Signs of a Toxic Workplace and How to Stay Sane

Career Development

Most people can sense if their work environment is not healthy. Toxicity in the office can display itself in many ways, such as stress, burnout, shrinking productivity, miscommunication, or personal conflicts. But when it comes down to identifying the toxins and how to deal with them, many people find this hard to answer.

What makes a toxic workplace?

Per a research by Steven H. Appelbaum at the Concordia University Montreal, toxins exist in all organizations, but not every organization is toxic. Work culture is set from the top, by the leaders. Meaning, the higher the toxic person is, the wider the plague will spread to other people, which in turn fosters a toxic work culture. If the toxic plague is too bad that it affects how productive and effective an organization runs, that organization is considered toxic.

One thing becomes crystal clear at this point. Toxicity is created by people, and it is contagious. To deal with toxins means to deal with people.

How a toxic team can destroy both productivity and mental health

A project backed by Google discovered that the key to a successful team is not skills, experience, enthusiasm, but surprisingly, is how team members relate to each other. They call this “psychological safety”. In such teams, there is no fear when proposing a new idea, challenging the status quo, or asking for help.

Does your team have psychological safety? Do a quick check with this 5-question quiz.

Regarding mental health and toxicity at work, Amy Zadow, lead researcher at The University of South Australia concludes:

 “Companies that fail to reward or acknowledge their employees for hard work, impose unreasonable demands on workers, and do not give them autonomy are placing their staff at a much greater risk of depression."

How toxic is your work environment

Besides benefits and job description, workplace culture should be among the important factors to consider when looking for a new job. Here are some takeaways from Steven’s research that you can use to evaluate how toxic your environment is:

Toxic organizations usually have these characteristics:

  • Inability to achieve operation goals and commitments;
  • Problem-solving processes that are driven by fear and rarely yield good decisions;
  • Poor internal communication;
  • Huge amounts of waste that result from poor decisions, and lots of rework;
  • Interpersonal relationships are driven by manipulative and self-centered agendas.

Toxic leaders/managers infect others with toxicity by creating these rules:

  • The leader must be in absolute control of everything;
  • When problems arise, immediately find a guilty party to blame;
  • Cover up your mistakes;
  • Never point out the reality of a situation;
  • Never express your feelings unless they are positive;
  • Do not ask questions, do as you are told;
  • Do not do anything outside your role;
  • Do not trust anyone;
  • Nothing is more important than giving to the organization;
  • Keep up the organization’s image at all costs.

Toxic culture

In a healthy workplace, toxic managers would be identified as toxins to be removed. But in a toxic culture, they tend to get promoted and rewarded by the organization. Ambiguity and inconsistency are also dominant in such cultures. When you see these signs in a company, it’s best to step out.

How to stay sane in a toxic workplace

We hope you are reading this article before joining a toxic company. But if you have already been on board, here’s how to cope:

  • Don’t let the negative culture sink into you: office gossiping and politics seem tempting, but never bite the bait. Stay true to yourself with no compromise.
  • Look for positive co-workers: no matter how bad the toxic plague is in your organization, there are at least a few colleagues who feel the same. Building relationships with people who are on the same page will boost up psychological safety and make you feel supported.
  • Keep every record: document everything you do, from emails, messages, to meeting notes, etc. You will need evidence to back your points in case of conflicts.
  • Communicate: clear up any misunderstanding, as they are strong seeds for greater problems in the future.
  • Build boundaries: learning to say no is hard for many people, but it is a must in a toxic office. It is completely normal to let yourself comes first and your job second. Self-compassion is the key to your mental well-being and sustainable development.
  • Leave: It is ironic to say this. If you are leading a toxic workplace, fix it. If not, leave it. If you can’t leave just yet, at least have a plan to do so. You might want to take a short vacation to rewind for a while and consider whether to improve work environment or let it go. You know best what the trade-offs are.

At the end of the day, a toxic workplace is something everyone experience at least once in their career. It’s not a failure, just a wrong move instead. We all learn more from pain than gain. Some setbacks will gain you valuable experience in choosing the next step for your career.

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