7 signs of a toxic work environment – how to handle it?
May 4, 2021
Almost every job involves a certain level of stress. But if even the thought of it stresses you, or worse – being in the office for long hours makes you feel depressed, tired, or even sick, it’s more than just general stress at work. These are signs of a toxic work environment.
What is a toxic work environment?
A toxic workplace is an professional environment that is dysfunctional, stressful and unproductive. It may be defined as a place where work, atmosphere, people, or any combination of these factors disrupt every area of life. It can be hazardous to physical and mental health and professional development.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that stress in the workplace is a significant health problem and a significant occupational risk. Being stuck in a toxic work environment for too long can take its toll on both your work and personal life. Don’t let it surprise you and most of all don’t allow yourself to give in to it.
Statistics on a toxic work environment
The Harvard Business School study established that:
- almost half of the employees who experienced rudeness in the workplace reduced their efforts and consciously chose to spend less time at work;
- 38% of them intentionally lowered the quality of their work;
- nearly 55% said that they struggle with unpleasant and potentially dangerous conditions at work.
The Monster International Survey showed that:
- 42% of US workers choose to leave their jobs because of an overly stressful environment.
The Families and Work Institute study found that:
- 43% of overworked employees admit that then they often feel angry with their employers. A toxic work environment often results from the harassment of employees, which unfortunately is quite common.
The Workplace Bullying Institute defines it as “repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees, offensive behaviour that threatens, degrades or intimidates, sabotage work, or verbal abuse”. Their study showed that:
- 61% of the tormentors are bosses, 33% – employees of the same rank, and 6% – subordinates.
7 signs of a toxic work environment
1. Showy words in job offers
Signs of toxicity may already appear during the interview. Appropriate reading of job advertisements can give a clue. By understanding what the various trendy words mean, you can look into your company’s culture, values and expectations.
A few years ago, the American company Textio used its predictive engine to analyse popular phrases in job advertisements for ten major employers in the technology industry. The results provided an insight into their corporate culture. Popular phrases found in such companies as Amazon included “rapidly changing environment” or “manic”. While, for example, in Slack the program found “lasting relationships” and “deep concern”.
Predicting toxicity in cliche is not a perfect way to determine one’s intentions. However, it is worth knowing how a company describes its own work and culture in job offers, mission statements and marketing materials. This can affect how its representatives treat their employees.
2. Young workforce
A company that employs primarily young people may be looking for savings. Employees with less seniority and less experience tend to receive lower wages.
A younger team may also mean that an employer is looking for people who do not have many other priorities, such as children or ageing parents in need of care.
A company looking for employees that are always available may not be the best solution when someone wants to travel, train or do anything that requires commitment and time outside of their work.
3. Lack of enthusiasm in the team
Pay attention to the atmosphere among employees already in the recruitment process. You may notice their lack of commitment, fatigue or even depression.
When recruiting is carried out in a remote interview, try to examine the tone and vocabulary of the people you are talking to assess their attitude. If you are already working, take a look at your coworkers: are they smiling or talking, and are these conversations positive and optimistic?
The negative symptoms result from poor work culture and fueling a gloomy climate which makes workers highly inefficient. As much as 93% of them claim to be less productive when working with people with the wrong mindset.
4. High employee turnover
Before the interview, it is worth doing a little research and reading about the organisation. Look for signs of management change. Some sites include firm’s reviews to get employee feedback on the company. Connections on LinkedIn can also provide some information. Do you have any contacts with people who have worked for the company? If so, see how many of them stay in the firm long-term?
It is worth mentioning that the median length of service is 4.1 years (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Of course, there are many reasons why employees quit. But high turnover can also mean a toxic work environment.
Companies that create a positive culture have a 14% rate of rotation, while those who ignore it 48%. High rotation can also occur when the work environment has nothing positive to offer but only dysfunction and poor morale.
5. Dysfunction and insecurity
In such a company, no one is clear about their roles or responsibilities. Team members barely know their company’s objectives, which breeds dysfunction and confusion. It is accompanied by a lack of trust, ineffective communication, a struggle for power and a fear of failure.
These issues make collaboration difficult, so projects, meetings, and relationships run off the rails. It is also built by the lack of psychological safety (measuring the employees’ sense of security in taking risks and making mistakes). It is another indicator of a toxic workplace.
Moreover, 28% of people admit that making a mistake at work is their greatest fear. When people are afraid to step out of their comfort zones, the entire team suffers. A high degree of safety has the most significant impact on team performance – even beyond reliability, structure, relevance and impact.
6. Narcissistic leadership
Who wouldn’t want to work for a leader with great ideals and big goals? Of course everyone would; however, remember that when someone tells you about their leadership style, they are not necessarily a credible storyteller.
Such a supervisor or boss often requires you to agree with him no matter what and feels that he is above the rules himself. And also takes pride in the fact of being difficult.
At the same time, such a person expects others to be perfect and to meet high standards. It is always a bad sign. A toxic manager is someone who can have self-esteem easily hurted, weakens the group’s ability and extinguishes good work.
7. Endless gossip and drama
A bit of gossip in the workplace is normal. However, it is sometimes taken to extremes and can reveal a toxic work environment. In this situation, people do not communicate openly and talking behind one’s back happens on daily bases. Everyone seems to be polite to each other; meanwhile, office gossip breeds many internal struggles and paranoia.
There are also those who – intentionally or unintentionally – spread rumours about colleagues. Whichever side of the gossip you are on, it creates a toxic work environment. And the fact that someone is the target of gossip also becomes the target of persecution, which correlates with psychological burnout, depression, anxiety and aggression.
Physical symptoms of a toxic work environment
Health problems resulting from a hostile workplace include high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and deteriorating mental health. They can lead to fatal diseases, research from Stanford and Harvard universities has shown. “A toxic environment makes people fight, or flight – the constant pumping of cortisol, testosterone and norepinephrine generates physical, emotional and psychological stress,” says Cheri Torres, author of Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement.
When you have warning signs of your wellbeing and health, it’s time to answer simple questions:
- How do I sleep, and does sleep regularly last for at least 8 hours?
- Am I often too stressed to eat, or am I prone to overeating?
- Do I feel safe at home and work?
According to the Paycheck survey, stress levels increase when work prevents employees from spending time with their friends and family.
Actions to take when working in a toxic work environment
It’s not always possible to just walk away. It takes some time to find a new job, so be sure to develop a toxicity management strategy before starting a new career.
1. Find people who have similar problems
Develop friendships with people who feel the same as you. Also, check to see if any of your coworkers have similar problems. Building a support system consisting of friendly and like-minded colleagues can help you improve your mood and feel less isolated.
If there is a problem with one of them, it may be worth reaching out to your superiors to resolve any dysfunctions between colleagues. The management team may be unaware of those negative emotions.
2. Confront the toxic person one-on-one
It is worth trying to solve interpersonal problems without intervention. For example, suppose a coworker consistently downplays your ideas during team meetings. In that case, you can approach by saying, “I understand you want to give feedback, but when you interrupt me, it makes it difficult for me to present my ideas.”
Instead of putting on a fake smile and constantly lifting your chin up, ask yourself when something irritates you at work.
3. Create lists and be in control
A to-do list can help you focus on your work instead of the toxic atmosphere. Of course, unless you are in a management position, you have limited authority over other people’s behaviour and interaction. However, you can control how you react.
Focus on decisions and reactions over which you have power, and you will avoid wasting energy in situations that are not worth your effort.
4. Document everything you do
Toxic environment makes you constantly look over your shoulder, waiting for another person to throw obstacles at your feet or give you false information. Perhaps you will need evidence to support your case. So note down your emails, comments and decisions made during meetings, or phone calls.
Accurate recording of work and conversations will give you at least peace of mind. The tool that will help you do this is TimesheetKiller. It will record everything you want and create a full report of your activities. You will be able to use it to prove your point to your supervisor or coworker in case of a conflict.
5. Do something after work to help relieve stress
Focus your attention on some practical activities like exercising, home repairs or learning a new skill.
- You will find some ideas here: 15 productive things to do when you’re bored
The key to alleviating the toxicity you deal with at work is having a fulfilling life outside of work to have the strength to fight its hardships.
6. Start an exit strategy
If you’ve taken the steps above and still feel like nothing is working, it’s probably time to find a new environment and a friendly team. Knowing the toxic workplace and how to deal with it should help you make better choices. It would be best to have this certainty before deciding to leave or when you are on termination.
If this is not possible, it is good to develop a so-called exit strategy. It will help you maintain a good attitude towards the positive part of your work or team and life in general. Consider bridging work that will keep you active before finding the right one and in line with your career.
Toxic work environment – summary
The signs of a toxic environment can sometimes be subtle but are always significant. The lack of good communication or support – of the manager or team members, not to mention any antagonistic behavior – may indicate them. You cannot show your best performance if you are stuck in a place like this. Remember: life is too short to feel miserable at work every day, especially when prolonged stress can significantly impact your health and life in all its aspects.