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Signs of Toxic Workplace Culture & How to Escape the Negative Environment

According to Business Insider, you’ll spend 90,000 hours, or around one-third of your life, at work. If your workplace is fun, stimulating, and supportive, that time is engaging and fulfilling. However, if your workplace is toxic, your health and self-esteem will nosedive.

Toxic workplaces are more common than you think. Recruitment site Ladders found that 52% of U.S. workers surveyed believed their workplace was toxic.

Working in such a negative environment often causes burnout, frequent illness, low self-esteem, and depression. In some extreme cases, workers take their own lives or commit other acts of violence after working at toxic companies.

If your workplace is starting to negatively affect your health and mindset, it’s time to start looking for a new job. But what if you’re not ready to jump ship just yet? What if you love what you do despite the terrible people? If your company is experiencing high turnover, perhaps the environment will change when the leadership does. Or what if you’ve started looking for something new, but you still need to report to your current job for now?

If you want or need to stick around, how do you deal with a toxic workplace?

The Rise of Toxicity at Work

Toxic workplaces are on the rise. Research cited in Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, “Dying for a Paycheck,” found that 61% of employees say workplace stress had made them sick, and 7% of them have actually been hospitalized as a result. Toxic workplaces are now the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States. In China, Pfeffer estimates, up to 1 million people may be dying each year from overwork.

Toxic workplaces also cost companies. A study published by Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that even modest levels of workplace toxicity can cost a firm untold profits from loss of morale, increased employee turnover, lost customers, lost productivity, and loss of legitimacy from external stakeholders. And HBR researchers found that a toxic workplace is likely to increase the number of toxic employees. Negativity spreads and corrupts, and more people fall victim to it.

Another alarming trend is increasing workplace violence. The National Safety Council says that each year, millions of Americans report being victims of workplace violence. In 2017 alone, workplace violence resulted in 18,400 injuries and 458 fatalities.

Additionally, many American workers are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work they have to do. According to a poll conducted by the University of Chicago, 35% of employees admit they have more work than they can handle – the highest number since the poll began in 2002.


How to Tell If Your Workplace Is Toxic

Every job comes with a certain amount of stress, and there are always colleagues and bosses who are challenging to work with. But how do you know when your workplace has crossed the line from unhealthy to toxic? Look for these signs.

Physical Symptoms

  • Sleep Issues. You might be sleeping less because you’re constantly worried about work. On the flip side, you might spend your weekends in bed just to recover from the workweek.
  • Feelings of Anxiety or Fear. Thinking about work causes your heart rate to quicken and your palms to sweat.
  • Burnout. You feel detached from your work and have no joy in what you do.
  • Anger. You often feel angered by people or situations that never bothered you before. Your family and friends may describe you as “touchy” or “irritable” much of the time.

Workplace Symptoms

  • High Levels of Absenteeism and Turnover. If you or your colleagues frequently miss work due to illness, that’s a possible sign the high levels of stress are negatively affecting people’s health. It’s also possible people are calling in sick just to get a break from the negativity. High employee turnover is another red flag the workplace is toxic.
  • Low Morale. The office is quiet much of the time. There’s no joking around, no enthusiasm. Many people have a bad attitude, work in fear, or feel negative. Conversations between colleagues frequently focus on the negative work environment.
  • Toxic Workplace Cliques. Toxic work environments often foster toxic cliques – groups or “gangs” of people who gossip, spread rumors, or even try to undermine their teammates. Instead of positive team collaboration, there’s frequent in-fighting and fierce competition. There’s also a serious lack of trust between teams or colleagues.
  • Workplace Bullying. Toxic work environments also turn a blind eye to workplace bullies and give them free rein to spread fear around the office.
  • Poor Communication. Your boss frequently leaves you out of the loop on important communications, which causes you to make mistakes. They withhold information to wield power, give misleading information, or spread information through back channels.
  • Ruthless Boss. Your boss micromanages everything you do. They never offer constructive criticism but showcase your mistakes in front of the team. They frequently take credit for your work and expect you to work long hours while they go home at quitting time. They’re condescending, irrational, and prone to angry outbursts.
  • Threats. Your boss frequently threatens you with phrases such as, “You’re lucky you even have a job” or “If you don’t hit this target, you’re out of a job.”
  • Chaotic Meetings. Meetings are unproductive and frequently chaotic. Most team members don’t speak up with ideas or suggestions because when they do, they’re met with scorn or anger from your boss.
  • Frequent Job-Hunting. The colleagues you’re friendly with are always looking for a new job or ducking out for a job interview.

How to Combat a Toxic Workplace

Working in a toxic environment feels uncomfortable and unpleasant. However, there are steps you can take to survive, and perhaps even thrive, in this atmosphere.

1. Build a Tribe

Colleagues In A Meeting Laughing Brainstorming Teamwork

Often, toxic workplaces are filled with warring groups who try to manipulate and out-perform each other. And if you’re still reading this article, chances are high you’re the type of person who wants nothing to do with this level of meanness.

That’s why it’s important you find your own tribe – a group of like-minded colleagues who aren’t interested in being mean or competitive. These workplace friends will help support you on rough days – and vice-versa – and provide an important outlet for your frustration.


2. Don’t Listen to Gossip

Colleague Gossiping Whispering At The Office

Rumors and gossip spread like wildfire in a toxic office, and often, people use it to maliciously attack and demoralize their colleagues. Some organizational psychologists and workplace experts – such as Peter Vajda, a business consultant interviewed by the Society for Human Resource Management – consider gossip a form of workplace violence when it’s used to hurt others.

Listening to rumors and gossip is not only a waste of time, but it also it erodes trust and lowers productivity. The Society for Human Resource Management also reports that office gossip spreads divisiveness, increases attrition, and spreads anxiety.

Do yourself a favor and walk away when you hear others gossiping or spreading rumors. Even if you say nothing, you’ll still feel worse just listening to other people’s negative talk. If you hear gossip or rumors you know are untrue, set the record straight with your colleagues.


3. Maintain a Positive Work-Life Balance

Work Life Balance Concept Woman Wearing Sneaker Pumps

A toxic work environment can consume your entire life if you’re not careful. When you’re not at work, you’re thinking and stressing about it or you’re getting calls and emails that further disrupt your life late into the night. This negatively affects your health, your relationships, and your self-esteem.

It’s important to maintain a positive work-life balance and set some boundaries. Make a rule that your work phone will be turned off at a certain time every evening.

Getting more exercise also helps. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, regular exercise will help relieve stress, boost your immune system, and help you sleep better at night. Some high-intensity exercises also help you blow off steam when you’re feeling anger or frustration at work. For example, running sprints, boxing, or throwing a medicine ball at the wall are three great ways to release pent-up anger. Many people think group exercise classes like yoga or Zumba are more fun.


4. Document Everything

Document File Everything Businessman Hand

Do you work with a boss or colleague who doesn’t mind taking credit for your successes or frequently blames you for their own mistakes? If so, you need to take steps to protect yourself.

Forward important emails to your personal email address. Organize them based on the project or key player. Copy and store notes from meetings outside work. If you have a phone conversation, write down the day and time and take notes about what is discussed.

In short, anytime you’re working on an important project or interacting with someone known to be a backstabber, document what happens. If they make a promise on a deadline or responsibility, get it in writing so you have proof when they don’t keep their word.

Yes, all this sounds like something you’d do if you were Tom Cruise in “The Firm,” but documentation will help protect your reputation if your boss or colleague decides to throw you under the bus.


5. Build Skills Now for Your Next Move

Businessman Thinking Of Next Move Project Idea Lightbulb

When you’re in a toxic culture, it helps to start planning your exit strategy, even if it will take a year or more to implement your plan.

Start by figuring out what you want to do next. Do you want to climb the corporate ladder in a healthier organization, or would you rather work for a smaller firm? Are you interested in starting your own business or starting a side hustle while you look for a new job?

Next, network with people already working in the field or organization you want to join. Attend trade conferences to build skills and meet influential people who might help you get your foot in the door.

Work to build soft skills all employers look for in potential employees, such as great communication skills, public speaking, or emotional intelligence.

Last, prepare for a career change by making sure you have a healthy emergency fund. If your job search takes longer than you plan, a robust emergency fund will give you the cash you need to stay afloat.

Pro tip: If you don’t have an emergency fund set up, open a high-yield savings account at an online bank like CIT Bank.


6. Reframe Your Thoughts

Personal Development Stress Management Woman Meditating Office Buildings

You can’t control what other people say or do. Their malice and inadequacies are the results of their own life experiences, and deep down, it has nothing to do with you.

As difficult as it seems in the moment, try to find the silver lining in this situation. What can you learn from your terrible boss or mean-spirited colleague? How can you use this experience to grow as a person?

It’s also important to stick to your values. It’s tempting at times to repay a cruel word with similar vitriol or combat a cruel act with a like-minded vengeance. But you’ll feel worse when you compromise your values and integrity by doing something you know is wrong. As Michelle Obama famously said at the 2016 Democratic convention, “When they go low, we go high.” Always take the high road, and you’ll come out on top.


7. Be Kind

Group Of Friends Colleagues Be Kind Share Hope Help

Showing kindness to your colleagues is another great way to combat a toxic work environment. And it’s something you can start doing today. It doesn’t cost anything, and it takes no preparation.

Kindness is often sorely lacking in the workplace, and sometimes, the smallest acts have the most impact. Being kind also acts like a shield against all the negativity you face at work. If everyone around you is exuding vitriol, stepping away to show kindness to someone else can help protect you, mentally, from their hostility.

Writer William Arthur Ward once said, “When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.” By looking at the best in others, you just might find you’re a better, happier person as a result.

If you’re worried that kind of behavior at the office will be viewed negatively, don’t. There are several work-appropriate ways to show kindness.

Remind Yourself to Help

Human beings are naturally social creatures. It is ingrained in us, by sheer instinct, to be part of a group because that’s the easiest way to survive. When the group thrives, we thrive.

The problem is most of us get busy and just don’t think about helping others. Combat this by setting a daily reminder on your phone or calendar to offer help. Set it to go off during your lunch hour when you’re more likely to have a few minutes to think about who needs help and what kind.

If you notice your colleague is snowed under with work or under a tight deadline, offer to help. But make sure you don’t create more work for your colleague. They don’t need the additional stress of wondering if you’ll keep your word. Perform the work quickly and accurately so they can get the job done.

Keep Track of Meaningful Information

Do you know when your colleague’s birthday or wedding anniversary is? Do you know whether they love milk chocolate or dark?

We share little bits of personal information in most conversations. However, most of us don’t keep track of it because, let’s face it, we have a lot of other stuff crowding our brain. But by remembering the little insights you gain from your colleagues, you’ll create opportunities to really make an impact later on. And it’s easy to do.

When your colleague shares a personal insight, like a restaurant they’ve always wanted to visit or their wedding anniversary, write it down. Keep a little notebook or file on your computer to keep track of everything you learn. This way, when your colleague needs a pick-me-up, you’ll have a place to start.

For example, you could take them out to that restaurant when they’re feeling down or wish them a happy anniversary on their special day.

Bring an Extra Coffee or Tea

If you notice your colleague is having a rough day, pick up some coffee or tea for them. Knowing someone noticed and that someone cares will brighten their day.

Give Sincere Compliments

Think about how you felt the last time someone gave you a sincere compliment. Chances are you instantly felt great about yourself.

Compliments are so easy to give, and they have the power to truly turn around someone’s day. There’s only one rule: They must be sincere.

Make a goal to give someone at work one compliment each day. This goal will help you spread goodwill at work and make everyone feel great. It will also have a deeper benefit. Looking for ways to compliment your colleagues forces you to see the best in them, rather than seeing only their faults.

One word of caution: Remember you’re in a professional environment. Never give someone a compliment that’s too personal or is inappropriate for work.


Final Word

Toxic workplaces are increasingly common, and if you’re stuck in one, it can feel like you’re never going to get out. But these tips can help you take control, manage your stress and protect yourself from toxic coworkers.

You don’t need to implement all these ideas at once or even tomorrow. Start by being more aware of what your colleagues are going through. When they have a tough day, give them a listening ear or a helping hand. These small gestures show them you’re paying attention and want to help. Kindness is contagious, and over time, it can make a toxic workplace more bearable.

And pick up a copy of the book “Rising Above a Toxic Workplace” by Gary Chapman and Paul White, which has more in-depth strategies to help you deal with a poisonous work culture.

Have you ever worked in a toxic work environment? What strategies did you use to cope in such a difficult situation?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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