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Signs you’re in a toxic work environment – and how to make it bearable

Did you know that workplace-related stress is among the top reasons for mental depression in the US? Do you know what’s causing all that stress? A toxic work environment.

According to a recent MIT study, toxic work culture is the number one reason people resign from their jobs despite being satisfied with their compensation.

So, if you despise every moment you spend at work, have to drag yourself out of bed every morning, and feel incredibly stressed by your job, you might be one of the thousands of corporate professionals stuck in a toxic work environment.

In this article, we’ll show how to recognize a toxic workplace and share actionable tips to handle its challenges.

What is a toxic work environment?

A toxic work environment is an unwelcoming, hostile, and mentally draining workplace that makes your life miserable, halts your professional growth, and messes up your mental health. 

Many factors can contribute to making a workplace toxic.

A micromanaging boss, a culture of late sittings and weekend work, a non-inclusive environment, bullying by coworkers, or all of it together.

Bob Sutton, a Stanford University professor, summed up toxic work culture perfectly in his “The No Asshole Rule.”

“A toxic work environment makes you feel like dirt”

That’s exactly what it does.

It’s a place where ungrateful employers use employees like tissue paper, treat them like dirt, and feel no remorse for doing so.

And here’s the worst part.

Such employers rarely violate any legal boundaries. They play within the rules by creating an uncooperative culture and a cutthroat environment where you remain stuck just because you need a job. So, you never get the chance to take them to court or seek legal help

If you’re stuck in such a workplace, switching jobs is best because the longer you stay, the worse it becomes.

But if that’s not an option yet, we’ll show you how you can survive (and even thrive) while you work there.

But before that, let me show you how a toxic culture affects your life.

Why is a toxic workplace bad?

The effects of a toxic work environment go well beyond your workplace. Here are a few examples to show you how.

Affects output

A recent study published in the Kansas Medical Journal found an inverse relationship between mental stress and work productivity. So, the higher the mental stress, the lower the productivity.

And it makes sense.

Toxic workplaces rarely have happy and productive employees, and the reasons are obvious. 

When you have a narcissist and unappreciative boss who cannot see anything good in your work or team members who don’t miss any opportunity for sarcasm, your mind will always struggle at work.

Affects confidence

Imagine a workplace where your boss criticizes everything you do, or your coworkers make fun of your dressing or your talking style.

If this happens over a long period, you’ll not only lose confidence while at work but generally become over-conscious of yourself in daily life.

Unfortunately, most toxic workplaces do that to you.

Instead of appreciating your efforts and helping you improve, toxic employers always find faults in your work and kill your confidence.

Can be detrimental to health, both physical and mental

We’ve already discussed how a toxic work environment can impact your mental health and make you permanently depressed.

But mental stress is the gateway to numerous other physical and mental illnesses. Because when your mind isn’t relaxed, nothing else in your body functions properly.

You can experience a loss of appetite, have sleepless nights, lose motivation for work, and generally feel down throughout the day.

Affects your personal life and relationships

A typical corporate employee spends 8-10 hours at work every day. Can you remain unaffected if you spend so much time in a toxic environment?

Work stress usually spills into your personal life and affects your family relationships. You can get angry at small things, shout unnecessarily, stay quiet longer than usual, and be bitter all the time.

No one enjoys spending time with such people.

Prevents you from realizing your true potential

A toxic work environment never allows you to reach your true potential at work. The negativity around you kills creativity because you’re always in survival mode. So instead of producing more value, coming up with new initiatives, and solving problems, your focus remains on avoiding conflicts with your boss or coworkers. 

Turns you into a toxic person

Working in a toxic workplace for a few years can permanently turn you into a toxic person. You get so used to the negativity at work that it becomes a part of your personality, and you start giving the same vibes wherever you go. Criticism becomes your second nature, and degrading others becomes a norm for you.

No job is worth doing at the price of your mental and physical health and personal relationships. This is why you need to identify a toxic workplace as soon as possible and prevent its ill effects before it's too late.

How to identify if you’re in a toxic workplace

Toxic companies are regular organizations with systems, policies, promotions, and all the other corporate formalities. But their cultures are messed up, and you only discover it when you join the organization.

So, ideally, you should look for the following signs in a company before joining it by asking its employees and doing online research.

No work-life balance

Work-life balance is critical to your health, personal well-being, and career growth. But toxic companies don’t realize that.

Instead, they want to see you always working even when you’re not needed in the office. Such companies have a culture of late sittings where employees' value and commitment to work are judged by the longer they stay in the office.

They expect employees to do unpaid work for long hours, call meetings just before the day end, and find different ways to keep employees in their cubicles.

With time, employees in such companies become so used to late sittings that anyone leaving the office on time is looked down upon by their colleagues.

Disrespect towards employees

Being passionate and energetic at work is great. But nothing gives employers the right to be disrespectful towards employees.

But it’s the norm in most toxic workplaces.

Their managers shout at employees, publicly criticize their work, question their talent and skills, and humiliate them in front of their teams - all in the name of passion.

This doesn’t happen occasionally or in the heat of the moment. It’s their culture, and it’s intentional because it aligns with their philosophy of treating employees like dirt.

Poor internal communication

Communication builds trust and helps employees understand their employer’s perspective. This is why most organizations have well-defined internal communication protocols developed by dedicated HR and communication professionals.

But toxic work cultures don’t value internal communication. Instead, they intentionally keep employees in the dark, rarely take them into confidence, and consider internal communication a waste of resources.

They believe in imposing policies and controlling employees instead of making partners in their decisions.

Negativity, gossip, and rumors among employees

Gossip and negativity in the workforce are among the biggest red flags in a toxic workplace. Unfortunately, negativity is contagious, and once it starts spreading, even the best employees can fall prey to it.

Forward-looking companies have processes and protocols to combat negativity in their workforce. But toxic companies don’t care.

This is why companies where everyone sounds angry and dissatisfied are the worst places to work.

Poor pay rates

Smart companies value talent and consider human resources as their most prized asset. This is why they often pay employees higher than the market rate and offer incentives and perks to increase their loyalty to the company.

Toxic work workplaces are the complete opposite.

They see every employee as an easily replaceable resource that should never cost them more than what’s necessary. So, most toxic organizations have poor pay rates that are rarely revised or reviewed.

They often pay late and make salary deductions on minor policy violations. Their primary focus is to save money, even at the cost of employee satisfaction.

No job descriptions or defined roles

Job descriptions define boundaries and provide clarity about an employee’s job. Toxic companies intentionally avoid creating job descriptions or create vague JDs so that they can easily manipulate employees.

They often trick employees by citing the flexible startup culture where everyone has to wear multiple hats. But they exploit employees by assigning additional work and holding them responsible for jobs they’re not trained for.

Employee micromanagement

Micromanagement is among the most apparent signs of toxic work culture. It kills creativity, drains motivation, and prevents skill development in employees.

Toxic employers micromanage because they don’t trust employees and don’t want them to deviate from their defined path. So, they treat them as machines who should do exactly as they say without critically thinking or analyzing the process.

For humans, such environments cause dissatisfaction because we’re curious by nature and can’t stick to a fixed path for long.

But, as we’ve already discussed, toxic companies don’t care about employee satisfaction.

No clear reward system

Well-defined career paths and reward systems bring clarity to organizations and motivate employees to work harder.

The absence of a transparent reward system is a big red flag because it indicates that the employer doesn’t value transparency and career growth. Instead, they reward and penalize employees based on their prejudice.

As a result, politics, gossip, and conspiracies are rife in such companies, and the employees focus more on pleasing their bosses than creating value, solving problems, and doing real work. 

Prioritizing customers over employees

“Customers are always right” is a commonly used phrase in marketing and sales teams.

But toxic work cultures take it a bit too far by prioritizing customers over employees at all costs. This means holding employees accountable for unreasonable customer demands and showing disregard for employees in front of the customers.

This is extremely damaging to an employee’s confidence and motivation toward work and creates a toxic culture in the company where the employees have no say.

No skill development programs

Organizations grow when their employees upgrade their skills and bring more value to work. Modern companies understand that employee skill development is a profitable investment that always pays back.

But toxic workplaces see it as a waste of money. They believe employees would use their upgraded skills to switch jobs and benefit competitors.

What they don’t understand is that employees switch jobs anyway. But they’re more likely to keep working in a company that invests in their career and helps them improve their professional qualification. Plus, it creates a positive culture in the company where everyone is looking to improve instead of doing old jobs with outdated skills.

No employee feedback system

Regular feedback sessions between employees and managers help them understand each other’s perspectives, identify mistakes, and improve performance.

This is why most HR professionals recommend monthly or quarterly feedback cycles between managers and team members.

But in toxic work cultures, employee feedback has no value. For them, employees don’t have a say in the company’s policies or strategy. Their job is to take orders and execute plans. And if they’re too dissatisfied with the company, they’re asked to leave.

False promises

Toxic companies see hiring as a one-time transaction. So they do their best to strike a deal where they can get a talented professional on board at the lowest possible price.

They make false promises to attract candidates but rarely honor their word once an employee gets on board.

Naturally, the employees have no sense of loyalty towards such companies and remain dissatisfied as long as they work there.

Unreasonable leave policies

Employees get sick, burn out, or take time off for vacations. This is why every company has casual, sick, annual, and other leave types. Wise employers understand that time away from work helps employees reenergize and return with higher motivation.

But toxic employers want employees in the office at all costs. This is why they have strict and sometimes inhuman leave policies that require employees to show up for work no matter what.

They rarely approve leave requests and deal harshly with employees who skip work because of an illness or a family commitment.

High level of employee sicknesses

Happy companies are healthy companies. But toxic workplaces are stressful and bitter. This is why their employees frequently fall sick and have clear signs of stress on their faces. They despise coming to work every day and dread every moment spent in the office.

A recent study found a direct relationship between work-related stress and physical illness. It also found that the effects are much more intense in older employees.

So, if you see a company where everyone’s falling sick and feeling low-energy, stay away.

Narcissistic leadership

Few things are worse than working under a narcissistic boss. No matter what you do, they’re never grateful or appreciative and always find ways to criticize your work.

They’re so occupied by themselves that they hardly ever think about your personal well-being or professional growth. To make matters worse, they routinely take credit for your work and never let you shine in front of their bosses and higher management.

Understandably, working with such bosses is a nightmare and makes even the most optimistic people bitter about life.

High turnover

With all the harms of a toxic workplace we’ve discussed so far, do you think people keep working there for long? Of course not.

This is why toxic companies have a very high turnover rate. High-skilled employees don’t stay with them for more than a few months and leave as soon as they get a better opportunity.

But even low-skilled employees with limited job offers leave such companies for their mental and physical well-being.

How to deal with a toxic work environment

So, what if you find yourself stuck in a toxic work environment? How do you handle its pressures without harming yourself? There are two ways to look at it.

What you can do as an employee

You can’t change the way your employer works. But you can take steps to protect yourself and survive in a toxic workplace.

Here are a few tips to help you.

Find people who feel the same way you do

In a toxic workplace, many employees feel suffocated and burned out because of the company culture. Talk to them, share your challenges, exchange ideas, and help each other survive. 

Having friends with the same goals (surviving a toxic workplace in this case) makes your job easier and relaxes you to an extent. 

Plus, it helps you create a positive bubble around yourself that protects you from the negativity outside.

Document everything you do

A toxic work environment never regards your work and rarely celebrates your accomplishments. So, you’ll have to do it yourself.

Document everything you do at work using daily to-do lists, monthly reports, quarterly close-outs, and annual performance summaries.

Do this even if your employer doesn’t care because these are helpful tools for highlighting your performance and come in handy when a toxic employer questions your value.

Enforce boundaries

A toxic employer thinks they’ve bought you for life. So, they routinely force you to stay late at work and send emails and messages even on weekends. 

If you don’t set your boundaries from the first day, they’ll quickly take advantage and pull you into their circle of continuous grinding work.

Don’t let that happen.

The first time someone asks you to stay late, ask them why it's necessary and can’t be done during regular working hours. Never respond to messages or chats on weekends.

If possible, keep a separate cell phone number for work and turn it off during holidays and offtime so that no one can ruin your relaxing time.

Start your exit strategy

While you survive at a toxic company, don’t forget to plan your exit strategy. Because the only permanent solution to your problems is switching to a better job.

So, update your resume and job profile, and regularly post your achievements on LinkedIn and other industry platforms. Sharing your expertise and work-related tips on LinkedIn is a great way to get noticed in your industry, connect with new people, and find hidden job opportunities.

Prioritize self-care

Nothing’s more valuable than your health. Because once your health deteriorates, you can’t enjoy anything in life.

So, don’t let a toxic employer make you ignore your personal well-being. Join a gym or a fitness club and channel your anxiety and anger through physical workouts.

Intentionally meet friends outside of work so that you can talk about life and things you love doing. Prioritize your family and cherish the moments you append together. 

All of this helps you survive the negativity of a toxic workplace.

What organizations and businesses can do 

As a leader, if you realize your company’s culture is becoming more toxic every day, here are a few ways to handle it.

Find the source of negativity

Diagnose the reasons for your company’s toxic culture. Is it because of your narcissistic managers, poor communication channels, no reward system, or something else?

Seek professional help to audit your work culture and find the main reason why people are constantly stressed and bitter in your company.

This is the first and the most crucial step towards improvement.

Plan cultural change

Positive change is often slow and painful, but it makes you better and stronger. So, once you identify the reasons for your company’s toxic culture, create a long-term plan to eliminate it for good.

Take your leadership on board, clearly state the problem, make them realize how it's hurting the company, and ask everyone to help you create a positive culture.

It takes time, but with consistent effort, everything is possible.

Create formal communication channels

Kill gossip and rumors by creating formal communication channels at every level of the organizational hierarchy. Give employees a voice, listen to their problems, and seek feedback for improvement.

Ask managers to hold monthly, quarterly and annual feedback meetings. Plus, empower your HR department to handle employee grievances and play its part in creating a more inclusive culture.

Bring transparency to everything 

Bring transparency to your reward process, appraisals, project evaluations, and everything else in the company. Create procedures and policies and enforce them on all employees, so everyone knows they have a level-playing field.

Make your workplace more humane

Healthy organizations don’t just work together. They also celebrate their employees’ personal milestones, grieve losses, travel together, and create long-lasting memories.

So, instead of working all the time, invest resources in recreational activities and team-building exercises. Understand genuine employee problems and cooperate with them. 

If you show employees that you care about them, they’ll be more loyal to your company and feel motivated to contribute.


Oct 4, 2022

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