Toxic Work Environment: Signs and Tips to Cope (2024)

Is your workplace full of negativity, discouragement, or disrespect? Here’s how to handle it.

Are you dreading the thought of going to work tomorrow?

Whether it’s a hot tempered boss, an unreasonable workload, or malicious coworkers, a toxic work environment can take a significant toll on your mental health, leading to high levels of stress, insomnia, and depression.

It’s important to recognize the signs of a toxic work environment and know when it’s time to leave.

A toxic working environment is one where you feel psychologically unsafe. There’s often a general feeling of negativity, unhealthy competition, and aggression.

Authors of a recent study define a toxic workplace environment by the following:

  • narcissistic behavior
  • offensive or aggressive leadership
  • harassment
  • bullying
  • ostracism
  • threatening behavior from managers and coworkers

These are some signs that can create or contribute to a toxic work environment:

  • a sabotaging boss who sets you up for failure
  • micromanagement
  • excessive gossip
  • cliquish behavior
  • passive aggressive boss or coworkers
  • harassment or discrimination
  • microaggressions (indirect or subtle prejudice)
  • bullying
  • unsafe working conditions
  • cutthroat working conditions (environment of jealousy for others’ success or coworker trying to make you look bad or take credit for your work)
  • lack of respect
  • lack of opportunities for growth
  • unrealistic workloads
  • low pay
  • unpredictable schedule
  • coworkers get away with inappropriate behavior
  • nonconstructive criticism
  • a boss who continuously threatens to fire employees
  • general atmosphere of chronic negativity

How a toxic work environment can affect mental health

Most of us spend a good portion of our day at work. If 8 hours of your day are filled with toxicity, it can significantly affect your mental health.

Research shows that a toxic workplace — including harassment, bullying, and ostracism — is a significant source of psychological strain for employees and can lead to high levels of stress and burnout.

This toxicity can also promote counterproductive behavior at work and ruin the efficiency of the organization. It causes disengagement among employees, decreases productivity, stifles creativity and innovation, and results in high turnover.

According to a recent report from MIT Sloan Management Review, a toxic workplace culture is over 10 times more likely to contribute to an employee quitting their job than low pay.

In fact, the report shows that a toxic work environment was the number one reason people left their jobs during the post-COVID-19 “Great Resignation” — not because of compensation (as most people believed).

  • Remember it’s not your fault: The negativity at your job isn’t your fault. Although having a positive attitude and collaborative mindset may help in certain situations, remember that there’s only so much you can do to improve the culture at your work.
  • Take your lunch break elsewhere: Be sure to take a lunch break where you can get out of the work environment. Sit in nature if possible.
  • Set boundaries: Don’t get bullied into skipping your lunch break or working after hours for no pay. Explain to your boss that you need your breaks and time off to recharge and do your job well.
  • Don’t get involved in the drama: Try to walk away from any drama or gossip. Nothing positive will come from it.
  • Stay focused on your goals: Do your best to stay in a positive state of mind. You won’t be here forever, and you have bigger and better things ahead of you.
  • Have an after-work ritual to raise your vibes: Do something after work to psychologically clear away the negativity. You can take a walk in nature, take a hot shower, or call a friend.
  • Stick with a few trustworthy coworkers: It’s a good idea to keep a few work allies, so you can support and confide in one another.
  • Don’t compromise your values: If someone at work is being cruel to you, do your best to not respond in kind. It will only make the situation escalate.
  • Engage in regular stress-coping techniques: Take up meditation, yoga, or engage in daily exercise to help you handle chronic stress.
  • Plan your exit: If the toxic work situation isn’t going to improve anytime soon, start your search for a new position.

Find an employer that supports your mental health

The good news is that mental health support has been in the spotlight recently, leading to positive changes in the workplace.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2022 Work and Well-being Survey results, 81% of respondents reported that an employer’s support for their employees’ mental health would be an important consideration when looking for future jobs.

When respondents were asked to choose from a list of a dozen possible supports they’d like to see employers offer, these were the top four:

  • flexible work hours (41% of workers)
  • workplace culture that respects time off (34%)
  • the ability to work remotely (33%)
  • a 4-day workweek (31%)

Similar to an actual toxin in the air, a toxic work environment is detrimental to your mental and physical health. If you stay too long, it can lead to high stress levels, poor self-esteem, and depression.

If the toxicity comes from leadership or is a company mindset, there’s not much you can do. However, if it’s only coming from one or two people, you can discuss the issue with a trusted manager or speak with someone in the human resources (HR) department.

Your company may then hire outside help, such as through an employee assistance program (EAP), to help resolve the problem.

If you have no other option but to stay for now, try to put yourself in a little positivity bubble. Do your best to avoid any drama and keep to yourself. Focus on your goals outside of work and start making plans to get out.

How long you stay should be directly related to the effect the toxicity is having on you.

To determine whether you should remain in the situation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How is this job affecting my mental health? If you can’t sleep at night and you’re dreading each workday, it’s a good idea to start looking for another job.
  • How pervasive is this issue? Is it a company issue or just a few individuals? If you believe it’s a passing issue (e.g. it’s one specific coworker who is making you miserable), perhaps you can talk to a trusted manager or HR professional about it.
  • Is the leadership toxic? If so, it’s probably best to leave soon.
  • Are you experiencing sexual harassment? If you’re experiencing sexual harassment at work, the best thing you can do is go to HR and document everything.

If you’re on the fence about what to do next, consider writing down the pros and cons of staying and leaving.

If negativity, harassment, or extreme micromanagement are the norm in your workplace, you’re probably in a toxic work environment.

Like a literal toxin in the air, emotional toxicity can make you sick. Feeling unsafe and unappreciated in your job can lead to mental health problems, including insomnia, stress, depression, and low self-esteem.

If you’re still unsure about whether you should leave, write down the pros and cons of staying where you are. If there are more cons, consider looking for a new job where your mental health will be a priority.

Keep your chin up, as there are bigger and better things ahead of you!

Toxic Work Environment: Signs and Tips to Cope (2024)
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