Toxic workplaces nowadays are ever-growing. With more and more people experiencing burnout, we all need to stop and take a long hard look at the environment we work in.
As Aristotle put it: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”
But, if a person starts to fail at their job, and feels unhappy, how can they know if it’s them – or the workplace itself? Has the air in your office ever felt heavy? Is there tension? Are deadlines getting closer to each other, and people seem stressed out? In this article, we reveal signs of a toxic workplace, explore factors that lead to it, and offer advice on how to combat such an environment.
What does “toxic work environment” mean?
A toxic work environment is one where employees find it difficult to work or progress in their careers due to the negative atmosphere created by coworkers, supervisors, or the company culture itself.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Using “toxic” to describe a workplace dates back to the late 60s. Certain work environments exhibited literal toxicity risks in the form of cancerous chemicals and infectious microbes. In the 80s, the meaning expanded to include workplace behavior and regulations. The word became popular after Virginia K. Baillie used it in her book “Effective Nursing Leadership: A Practical Guide”, to shed light on the poor work environment nurses faced every day. She revealed the rules that dictated how nurses had to behave – to have the leadership skills of a man and the caring demeanor of a woman – and explained how harmful they were. Guidelines like those were so strict, they created unhealthy work environments, on top of sexism and discrimination.
And reading the following section, you won’t find much difference between toxic environments today and those of Bailie’s time.
What is considered a toxic work environment?
Well, we don’t have to look much farther than Bailie’s guidebook.
In it, she lists 11 crucial aspects that make up a workplace. Everyone’s (the employees’, management’s and CEOs’) relationship to these aspects determines whether a work environment will turn healthy or toxic. Being exposed to them can cause significant longterm consequences, including career burnout.
|Healthy work environment||Toxic work environment|
|Goals||Clear, obvious||Obscure, unclear|
|Roles||Clear, agreed upon||Ambiguous, unclear, conflicting|
|Communication||Supportive, assertive, understanding||Defensive, aggressive, passive-aggressive|
|Decision making||Based on agreement, including everyone’s input||Top-down, one-way communication|
|Feelings||Expressed, discussed||Neglected or acted out|
|Self-disclosure||Open, expressive||Closed, hiding|
|Human resources||Staff treated as a resource||Staff is valued|
|Task completion||Autonomous, left to the employee||Single right way, imposed by supervisors|
Unclear goals and no transparency
Goals make a company move forward. When everyone knows the company aims, as well as the smaller, individual goals, there’s room for a healthy work atmosphere to develop. People know how they contribute to the big picture, which keeps them productive and happy. The employers have a goal tracker that helps them see what each person does, and it, in turn, helps with transparency.
That being said, a toxic workplace doesn’t have clear goals. Or it had forgotten about them a long time ago in exchange for chasing growth and financial gain. On a smaller scale, individual employee goals are unclear and not communicated properly. This leads to people feeling lost in their career path, like they’re standing in one place, and underutilizing their talents.
Within an office, everyone seems to always be busy with something on the project, but individual goals are never openly discussed. So each person knows what their closest coworkers are doing, while larger project goals remain obscure. This happens when there’s no transparency, making people feel like the proverbial headless chickens running around.
Every workplace benefits from full transparency – that way workers are on the same page about both small and big goals and feel like their contribution actually makes a difference. With time and project tracking software implemented, this can be a breeze, with long-lasting positive results.
Values/beliefs/attitudes are vague
Nowadays, this aspect is more commonly known as “company culture”. A healthy work environment has openly expressed and discussed values, attitudes and beliefs. Everyone is made aware of what the company culture is within the workplace, and new candidates are informed ahead of time to ensure they feel like the best fit.
In a toxic work environment, it’s never really clear what the company culture entails. Values and beliefs are obscure and rarely discussed.
Roles are unclear
This aspect might be the most impactful one when it comes to a healthy workplace turning into a toxic one.
When an employee knows their role, it means they not only know what their job entails, but also what is expected of them, and what counts as a success or failure in their tasks. Once the lines get muddled, a person can gradually lose sight of which tasks (or behavior) help push them forward in their career. They no longer know their specific duties, nor what is expected of them.
This usually happens in smaller or growing companies, that don’t have enough manpower to cover all aspects of the business. However, it is also seen in big businesses where roles are given and taken away on a whim by the management, to patch up poor leadership. Instead of hiring new people, some employers choose to give additional roles to their employees (most often without proper financial compensation).
- When a CEO assistant is suddenly asked to make coffee for clients and acts as a personal errand boy etc.
- In a small startup, the programmer is asked to also take on QA responsibilities because they can’t hire new people yet. This goes on for a full year.
Communication is one-way only
A healthy environment supports open, assertive communication. Proper communication is based on an understanding of previously mentioned roles, goals, attitudes, and beliefs. Knowing the roles and hierarchy of each person helps achieve better results.
In a toxic environment, communication is never a two-way street. It is used as a tool to assert dominance or as a power struggle. It’s passive-aggressive or simply passive or aggressive.
- Passive-aggressive – expressing dissatisfaction without openly saying it (eye-rolling, crossing arms, sarcasm, gossiping and plotting);
- Passive – avoiding conflict and communication altogether;
- Aggressive – emotional outbursts, asserting dominance over the conversational partner.
- (in a sarcastic tone) “No, sure, I have all the time in the world for more meetings”.
- When confronted, the person retreats and silently agrees to every remark, even if they disagree.
- An aggressive employer, for example, would berate an employee for a mistake, instead of focusing on finding a solution.
Decision making is top-down only
In a healthy work environment, decisions are made together, with input from all concerned parties.
As a contrast, in a toxic work environment there is no consensus on how to solve a problem. The decision comes from a higher-up, without the input or consultation of their peers (who could understand the situation better).
A programmer runs into an issue with the code that could overshoot the project deadline. The team decides to meet and agree on the best course of action – whether they need a deadline extension or if there are ways to still meet it. With opinion and advice from other programmers, their project manager can get an objective overview of the situation and find a solution.
A toxic workplace would see the programmer try to communicate the issue, only to be dismissed. The project manager would decide the programmer should either work overtime or find a “workaround” to meet the deadline.
Feelings are not expressed but bottled up
Contrary to what many may believe, expressing one’s feelings should be welcomed in the workplace. So long as it is done in an assertive, respectful manner. Since we face all kinds of situations in our jobs, it is natural that most of them will evoke different feelings. And employees should be encouraged to verbalize them and act on them freely.
Within a toxic work environment, employees are expected to take everything in their stride. There is an overall fear of expressing themselves due to the backlash from other employees or supervisors. This leads to bottled up frustrations that can cause loss of focus, drop in productivity and satisfaction in the short term, and mental and physical health worsening in the long term.
A big deadline is approaching and everyone works around the clock to meet it. One employee wants to voice her stress and feelings that the deadline can’t be met and that they’re all exhausted. However, she can’t, because such concerns are seen as weak and unproductive. She retreats to the restroom several times a day to cry unnoticed and constantly re-evaluates every decision she makes. This makes her work much more difficult, and simpler tasks take longer.
Listening is passive
In a healthy work environment, whenever two people are conversing, one listens actively while the other one speaks.
In a toxic work environment, it is clear that the listener simply waits for their turn to talk. There is no two-way communication.
Self-disclosure is either non-existent or becomes oversharing
When we talk about self-disclosure in general, we think of sharing personal information with others. However, it’s important to distinguish that in the workplace, this phrase has a slightly different meaning. It is not about sharing stories from your family get-together, or how your partner forgot to do the dishes the night before and you had an argument. In a work environment, self-disclosure is about communicating your wants and needs at that moment.
Self-disclosure in a healthy workplace means following through on our promises, like: “I will finish the task by 5 PM”, or expressing our immediate feelings such as: “I feel like the office is a little too stuffy, don’t you think?”
In a toxic work environment, everyone remains mostly silent, minding their own business and rarely reacting to situations or voicing opinions. This can cause a lot of distrust between employees.
Conflicts are negative and unproductive
Conflicts themselves are never positive or negative. They are simply disagreements in approach, attitudes, or opinions. It is the response to the conflict that can be negative or positive.
A healthy work environment doesn’t shy away from conflicts. They’re seen as opportunities to overcome difficulties that would’ve otherwise overburdened the project. People are encouraged to communicate openly and assertively, to always keep the resolution in mind. The end goal is to find a win-win solution.
A toxic work environment ignores conflicts or runs away from them. In it, the employees aren’t taught how to respond to them, so they turn into arguments that need to be won. This is what makes conflicts negative – one person’s needs are met, and the other one’s aren’t. The victor (regardless of whether they’re right or wrong) can be seen as the more dominant individual. The losing side can end up wanting retaliation, which will negatively affect both them and the workplace.
Human resource primacy
Human resource primacy refers to how employees see the company’s interest in their wellbeing, health, and satisfaction. Whether they are treated as valued workers, or nothing more than a resource to be managed.
At a toxic workplace, the employees will often feel like their supervisors and managers use them as tools to get the job done. They’re moved around from department to department, constantly changing their roles based on the task that needs to be done next. What’s more, the employees are made to feel as though sick days and holidays are a hindrance to the company’s progress, rather than an opportunity for them to recharge.
A healthy environment allows for people to be autonomous about their work. While there should be guidelines for how things are done, the employees can freely move within them, and make their own day-to-day decisions. The more independent they are, the better the results.
In a toxic work environment, there is only a single way of doing things, and it’s usually one decided on by the higher-ups. Their method is reinforced constantly, and there is little to no room for experimentation. Such practice leads to numbness, loss of motivation, and a growing feeling of being nothing more than “a cog in a machine”. Employees are not expected to think too much or change the way things are done – merely to listen, copy, and follow.
One very interesting thing comes to light when we take a look at workplace conflicts. Liz Kislik, a management consultant with over 25 years of experience, believes that conflicts are never just disagreements between two people at the office. She claims that they are just the surface indicator of bigger problems within the company itself.
What factors create a toxic workplace?
A workplace rarely becomes damaging for the employees on its own, or out of the blue. There are certain factors that contribute to it. As they build up, or go ignored for a long time, they culminate in a very unstable atmosphere that begins to fester.
Core values are undefined or not taken seriously
It is not uncommon to see companies displaying core values and boasting their mission and vision for every website visitor to see, without actually following them. While they claim to nurture a community of like-minded people that are set on a specific goal, the reality is different.
There’s a noticeable lack of direction, and it can seem as though everyone is working to the best of their abilities, without knowing why or what for.
Ask yourself and your coworkers if you all know what the bigger picture is (aside from company growth). What kind of values does the company want to instill? Are they succeeding?
Company culture is nonexistent
When it’s nonexistent, it feels as though you come to work every day, do your 8-10 hours, and go home. And it appears everyone else has the same idea. There’s very little casual chatter, and people seem to be focused on themselves and their work. You barely even know your coworker’s last names!
When company culture is taken to the other extreme, there are too many distractions: ping-pong or Foosball tables, numerous company lunches, meetings every few hours and a lot of chatter at desks. Informally, this is also called the “corporate kindergarten”, where employees are entertained to make them happier at their workplace. When in reality, the structure could be falling apart.
How do people spend their time at work? Do they seem pleased to be here, or are they just waiting for the clock to run out, so they can go home?
There is not enough feedback
Going back to our healthy/unhealthy workplace aspects, when people don’t know what their roles are, and what makes them successful or unsuccessful at their job, how are they expected to excel? Or learn?
Companies that fail to provide regular feedback, performance reviews or monthly meetings with their staff run the risk of having a group of people running in circles.
Is there a practice of giving constructive criticism or regular performance reviews? Consider how often you were told in a civil and constructive manner where your mistakes were and how to improve.
Old work habits die hard (or not at all)
“But this is how things were always done when I started out”, and “That is not how ____ taught us back in the day!” are two sentences often coming from supervisors who are too stuck in their ways to change for the better.
If you start to hear this more often than not, chances are that employee ingenuity and autonomy are being questioned. And the more this happens, the sooner people will begin to feel like cogs in a machine. Unless a higher-up gets involved to question their choices, odds are you’ll have fertile ground for toxicity in the workplace.
Are you and your coworkers pushed to experiment? Is it allowed to pursue alternative methods of getting the tasks done?
There is too much focus on the output (and not enough on people)
When a company is absorbed in growth, the CEO can become determined to reach certain milestones with a rigid tempo, disregarding everyone else.
Everything needs to be better, faster, or bigger. The client/customers come first, the company second, and then everyone else. This is followed by frequent overtime stays, insisting that employees cater to the customers and clients even if it’s not the right call. Not only does this kind of behavior lead to stress, but it also creates tension and fear of failure, on top of overtime exhaustion.
Think about the last time you had a guilt-free vacation. One where you could rest and unwind without worrying about the job that awaits when you come back. Are people being guilted or scared into working longer hours to meet certain milestones?
Employees that are not the right fit
Even employees themselves are a big factor in toxic workplaces. But what makes an employee so unfit, their behavior can cause an unhealthy work environment?
- A sense of entitlement (undeserved);
- Core values vastly different from that of the company;
- Forming of cliques and groups that exclude everyone else (think of high schools);
- Selfishness (they look at how every situation can benefit only them, and not the group);
- Gossiping and spreading rumors or misinformation around the office;
- Self-disclosing on personal matters (bringing personal problems to work);
- Taking credit for other’s work, yet never showing initiative.
These are just some of the behaviors toxic coworkers can exhibit. There are those that stem from emotional immaturity, such as forming cliques and gossiping. But there are also behaviors toxic people are unaware of, such as oversharing. It is important to recognize and address them appropriately.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time, especially if you haven’t worked with such people, identifying toxic individuals will rely on trial and error. You will likely get burned a few times before learning how to spot them from afar.
What does a toxic workplace look like?
A toxic workplace can look completely indistinguishable from a healthy one, at least on the surface level. Additionally, one person can identify the workplace as being toxic, while for another it isn’t. This happens when there is an imbalance in the treatment of employees, or because of the difference in work experience.
Those who’ve dealt with toxic coworkers, managers, or entire work environments are more likely to spot the signs sooner. But for those who haven’t, here is a number of telltale signs:
13 Questions to help you identify a toxic workplace
HR expert Liz Ryan who runs a blog called Human Workplace listed clear signs that could tell you a company culture is toxic. Following her lead, we’ve formulated questions to help you identify whether or not you’re in an unhealthy workplace.
- Observe people around the office, how do they act? Do they communicate, smile, talk casually every now and then? Not seeing any smiling, relaxed faces is a bad sign.
- How hard are you pushing for success? When power becomes more important than people, you will notice frequent overtime, exhaustion, and supervisors pointing out failures rather than successes.
- Are creative freedom and resourcefulness encouraged? In a toxic work environment, employees are afraid to experiment or work autonomously. Everything needs to be run by the higher-ups and stepping out of the line is frowned upon.
- What is the communication like between employees and supervisors/bosses? Do your managers and supervisors talk amongst themselves? What about employees and managers? Little to no face-to-face communication, absent CEOs and power struggles in the upper management are all issues that trickle down to even the interns, polluting the whole workplace.
- How do people feel about their work? If at all possible, ask your coworkers how they feel at work? Are they happy to be there, do their work assignments challenge them, do they feel like they can grow? The same questions can apply to you. A resounding “no” to more than one of these is a sign of a bigger problem.
- How are failures and successes treated? You would be surprised how much we’ve normalized success. It has come to the point of us no longer acknowledging it, but rather focusing on mistakes because we mistakenly believe only they can “make us better”. This is very bad for a company atmosphere because success is what drives us forward, and so does praise. Take notice if pointing out others’ failures is more common than celebrating even small wins.
- Are your and your coworker’s opinions validated? Take into account how well you (and everyone else at your office) know your jobs. When faced with a problem, are you asked about your opinion? Are your and your coworkers’ inputs valued and incorporated? Because a healthy workplace does that daily.
- Is more unnecessary work being piled on? Try to recall if mundane tasks are being given to you, even though they are not in your job description. Or even in your department. When your boss asks you to do basic QA work even though you’re in sales, you should accept because you want to help out your coworkers. If you accept out of fear that you’ll get fired or reprimanded or called out on not being a “team player”, it is a clear sign of an unhealthy work environment. You should be free to refuse a task that is not part of your job description if you have too much on your plate as it is.
- Are any employees getting special treatment? Favoritism comes in all shapes and sizes nowadays. The most recognizable one is in companies where some employees are first and foremost friends of the CEO or someone from the upper management. There shouldn’t be situations where some of the employees go to work lunches with the higher-ups, just because they are on better terms than others. This leads to information sharing that is otherwise unknown to other employees and leads to the forming of cliques as well as gossiping.
- Is everyone at the office tense and easily agitated? One of the clearest signs lies in irritability. It comes as one of the first symptoms of burnout, and the closer a person is to “exploding”, the more annoyed they get at even the smallest things. Observe how others behave during crunch hours or even when they’re discussing tasks and goals. A workplace that puts too much pressure on its employees will see more of them snapping at the mention of deadlines, corrections, and revisions.
- Is there regular enough feedback? A lack of feedback means there is a general disinterest in an employee’s career growth. This is most likely a company that doesn’t really care about whether you progress or not, so long as you help them achieve positive results.
- Is there a sense of togetherness, a community? While we did mention that ping-pong tables, team building activities, in-office conga lines and the like are “kindergarten treatment”, there still needs to be some semblance of unity. After all, you are all there for the same purpose for a minimum of eight hours a day. A toxic workplace has everyone work and entertains themselves at their computers or phones, sharing nothing, and leaving after their hours are up.
- Are “boomerang” employees frequent? It is not normal for a company to see a large turnover over a small period of time. When two-three employees change for a single position of a span of a year or two, it means that the workplace is most likely toxic. New trainees can’t adapt to the culture, and the management has standards that are too high or unrealistic.
Red flag phrases to look out for
Since we’ve covered toxic signs in the form of workplace situations, we wanted to give attention to red flag phrases as well. This is especially helpful if there are no overtly toxic situations, but specific behaviors that are unhealthy.
When in a job interview, look out for these
- If you’ve seen their job ads pop up quite often, ask them about it: “I’ve noticed you’re hiring often. Are you expanding? How long have you worked here?” This could be a sign of a lot of people quitting or getting fried often.
- The hiring process moves too fast (to fill in the spot) or takes too long (you aren’t among their first choices so they leave you waiting without any information).
- The recruiters/employers seem aloof and indifferent. They ask very little about you, your ambitions and plans, mostly focusing on what you have achieved and what you can do for them.
- The recruiters/employers don’t look like they want to sell you on the job. It seems as though they would be fine either way. This is a sign of a disinterested workplace that could care less about where your career goes.
- The recruiters/employers keep reminding you how numerous candidates applied for the same job. It’s a tactic to get you nervous and accepting of a lowball offer.
- The recruiters/employers ask you questions that show they have no idea what your job entails. This frequently happens to programmers and developers, when they’re being asked about different languages. In this kind of workplace, you will probably have switched roles, not know what your goals are, or receive proper feedback.
- “We work hard, and we play hard!” Sugarcoating the most likely common practice of making employees work overtime. There are actually laws that regulate work hours, especially overtime. Californian regulations are among the most notable ones, so looking up if there are similar ones in your country can only benefit you.
- The recruiters/employers avoid answering questions about work hours, promotions, or growth opportunities. There is no established way of progressing, and they are most likely offering promotions and bonuses “on the fly” and without structure. Expect a workplace where you will probably have to chase the employer for them.
At your current workplace
Toxic situations stem from toxic phrases. They’re usually the first clear-as-day indicator that you’re in a bad environment. We’ve compiled a list of most commonly heard examples:
“Who is the manager here, me or you?”
“I’ve been here longer than you to know that… “
These statements are often used to assert dominance and get you to do work someone else’s way.
“Can you take your holiday at a later date? This period is really important for the company.”
Your rest time is not up for debate. Holidays and sick leaves are what keeps your mental health in check. While you should be mindful to not leave the office with a pile of unfinished work, no supervisor can ask you to press pause on your private life for the betterment of the company.
“If you don’t want this job, there’s always someone who will gladly take your place.”
Less heard by supervisors due to its directness. You’ll most commonly get this comment from a coworker, masked as a well-meant “reality check”. It is there to make you stop voicing any negative opinions or doubts on how the workplace is handled.
“Stop making excuses and just do what you were asked to”
If you have legitimate concerns about a task you were given, then they’re not excuses. This kind of comment comes from the idea that employees should listen to their supervisors without fail, and never question their authority. If this is said to you, understand that it is a way to assert dominance.
“Work is not supposed to be fun – that’s why they call it ‘work’.”
Work should be engaging and challenging. It should feel rewarding. When you hear this, the person is trying to kill any motivation to change up something in your work routine. Or if you suggest that things are done a different way.
“I don’t like your attitude.”
There is a difference between having an attitude and standing up for yourself. Learn when your higher-ups are trying to shut you down because they can’t handle valid criticism.
“We/They can replace you just like that, so I’d watch it if I were you.”
This is an intimidation tactic often used to keep people in line. They know people need their jobs and will resort to threats like these.
“Look at _____, she’s also having personal problems/difficulties at work, and she’s not complaining!”
Just because a coworker doesn’t practice self-disclosure, it doesn’t mean no one should. These sorts of remarks serve to stifle individuality and kill any attempt of pointing out poor office practices.
“It is not my fault, _____ was supposed to do X/Y but he didn’t deliver!”
Constant pointing of fingers reveals a deeper issue – the employees are afraid of repercussions and taking responsibility. Instead of focusing on working out a solution, finding the culprit or dissecting the mistake is taken to great lengths.
“If no one complains of your work – it means you’re doing fine. Just keep working.”
While not outwardly a toxic sentence, it packs a lot of hidden ticking time bombs. The employees will subconsciously wait for the moment when a negative comment arrives. What’s more, no constructive feedback will soon lead them into a rut.
This kind of statement is a way for supervisors to avoid the additional tasks of tracking their employees’ progress and giving regular feedback.
With all these situations and unpleasant conversations, one has to wonder how such environments affect us. After all, we’re not robots, but thinking, feeling humans.
Toxic workplace and mental health
The internet is full of articles that confirm the impact unhealthy work environments have on our mental well being. You start forgetting the scope of your skills and talents, downplay everything you do, and begin doubting if you’ve ever been a good employee.
However, aside from feeling dejected and doubting your own skills, longer exposures to toxic workplaces can bring about a more dangerous issue. Depression.
Can a toxic work environment make you depressed?
The answer is yes, absolutely.
To not go into extensive detail, there have been important studies in the medical field that had proved how depression caused by internal and external workplace factors impede judgment, productivity, and career prospects.
How to tell if a toxic workplace is affecting you?
We don’t give our bodies enough credit. They’re so skilled at giving us hints that something is wrong, but we often miss them. We push ourselves, ignoring the signs and taking our mental and physical health for granted until it is too late. This is especially true for office workspaces that are riddled constant low-level stressors which we brush off as normal.
Just because we’re used to them doesn’t make them normal or okay. So, to avoid falling in this trap, we’ve made a “health checklist”. Use it to check in with your body regularly and catch anything suspicious on time.
NOTE: This checklist is by no means a medically-approved way of diagnosing yourself with anxiety, depression, or other illnesses. It is merely a guideline to question yourself and can be helpful when checking in with your doctor. If any serious ailments are bothering you, turn to a licensed physician.
Mental and physical health checklist:
- How are you sleeping? Do the hours of rest vary from your usual schedule? For how long has this been going on?
- Do you have any physical pain or discomfort at the thought of going to work, or during commute?
- What is your appetite like? Does it differ from the norm?
- Do you feel a sense of dread at times, like something bad is about to happen? Does it happen at work or at home?
- Do you feel drained and exhausted more often than not? (despite sleeping well)
- Are you experiencing sudden abdominal pain, or have increased headaches?
- Are you having difficulty remembering even the smallest things like names, dates and so on?
- Do you feel you’ve grown intolerant, or more easily agitated? Do you snap at friends and family more easily?
If you’ve answered yes to quite a few of these questions, you have suffered the consequences of a toxic work environment.
The best course of action would be to talk to your physician and consider the next steps. We cannot stress enough how important it is to do this as soon as possible, before the stress causes irreversible damage.
Can you sue your employer for the toxic work environment?
While an unhealthy workplace can be a detriment to a person’s health, can you build a court case around it? When it comes to toxic workplace effects, the gaming industry is infamous for it. Game developers will burn out so much, they contract illnesses, become depressed and require medication, with some left unfit to work for months on end. But have their companies seen any legal action?
Sadly, no. And here’s why.
A company can be considered to have violated the law in case there was:
- Discrimination based on race, disability, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation;
- Sexual harassment (verbal or physical) and
- Failure to address all allegations and concerns of discrimination or harassment.
It’s important to note that there is no legal case for favoritism, office bullying, or crunch times. For a company or an employer to be liable for legal action, they need to make a fairly severe transgression.
When is a toxic work workplace illegal?
While the regulations can differ across the globe, it can be said that the circumstances of mental and emotional distress need to be so severe, that a sensible person cannot cope with it.
For a complaint to be valid in court, there are a few things that need to be proven. Namely:
- That the employer acted intentionally or recklessly;
- That the employer’s behavior was extreme and outrageous;
- That the behavior was the cause of distress;
- The distress was severe.
Unfortunately, very few complaints fulfill these four requirements. For example, a supervisor or a manager pasting an embarrassing office Christmas photo of one of the employees on the water cooler isn’t considered outrageous and severe enough. Yes, it causes shame and distress, but not enough to render a person unable to mentally handle it.
So, if there are little to no chances of legally addressing a toxic work environment, what can you do?
How to handle a toxic work environment
We’ve mentioned Liz Kislik a little earlier, and in her TED talk, she offered great insight on how we react to workplace conflicts. The same goes for our reactions to a toxic environment. Kislik says that our amygdala (the ancient part of our brain), interprets emotional stressors as if they were actual physical danger. Then it is no wonder our bodies react to them with sweating, tremors, heart palpitations and the indescribable desire to run away.
We feel the symptoms long before there is a chance to process the unpleasant situation or exchange. The solution to this is to practice keeping distance and approaching the toxicity in a logical manner.
Try to solve the issue by talking
If the problem is with your coworker, try to talk it out. Be assertive and try to speak from a place of understanding. Remember that conflicts are not inherently negative, only our reactions to them. Do what you can to solve the issue, and leave the rest to the other party.
And if all else fails, there is always HR whose purpose is to help keep a healthy work environment.
Confide in friends and family
They should be your first go-to-people when you establish that your workplace is toxic. Especially if you don’t know who you can trust in the office.
Friends and family are often the first to notice that something is wrong with our work life. While we obsess over workloads, deadlines and project milestones, they are the ones who see the toll such stress has over us. Lean on them, and share your struggles, then ask for an objective opinion. Those closest to you will know if you are just complaining or, if there is an actual problem.
Seek support in the office
If you do have work friends, and you have each other’s best intentions at heart, then you’re one step further towards solving the issue. Together, you can discuss the workplace atmosphere, let off some stress, and document incidents and events (in case you need proof). And if you don’t have anyone, try to make some acquaintances, or look for people who seem to be getting through the same problems as you.
A little note of caution, however: if your group mainly discusses work-related issues and stresses over how bad things are, it very quickly becomes damaging. You are rekindling the flames over and over, instead of finding ways to combat the issue or let it go.
Document everything you do
As they say: “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” Whenever you get a gut feeling that someone’s tone is malicious, or toxic, or aimed at berating you, document it. Chat exchanges, e-mails, documents describing the event. Maybe it seems extreme, and you’re afraid of looking paranoid, but it proves to be a useful ace up your sleeve if things start to go south.
How to document:
- Immediately after an unpleasant event, or a conversation;
- Repeating behaviors that you have observed;
- Don’t forget dates and times;
- Screenshot emails and chat exchanges, store them somewhere private and safe;
- Describe situations in as much detail as you can, but remain objective.
- Track how you spend time at work. Identify early on if you’re wasting any time or if your productivity has dropped.
You never know if or when you will need proof, especially in situations where you will have to defend yourself. Documentation comes not from paranoia, but from self-preservation.
Approach HR with your issue
It is always a good idea to turn to HR when you feel like there is nothing you can do. If you think that confronting an issue or a person will only add fuel to the fire, it is best to talk to a neutral party.
And if there is no HR department, express your concerns to your employer, or a higher-up. Ask them for discretion and anonymity if you are afraid of retribution.
Balance out the bad with the good
Work on self-care. If all you do is stress at work, then come home and mull over the events of the day, it will only add up. Dedicate more time to your hobbies and interest, or spend more time with family. Here are some ideas:
- Organize or sign up for events throughout the week you will look forward to;
- Don’t work overtime more than absolutely necessary;
- Don’t multitask;
- Don’t destress with alcohol or over the counter medication;
- Listen to your favorite music or watch soothing videos when you get home;
- Take long showers or baths;
- Journal your thoughts, allow the frustrations to get out on paper (this helps verbalize your thoughts and clears your mind of them);
- Go for an intense physical activity.
There are plenty of other tips, as self-care varies from person to person. Find what little self-indulgent activities work the best for you and start doing them regularly.
NOTE: Be careful not to engage in harmful habits, such as frequent alcohol consumption, self-medicating, binge eating and so on. They will worsen the symptoms in the long run.
Leave the company
When all else fails – leave. There is no use staying in an environment that is not only harmful but harmful for eight hours straight. Your mental and physical health have no price. It’s better to leave on time than risk irreversible health consequences.
Just be careful to look for a new job on the down-low, so as not to cause any employer or coworker backlash.
To sum up
Toxicity in the workplace is more common than ever. Whether it is over or subtle, it causes physical and emotional stress to the employees but also costs employers money due to drops in productivity and sick leaves. To combat this, we need a cool head on our shoulders, a supportive environment (with family, friends and work allies), but also in the workplace itself. While as one person we can’t make an entire company a better place, we can at least learn how to watch our backs and ensure our wellbeing stays intact.