What is a toxic work environment & What to do about it?

All workplaces come with issues—some more stressful than others. However, if the issues are frequent and persistent enough to make you feel depressed, tired all the time, or maybe even dreadful of work altogether, you could be working in a decidedly toxic work environment. So, what does a toxic work environment look like? And what can you do to combat it?

Multiple studies, such as one conducted at Sweden’s Lund University, have come to the conclusion that toxic work environments lead to a significant rise in depression, sickness, and substance abuse in employees. Suffice it to say, working in a toxic workplace is not only unpleasant but can also downright unhealthy. In this article, you’ll learn whether your workplace is a toxic one, and what you can do about it if it is.

What is a toxic work environment?

The term toxic workplace is used to describe a place of work—typically an office—where the atmosphere, people, culture, work or any combination thereof—negatively impacts the rest of an employee’s life. These negative impacts can come in different forms—physical, emotional, mental, and more. As one can imagine, these negative impacts can creep into an employee’s personal life, damaging everything from friendships to self-confidence and even mental well-being.

The history of the term "toxic workplace"

Using the word “toxic” to describe negativity in a workplace started sometime in the late 60s. At first, the term was literal, often attributed to work environments that posed health risks in the form of carcinogenic agents (e.g., cancer-causing substances like asbestos) and infectious microbes. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the term started being used to refer to workplaces with problematic regulations and practices.

The word became popular after Virginia K. Baillie used it in her book “Effective Nursing Leadership: A Practical Guide”, to expose the poor work environment nurses face daily in many medical institutions across the US. In her book, Baillie revealed certain rules imposed on nurses were more harmful than helpful. Baillie identified certain guidelines that created unhealthy work environments that were then labeled as toxic.

What are the telltale signs of a toxic work environment?

Toxicity at work can present itself in many different ways. Knowing the telltale signs can help you recognize the sources of negativity in your workplace, allowing you to take the steps to confront, manage, or navigate your way through them effectively and successfully. Without further ado, here are signs of a toxic work environment to help you identify if there’s a persisting problem in your place of work.

1. Low morale

Morale is how employees feel about their work, their coworkers, and the company in general. When employees have high morale, they often feel enthusiastic and appreciated. On the other hand, employees with low morale feel poorly about their work. If your co-workers look miserable while working in the office, it’s safe to assume there’s a bit of toxicity at your workplace.

2. High turnover rate

Are workers being replaced with new ones with a high degree of frequency? If there’s high turnover within your team or the rest of the organization, take that as a sign that you’re in a toxic workplace. Employees don’t usually leave their jobs if they’ve had a positive experience.

3. Low Productivity/Attendance

When employees take more absences, that implies that they aren’t engaged in their work, and their productivity suffers. Low productivity and/or attendance is often the result when employees feel underappreciated and disconnected from their job, causing them to lose interest in their responsibilities. Employees who have lost the motivation to work will begin to disengage and actively look for a new job.

4. Hostility between employees

In a toxic work environment, everyone is out for themselves, there’s lots of infighting, and there’s no genuine connection between colleagues. Cliques, rumors, and gossip abound. If you notice individuals or groups who alienate their colleagues, that’s a sure sign that your workplace is toxic. While the occasional stress, discouragement, and frustration is normal, a prevailing negative atmosphere can be harmful to anyone at work.

5. No room for growth

Employees in toxic work environments are often left to fend for themselves because the support systems that are supposed to help them grow do not exist. A disconnect between managers and team members can take its toll, especially on entry-level employees—who are left to “figure things out” in such a workplace, leading to disillusionment and demoralization. While it’s not the company’s responsibility to motivate you toward growth, a lack of support can be a source of demotivation that pushes employees to seek other opportunities elsewhere.

How to deal with a toxic work environment?

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by a toxic workplace and feel like there’s not much you can do. That’s why it’s important to believe that with the right mindset and effort, the simplest of actions can make a difference in making your work environment a more tolerable one. Here are seven tips not only for how to survive, but also how to handle a toxic workplace in general.

  1. Acknowledge that there’s a problem in the workplace
    The first step to addressing an issue is to acknowledge that it exists. Start by informing the party involved. Sometimes, people are completely unaware of how their actions are impacting others negatively. Let your manager know if he or she is overstepping your boundaries. Tell co-workers that you don’t appreciate them talking about people behind their back. Determine the problem’s level of impact to decide whether you can handle it on your own or whether you should report it to higher ups (e.g., a manager, human resources, labor union, government agency, etc.)
  2. Set clear boundaries
    While earning an income is necessary, it’s not the only priority in life. List down your boundaries at work to see how you should invest your time and energy. If you’re confused which boundaries to set, here are some to start with:
    • Set your hours for working and stick to them. Say no to working after hours and on weekends.
    • Communicate to co-workers how you like to give and receive feedback.
    • Create a schedule that helps you achieve a healthy work-life balance.
    • Do not engage in conversations that can be perceived as gossip.
    • Take time off and plan out your vacation or mental health days in advance.
  3. Collect evidence
    As you constantly experience toxicity in your workplace, start gathering proof so that you have something to show in case the problem escalates. You’ll want to document and perhaps even record conversations with colleagues as you attempt to address the source of the toxicity. Doing so can ensure that you have proof against any accusations that may be brought against you in case of disagreements later.
  4. Plan and execute your strategy
    It helps to develop a plan for expressing your issues constructively and respectfully. Determine how to initiate a conversation and discuss your problems with the other party, be it your boss, co-worker, or company representative. Find out how to explain and work together to understand why you feel negative about the relationship. Take an empathetic approach, and keep the interaction polite.
  5. Reach out to your company’s HR department
    Going to HR about any workplace problem you’re experiencing is an appropriate action to do. That way, your complaint be noted and documented. Strengthen your case by preparing the evidence you gathered. Review your company’s procedures for filing HR complaints, as these can vary by company. Depending on your HR department’s processes, you may have to submit your request to the director or to a representative who specifically handles employees' complaints. Following the rules set by your organization helps ensure that your complaint is received, reviewed, and handled promptly.
  6. Escalate the issue as necessary
    If you feel that HR did not address the situation properly or the solution was not fair, then you may need to seek help elsewhere. If you’re worried about retaliation from the affected party, it helps to remember that federal law and legal professionals can provide you with a level of protection. Reach out to labor attorneys for advice or guidance. Depending on your situation, you can also file a complaint with the corresponding government agency. For example, you can submit complaints relating to safety to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Any issue involving discrimination or harassment should be reported to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
  7. Find a new job
    Despite all your best efforts, a toxic work environment can persist. If you’re in this situation and you believe that the time has come to sever your ties with the company and get out, remember that you deserve to work in a healthy work environment and that you are worthy of being supported and respected by your colleagues. Submit your two weeks’ notice, don’t take hostile responses to your departure personally, and don’t feel like you have to justify or explain your decision to leave a toxic workplace. The problem is not your fault, and you have no reason to feel guilty or shameful. Just smile, hold your head up high, and move on to the next chapter in your career—one where you will thrive, be successful, and be happy.

Need more tips on how to fix a toxic work environment?

The Resumeble blog page comes with plenty of articles, with some discussing tips on how to stay positive and how to cope with a toxic workplace. Browse our articles to equip yourself on different ways to handle your difficult situation.

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