10 Signs That Your Workplace Is Toxic and What You Should Do About It

by Amy Scholten, M.P.H.

You began your job eager and passionate for growth and a chance to use your skills and talents in a collegial environment, so how did you end up so stressed-out, cynical and depressed? Why are so many of your coworkers in a bad mood so often? And why do fear and distrust seem to permeate the organization? The answer is that your workplace is toxic, and on a day-to-day basis, it's putting your health at risk.

Toxic Workplaces on the Rise

Reflecting the economic decline of contemporary America, many workplaces are embracing unhealthy values—values that disregard human welfare—in the pursuit of organizational goals. Like dysfunctional families, such workplaces are defined by three primary characteristics: 1.) chaos that results from poor decision-making, 2.) high levels of stress (dis-ease) and dissatisfaction, and 3.) lack of support. In short, they are "toxic" (harmful, destructive, or even deadly) to employees and their families, society...and especially to themselves.

Signs of a Toxic Workplace

How do you know if your workplace is toxic? Here are some signs (please note that all signs need not be present, but if they are, consider running for your life!):

1. Chronic High Stress - The work is intense on a fairly ongoing basis with few periods of "downtime" to recover. Or, there is a culture of fear or bullying that contributes to chronic high stress.

2. Low Morale - You and many other employees are in a bad mood frequently. There's little enthusiasm or joy.

3. Lack of Work-Life Balance - The organization wants to own you. You regularly work more than 40 hours per week and work cuts into your other commitments. You're forced to choose between having a life and having your job. Your employer really doesn't view you as a human being but as a factor of productivity.

4. Increased Physical and Emotional Illness - You and your coworkers develop stress-related physical and/or emotional illnesses. These illnesses can run the gamut from musculoskeletal problems, gastrointestinal upsets, anxiety and depression, to autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.

5. Unrealistic Expectations - You're put in a situation that sets you up to fail and burn out. The workload and expectations are unreasonable for one human being, but nobody seems to care.

6. Lack of Loyalty - On your first day at work, you sign an at-will employment contract that gives the organization the right to fire you at any time for any reason. You've effectively just been told that you don't have a permanent relationship with your employer, which sets the stage for a relationship built on lack of loyalty and trust.

7. Immature Leadership - Toxic workplaces are fueled by immature, dysfunctional leaders. Such leaders share some of the following characteristics:

  • Coldness and emotional distance or, excessive emotionality and reactivity
  • Unreasonable expectations for productivity and goals
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Unwillingness to listen to others
  • Lack of empathy and support - i.e. - expects employees to come to work even when ill
  • Poor communication
  • High aggression, intimidation or bullying - instilling fear in others
  • Lack of morality - the leader's or organization's goals are sought at the expense of human welfare and decency
  • Hypocritical - doesn't walk the talk, for example- says he or she embraces "teamwork," "good communication," "trust," etc but displays behavior that contradicts his or her talk.

8. Pervasive Poor Communication - You don't get much feedback on your performance, you get only negative feedback, or you're left out of the loop and don't know what's going on.

9. Scapegoating - Mistakes are explained by blaming others. Employees are belittled; high performers are criticized for incompetence, and employees that leave are blamed for poor performance. Bullying leaders are tolerated and even admired. The Human Resource Department may even be intimidated by the bully or lacks expertise on how to deal with the situation.

10. Dysfunctional Relationships - There are widespread dysfunctional dynamics such as:

  • Cliquishness, "insiders and outsiders" rather than unification and teamwork
  • Favoritism
  • Insincere communication
  • Long-term grudge-holding
  • Back-biting and pitting coworkers against each other
  • Criticizing others before asking questions

There are three inevitable results of toxic workplaces: 1.) poor performance, 2.) employee health issues (for those who stay), and 3.) the loss of the most talented employees.

How Do Workplaces Become Toxic?

Common reasons for toxic workplaces include increased economic stress, insufficient funding, widespread personal agendas, ongoing conflicts, poor management practices, and the inevitability of people bringing their unresolved emotional issues to work. Further, the workplace is not immune from the larger society where healthy values such as community, cooperation, loyalty, introspection, humanism, and spirituality have been replaced by myopic and soulless materialism, status-seeking, egocentrism, exploitation, and aggression.

What Should You Do?

So what can you do about a toxic workplace? It depends on who you are and and the degree of toxicity with which you're dealing.

If You're an Executive or Manager

If you're an executive or manager who has the power to make positive changes, consider hiring an independent consultant to conduct an evaluation and develop strategies for "detoxifying" the organization. Preventive measures may be also be taken as well such as:

  • developing and implementing comprehensive employee recruitment and training policies
  • implementing regular performance evaluations on all levels
  • developing procedures to ensure accountability on all levels
If You Lack Influence

Whether you're at the executive and management level or lower on the organizational totem pole, if your organization has highly toxic leadership, you may lack influence to change things. If your suggestions for improvement repeatedly fall on deaf ears, your best choice is to find a healthier workplace as soon as possible.

If You're Trying to Avoid a Toxic Workplace

What if you're a job hunter who just wants to avoid a toxic workplace? This can be tricky since you can't always tell if a workplace is toxic until you've signed your at-will employment contract. Consider discreetly gathering information about the organization's track record and reputation, or even talking to current and former employees (including the employee you may be replacing), before you accept an offer. Also, ask questions during the interview such as:

How long was the last person in this position and why did she/he leave?

How many hours a week does it take, realistically, to accomplish this job?

Would I be expected to work overtime, and if so, how often?

How do you address work-life balance?

What types of ongoing challenges and conflicts exist at this organization and what's being done to address and resolve them?

How much turnover have you had in the last 5 years in this organization (or department)?

What's your leadership/management style like? How will I know how I'm doing? How often will I be evaluated?

Consider the responses to these questions carefully. Possible red flags include: interviewer discomfort, very vague responses, blaming (the previous person "didn't do the job", was "incompetent," etc.), and employees leaving due to (possible stress-related) illness. Also watch for signs of abruptness, disrespect, discourtesy, intolerance, unrealistic expectations, and "hard-liner" attitudes.

If You've Been "Poisoned" Take Some Healing Steps

If you're one of the many unfortunate souls who have suffered physically or emotionally as a result of working in a toxic organization, you need to take steps to heal from your wounds:

  • Use it as a learning experience. Think of what you would do differently in the future if you found yourself in a similar situation (God forbid!).

  • Beware that toxic environments often leave their victims questioning their own reality, competence, and self-worth. Do NOT blame yourself or succumb to shame for the way you were mistreated. Do NOT take responsibility for the toxic behavior of others. Lastly, do NOT feel like a failure for not meeting inhuman or unrealistic expectations.

  • Seek positive experiences and people that can help re-build your self-confidence.

  • Seek counseling from a therapist with whom you feel comfortable, for as long as necessary.

  • Take care of yourself spiritually, emotionally and physically by developing healthful habits and self-nurturing behaviors.

If you've been poisoned by a toxic workplace, rest assured that if they don't clean up their act, they'll get what they deserve:
  • A bad reputation
  • Disloyalty
  • Poor performance
  • High turnover
  • Employee health issues and disability claims
  • A dearth of talented and functional employees

And in turn, organizations that view and treat their employees as human beings are much more inclined to reap the rewards of loyalty, high morale, high performance, health, and a good reputation.

Shared Empowerment is the Key

Increasing rates of anxiety, depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other illnesses among all age groups indicate that quality of life is declining in America. And declining quality of life is one of those things that happens when external power and profits come before internal power and shared empowerment (also known as spiritual enlightenment). America needs some serious healing, and one of the places where this is most evident is in the workplace.



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