, or even your boss’s boss. But, be careful when talking about the issue with others at work. Sometimes the source of a toxic work environment comes from the top. In this case, bringing your concerns to HR or your superiors could backfire.
- Once you’ve identified your sources of support, take the next step and actually ask for help.
- Try to find, connections, beauty, humour, and meaning outside of your workplace.
- Create an exit plan. Save some money. Reach out to your networks. Get mental health leave or use your saved time off to start looking for another job.
- Give yourself a deadline, and get out! But, be professional about it. Write your letter of resignation, give notice, tie up loose ends, and don’t burn your bridges.
Give yourself time to heal, recover, and regain your self-confidence. Don’t let a bad experience affect your attitude and performance in your next job
Here are some steps you can take to start fresh and keep your career moving forward.
- Keep things in perspective. Understand the reasons why you left your old job and why you chose your new one.
- Watch our for the toxic behaviours that drove you from your last job, but understand that your past experience may be colouring how you react to the present.
- Identify and acknowledge your feelings and your boundaries. This can help you understand what you need for your health, well-being, and professional success.
- Be aware of the triggers that make you feel anxious, demoralized, and unappreciated in your work. Is it being micromanaged? Criticized? Interrupted in a meeting? Understand and communicate what support you need to be your best and most productive self.
- Build positive relationships—both in your professional and your personal life. The networks of support you create can provide guidance, mentorship, encouragement, and validation.