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A toxic work environment hurts. These 5 tips can help you overcome it

April 25, 2022 - 16 min read


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What is a toxic environment?

5 causes of a toxic environment

5 signs of a toxic work environment

How to deal with a toxic environment

3 examples of toxic work environments

Moving forward

Everybody has days when they hate going to work. Or, at least when they aren't looking forward to it.

Take Mondays, for example. For a lot of people, it can be hard to get your energy up and get into execution mode on Mondays. Many people are sad to leave the weekend behind.  

But that's different than dreading going to work. 

When the Sunday Scaries are constant and every day feels like a dreaded Monday, you might have a toxic work environment. If it feels like enough to make you look for another job, you aren’t alone. A recent study reported in MIT’s Sloan Management Review found that toxic work cultures are the biggest driver of people leaving their jobs currently. 

And, it turns out that a toxic culture can spread in a virtual environment just as easily as in a physical one.

A toxic workplace stems from many things, like a micromanaging boss, a team environment of one-upmanship, or too much office gossip that causes dysfunction or a hostile workplace.

A toxic work culture makes everything harder, damages your self-confidence and motivation, causes burnout, and strains your mental health. It’s bad for the team and organization, too. Nothing good can come from it, but you already know that if you've felt it.

That's why it's time to learn how to identify the red flags in a toxic work environment and how you can help yourself.


What is a toxic environment?

Take a moment to imagine your workplace. Think about your well-being and work-life balance and how a typical workday impacts it. When you go to work, is it a healthy workplace? Do you feel comfortable and at ease?

If your work puts you in a fight or flight type of mindset or leaves you feeling down about yourself, you could be in a toxic work environment. Workplace toxicity damages your self-esteem and sense of confidence. It makes you feel disrespected, judged, and downright sad. It can also cause high levels of stress and interfere with your self-care. You definitely won’t be doing your best work there.

A toxic work environment doesn't only impact your mental health. You can experience sexual harassment and other forms of physical danger in such a hostile work environment. Team members may feel powerless in an environment filled with dysfunction and danger. It's a place nobody wants to be. 

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5 causes of a toxic environment

A toxic work environment doesn't appear out of thin air. The following 5 factors alone don't make a toxic environment. Every organization will have some of them at times. But left unchecked, a toxic problem could develop. 


Here are 5 factors that contribute to a toxic work environment:

  1. Unclear company values. Without clear values, managers and employees don’t know what they mean in their day-to-day work. There is a high turnover rate among leadership, and managers and leaders distrust each other and their teams. 
  2. Not enough emphasis on teams. Opportunities and resources are scarce, and there’s a workplace culture of who you know being more important than what you do. Processes, rules, and guidelines don't align with the organization’s values or goals.
  3. Toxic team members. Difficult employees that don't work well with others or behave in toxic ways aren’t reprimanded or coached to do better. 
  4. Untrained or inconsistent leadership. Managers are poorly trained and inconsistent in applying policies, enforcing rules, or recognizing and rewarding team members’ contributions.
  5. Lack of accountability. Leadership doesn't seem to care to address issues related to these above factors, even when employees bring it to their attention and ask for help.

5 signs of a toxic work environment

Learning how to identify a toxic workplace is an excellent first step to either improving it or distancing yourself from it. Some of the signs of a toxic workplace are obvious, while others are tough to recognize.

Here are five common characteristics of a toxic work environment:

1. Your office (even the virtual one) is plagued with gossip and clique behavior

Nobody wants their professional workplace to feel like high school again. Toxic people often form cliques where they only stick with each other and make their feelings toward others known, but not in a positive way.

These cliques are counterproductive because they make collaboration difficult and divide a workplace. A workplace with a notable presence of cliques or a proliferation of office gossip will make you feel alienated and excluded.

2. Poor communication is everywhere

It's one thing to struggle with a lack of communication, but if there’s no communication at all, you’re dealing with a toxic work culture.

Poor communication is scattered, unclear, and confusing, leaving out team members or failing to let others know what’s important. This leaves people always uncertain whether they are being deliberately left out or if others are just making mistakes — incompetence around communication is frustrating and disorienting for everyone.

Communication skills are an essential part of a workplace. Without them, team members suffer. It's not just about how people articulate things either, but how people listen and show they listen to others.


3. Your boss has poor leadership skills

A good leader is supposed to encourage you to do your best and help make sure that you can. But when all they do is show favoritism, distrust, and a lack of respect for team members, they do the opposite.

If your manager relies on threats or punishment to motivate, whether that is berating or belittling someone in a team meeting or icing you out of conversations and disinviting you from meetings, it’s a sign of toxic leadership.

Worse, it can become contagious, fueling workplace toxicity. In that case, they can’t expect their initiatives to succeed — just low morale and a high employee turnover rate.

4. There's no such thing as time off

Every team member needs a few days to recharge and rest. We all deserve a work-life balance that makes space for us to develop our personal life. With remote work, people may assume you can work anytime, which translates to all the time. But really, our mental health and well-being can't take that. It causes burnout, anxiety, and physical and mental exhaustion.

Our jobs can't possibly expect us to be on the clock at every waking hour, and if they do, they aren’t healthy. Make sure you always ask about a company’s time off policy when starting a new job, but also pay attention to whether your teammates feel comfortable following company policy.

5. You feel like you're going nowhere

You aren't the unmotivated one. But if you stick around in a toxic environment too long, you may become part of the problem.

When our leaders and managers don't have a growth mindset or inclination to try new things, it discourages personal and career development and hinders opportunities to grow your skills. Rather than support and energize you to reach higher, your workplace environment only offers low morale and a feeling of low self-worth.

Remote jobs can be toxic, too

You might think remote work can solve these problems. When executed properly, it can give you more control over your boundaries and your time. Plus, you and your toxic coworkers are miles of physical distance.

Remote work can empower workers in many ways, but it’s not immune to toxicity. In a toxic remote workplace, you might:

  • Feel unable to speak up in meetings or share your ideas
  • Not see others being mistreated and are therefore unable to help
  • Be micromanaged or not given enough autonomy
  • Feel isolated or alone in your environment 
  • Experience cyber bullying
  • Erode the boundaries between home and work life.


How to deal with a toxic environment

Perhaps you feel like you can't do much about your workplace as an individual. We're here to tell you that you can. You might feel like your actions won't make a difference, but they can. They may encourage others to stop putting up with toxic coworkers or a toxic workplace in general.

Here are five tips for addressing a toxic work environment:

  1. Ask for a diversity and inclusion policy that doesn't tolerate discrimination and workplace bullying and model that value in your own team and interactions
  2. Set clear boundaries for yourself and make an effort to unplug to have a better work-life balance
  3. Recognize colleagues with regular appreciation for their efforts and encourage more employee recognition to make others feel appreciated and connected
  4. Outline clear expectations and establish clear communication
  5. Acknowledge that there's a problem with workplace toxicity by hearing and giving feedback

Find someone who will help you learn the value of your voice. A BetterUp coach can provide the guidance you need to use your voice more effectively in your professional and personal life.

3 examples of toxic work environments

Let's think of some scenarios where a toxic work environment thrives. For each example, we'll explain how you can respond. 

Take a read through these examples:

1. Boundaries are being crossed

It's Saturday, and you've just made yourself a delicious breakfast to start your day off — until you hear your Slack messages begin to buzz, and it's your boss asking you to do some extra work. Even though it's supposed to be your day off, they want you to work harder. They don't seem to care that it's outside your usual working hours. 

How you should respond: Don't forget that it's outside working hours. Consider ignoring the message or turning off notifications for the weekend. If this work can wait, politely explain that it's your day off and you have other commitments. Say you'd be more than happy to tend to the business when you go back to work, but you are unable to accommodate it now. 

If it's happened multiple times, it's time to have a conversation with your boss. Express that you don't feel it's appropriate to make off-hours requests a habit and be clear that you turn off your notifications on the weekends.

2. You witness workplace bullying

Let’s say a group of notoriously rude coworkers starts questioning the new hire about his hair in the middle of a standup where the new hire is trying to participate in the discussion. They aren’t asking relevant questions that show curiosity, and they’re undermining the message and credibility of the new hire.

You can tell the new coworker isn't comfortable. They make fun of the color and shape. Nobody else seems to notice, but you're watching it happen with your own eyes.

How you should respond: Toxic employees drag everyone down. Stand up and calmly tell them that their comments are inappropriate and irrelevant and that you and the rest of the team would like to focus on the important issues the team needs to cover. Be the one person to demonstrate what isn't tolerated; others will likely be relieved and follow your lead. 

If you can’t resolve the issue yourself, you may want to involve the human resources department. They can offer mediation services to resolve tensions around the workplace.


3. Gossip is flying through the office

You mind your own business when all of a sudden someone whispers some gossip in your ear (or your Slack). It's cruel. A while later, the coworker being gossiped about seems sad and insecure. The people in the clique who started the gossip seem happy with themselves.

How you should respond: Gossip creates a toxic company culture. Rather than let it slide, walk up to the people spreading the rumor and tell them that it isn't appropriate behavior. Make a deliberate effort to spend time getting to know the other coworker. If you’re in a virtual environment, call out their contributions to a project.

You can offer your support and respect without explicitly acknowledging the rumor at all if it is a one-time problem. If the gossiping problem continues, whether against the same person or others, go to your manager and ask for help addressing the issue. They can then have a private meeting with the gossip contributors.

Moving forward

Nobody should have to endure a toxic workplace. All that toxicity wreaks havoc on your mental health and damages your confidence, motivation, and career trajectory. The bottom line is that you deserve better and don’t have to accept a toxic work environment.

For some situations, begin by acknowledging that sometimes the best thing you can do is leave. If it's not working out, if nobody wants to make it change, leave. Tolerating it means that you're accepting that you don't need to grow or be happy at work, which spills into your personal life, too.

Instead, choose yourself and a happier relationship with work.

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Published April 25, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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