Stress is an inevitable part of our lives, especially in our workplaces. But sometimes a workplace that is overly stressful turns toxic. A toxic workplace is a workplace that is marked by significant drama and infighting, where personal battles often harm productivity. Toxic workplaces are often considered the result of toxic employers and/or toxic employees who are motivated by personal gain such as power, money, fame or special status, use unethical, mean-spirited and sometimes illegal means to manipulate and annoy those around them; and whose motives are to maintain or increase power, money or special status or divert attention away from their performance shortfalls and misdeeds. Toxic workers do not recognize a duty to the organization for which they work or their co-workers in terms of ethics or professional conduct toward others. Toxic workers define relationships with co-workers, not by organizational structure but by co-workers they favour and those they do not like or trust.
A toxic work environment is also defined as an environment that negatively impacts the viability of an organization. An organization can be considered toxic if it is ineffective as well as destructive to its employees. Studies have found that toxic workplace environments are a leading cause of workplace violence such as violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty. Studies on this issue include verbal violence including threats, verbal abuse, hostility, harassment, and the like can cause significant psychological trauma and stress, even if no physical injury takes place. Verbal assaults and hostility can also escalate to physical violence. Not only in the workplace, these disruptions can show up in any number of physical symptoms like sleepless nights, feeling constantly vigilant, sweaty palms, and a racing heartbeat, but a toxic work environment has loads of negative health impacts which can affect personal life by damaging pretty much your whole life from self esteem to even friendships.
This phenomenon harms both the company and the other employees, including those who are not direct targets. Co-workers are distracted by drama, gossip and by choosing sides in the ongoing animosity and can translate into lost productivity. While employees are distracted by this activity, they cannot devote time and attention to the achievement of business goals. Positively motivated and ethical employees may try to speak up to a toxic employee but this can make them a target. Managers of toxic employees can feel intimidated by a toxic employee and try to appease the employee in an effort to avoid confrontation. Over time, positively motivated employees drift away from the workplace and may begin to view management as inept and ineffective. This can result in poor job performance as they begin to feel less valued, therefore less loyal to the company. Fellow employees may begin to experience physical symptoms from the stress and worry over whether they or someone they care about in the work place may be targeted. This can even develop into a clinical depression requiring treatment.
I know only too well what a toxic workplace can do to you. I worked in such organisations not once, but twice! Both times, I needed a job and took up the offer, even though my gut was screaming at me not to. Both times, as early as week two in the job, I had started planning on how to get out. I hated waking up on Monday knowing that I had to go to work and even before I entered the organisation’s premises on Monday morning, I was looking forward to that Friday evening. The first was not as bad as the second one and even today, quite a few years after I have left that organisation, when I think of my time there, I start getting agitated and it’s taken me years to get to a point where I can consciously stop thinking of my time there and how I was bullied.
So how do you know if you are in a toxic work environment? Read on…
Lack of and Bad Communication: Communication skills are probably the number one sill needed in the workplace, but insufficient, confusing, or scattered communication is the culprit of so many problems there. Both verbal and non-verbal communication from the employee, supervisor and employer is possibly the root cause of negativity in an organisation. You work hard for something and there’s no recognition or worse, feedback about your task. You also don’t get the necessary information to do your job so you are set up for failure even before you start. Another communication fail is the passive-aggressive talk, both from the superior and your peers and the fact that people don’t want to listen to what you have to say.
Poor Leadership: Most people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses and this point reiterates that old adage. Bad leadership can seep into every fiber of an organization, and it often does. Sometimes bad bosses are products of bad bosses, they don’t know any better and think this is how bosses should be. Such bosses make work a living hell. Bad bosses come in various forms: the micromanager who wants to know every minute what you do and constantly checks, corrects and undermines you, the blamer who wants all the credit but manages to pass down to his reportees all the mistakes, or maybe the boss who does not respect your personal space and is the one who sends emails or calls you on your weekends or holidays, expecting you to drop everything to run to him.
Workplace Cliques: A clique is a group of people in a setting who stick together all the time. At most workplaces, there are cliques all the time, but when these cliques exclude specific individuals outside their tichtly-knit circle, it ruins the workplace culture. In workplaces which are multi-cultural, when cliques speak in a language known only to them in front of others, it could be detrimental to the atmosphere and prove alientating to the person being shunned. I have seen cliques in every organisation I worked in, but the one in one of the toxic workplace I was at was extremely bad. They would speak over me (even when I was sitting right in front of them) and speak in a specific language even though co-workers were from various nationalities and spoke many language, with English being the common denominator, go off to lunches without ever inviting me, even on my first day of work and speak of shared experiences which I was obviously excluded from. They were also constantly chatting on messaging platforms and sometimes would look at me and snigger which clearly showed they were gossiping about me. I have no idea if they would continue to be friends after leaving the organisation because I did’nt want to be in touch with anyone from there after I moved on, so I have no idea.
Unmotivated Coworkers: In a toxic work environment, it’s quite easy to see that most people there are unmotivated. They are in that organisation only for the salary they are paid. They have no interest in doing anything more than absolutely necessary to earn their daily bread and not get fired. There is an air of gloom and a lack of motivation around you with people preferring to see the glass as half empty instead of half full. In such cases, it’s a few who bear the biggest burdens and this would lead to a burnout sooner or later and then you also become one of them, plodding along with zero interest in life.
Employee Sickness: Unmotivated employees in toxic workplaces lead to employee burnout, fatigue, and illness due to high levels of stress that wreak havoc on our bodies. If people are calling in sick or worse, are working sick, that’s a good sign of a toxic work environment.
High Employee Turnover: A sure sign that you are in a toxic place is the employee turnover rate. When people don’t seem to stay in an organisation, that definitely means something is seriously wrong there. Conversely, if employees are constantly being laid off or fired, this can be a sign of a few other toxic elements lack of direction, organisation disorganisation, bad leadershop or little opportunity within the organisation.
Work Life Imbalance: I call this imbalance because in a toxic work environment, there is no concept of any life, it’s all about work. In such organisations, you are expected to be working or on call 24/7/365. Your managers have no concept of personal space and think even if they send you an email with work at midnight, they expect the work to have been completed first thing in the morning. You deserve to have a full life outside of work. You should be able to leave an email unread after dinner on a Tuesday or be able to make your dentist appointment without feeling guilty. These places also frown upon taking holidays, especially if it is more than a few days. I remember hearing comments in another workplace (which was not toxic) when I first applied for a month-long holiday to go back to India. They were shocked I would take such a long break, but what they didn’t realise was that I had not taken any leave at all the whole preceeding year because I was saving up all my leave just so I could take a longish break to go and meet my parents. Once I explained this and shared my point of view, it was understood and I never had any comments about my leave as long as I worked there.
Lack of Movement: When there’s no forward growth in your career in the organisation and you seem to be stagnant in where you are, it’s probably because the environment does not allow for employees to grow and flourish. If your workplace doesn’t seem to offer any mobility, learning opportunities, or mentorship, they are likely not invested in the growth of their employees. Once you’ve recognised that you have nowhere to grow, it might be time for change.
Burnt Out Feeling: Burnout is more than a buzzword you may have heard around workplace jargon. Workplace burnout is recognized by the World Health Organization as a legitimate medical diagnosis. Burnout can be a surefire sign of a toxic work environment, or at least a work environment that doesn’t “work” for you. There are three types of burnout: Frenetic Burnout which is experienced by employees who put a ton of energy into their work in the hopes that the output will be rewarding. After a sustained period of dedicated work, the frenetic worker does not find positive outcomes. When someone has Underchallenged Burnout, the employee feels underchallenged and bored at work. Being unable to find any satisfaction in a job, the underchallenged employees find themselves in a lowered mood. When the employee is resigned about their work after experiencing consistent work stress over a long period of time, he is experiencing Worn-out Burnout. Having experienced negligible rewards, the worn-out employee feels disillusioned and uninspired by the job at hand.
Listen to your Intuition: We rarely listen to our intuition, preferring to listening to our head instead. I know this from past experience when instead of listening to my intuition, I went with what logic was telling me and paid the price for it. Most times, when we are in bad situations or we will be entering situations which are not to our best interests, our intuition screams at us to get away, but we don’t listen. In such cases, our intuition is right more than wrong and when you are faced with a fight between your head and your heart, listen to your heart, you will be thankful soon.
Now that we know how to identify a toxic workplace, what strategies can we put in place to handle it? The best solution is of course to move out and get a new job, but since this sometimes takes time and you need a job while you look for one, you just can’t walk away from such an environment immediately. We need to develop ways and means to handle the dysfunctional workplace you are in until the time you can press send on that resignation letter to your manager.
When you are at work, keep reminding yourself that you are not a reflection of your current surroundings. Placing positive and uplifting quotes on the wall of your office or cubicle that will help keep your spirits lifted can be very helpful in these circumstances. Also, taking time out each workday to take a short walk by yourself is a great way to detach and allow for positive self-talk to remind yourself of the qualities you possess that make you amazing. Find ways to remind yourself of who you truly are.
Find people who feel the same way you do. Develop friendships with people who feel the same way as you. The hope is that you’ll watch each other’s back and will share any news with the group.
Do something after work that can help relieve stress. Go to the gym, do home repairs, or learn a new skill. The key is to make sure you’re living a fulfilling life outside of work to combat the drama of your 9 to 5.
Practice detachment, especially psychological detachment meaning you avoid work and work-related thoughts outside of your working hours. You can do this by taking holidays, both short and long, making time for family and friends, take up some new hobby and exercise.
Create lists to keep yourself busy. A list can help you stay focused on your tasks instead of the toxic atmosphere and gives you a reason to keep going every day.
Document everything you do. Save emails and write down comments and decisions from meetings, phone calls, and every person who interacts with you. If you need to file a complaint, you will need the evidence to back your claim.
I am a huge believer that every situation is a learning opportunity. This too can be one. Most often our strongest personal growth comes from living through our most difficult situations. When you are working in a toxic environment, try to pay close attention to the lessons you can take away from the experience. Perhaps you can learn the qualities in a leader that you never want to emulate or maybe management mistakes that you would not want to repeat if the opportunity for management ever comes your way. In every bad situation there is something you can learn that will help you become a better person, so focus on each lesson you are learning.
Another way to handle the stress of a toxic work environment is by practicing relaxation during non-work time. When people try to relax, they often report feeling healthier and suffering less from stress and exhaustion. Relaxation can be a significant moderator of the relationship between negative work thoughts and insomnia symptoms. Activities like meditation, yoga, exercising, taking a nice long walk with some music or podcast, or even volunterring and spending time with family and friends will help you relax.
Plan your exit strategy. It is possible that things could improve at your job, in which case it might make sense to stay. However, while waiting it out, begin your search for a new job. This will help you stay positive when things get rough. If you needed to leave yesterday, consider a bridge job that will keep you active while you find something in line with your career.