Toxic workplaces: a guide to navigating a problematic relationship with your job

Feel stuck in an unhealthy relationship with your job? Unfortunately, so many of us have been there. We’ve pulled together the top boundaries to draw at work if you’re looking to change potentially toxic elements of your workplace.

Welcome to The Curiosity Academy, Stylist’s new learning hub where you can access workshops, how-to guides, new research and learn the most up-to-date skills from the UK’s most in-the-know people.

Seeing as we spend the majority of our adult lives at work, it’s important to make sure it’s a healthy place for us to be – most of the time, at least.

And yet, 21% of British people left a job due to toxic workplace culture in 2020, signalling that we still have a way to go when it comes to constructing healthy norms at work.

Author and journalist Cate Sevilla has been around the block when it comes to navigating the trials and tribulations of the modern workplace. Her time working at huge tech giants – like Microsoft and Google, as well as at smaller companies like now-defunct women’s publication The Pool – caused her to really question and interrogate our relationship with our jobs, and how we can improve them.

This year, she released her debut book How To Work Without Losing Your Mind, a guide to shifting your relationship with your career, with the task of making sense of toxic workplaces at the centre.

You may also like

How to deal with feelings of frustration while working remotely (because it’s hard going right now)

During a time that has seen remote working become the norm, we are now even more privy to an unhealthy working environment, Cate says. It can cause “added intensity and pressure”, and “leaves so much space for you and others to fill in blanks unnecessarily and for things to be misunderstood or misread through Slack, WhatsApp or email”.

So now, more than ever, is the time to tackle problems that make a workplace toxic. For The Curiosity Academy, Cate has broken down four key components, suggesting ways to establish boundaries and offer solutions to each problem – so you can navigate your way through a potentially toxic workplace. Here are her tips.

Micromanaging: how to deal with being micromanaged

Micromanagement in the workplace generally manifests itself through a colleague or a manager’s attempt to control every element of your working output in an attempt to manage you effectively, generally resulting in anxiety and frustration on your part.

To try and tackle this, Cate recommends working out exactly what processes are effecting your work and, potentially, your mental health. 

“How does this micromanagement behaviour manifests itself on a day to day basis?” she says, “Is this person looking over your shoulder? Are they messaging you all day asking for updates?” It’s really important to identify the elements of micromanagement that are effecting you, and why this is. 

Set a boundary: Once you’ve worked out the behaviour that is triggering for you, ask your colleague or boss for an alternative means of communication for them to “manage” your work output. This sets a new boundary between you and their responsibility of ensuring you’re doing your job.

“So you could say, for example, ‘instead of you chasing for updates throughout the day, could we instead do a scheduled check-in?’” Cate suggests. She adds that it’s a “powerful” response to a toxic working environment to offer up an alternative working process, because it helps test out if things can change enough for you to thrive at this job.

Working hours: how to ensure you have some control over the time you spend at work

If you feel like you can’t adhere to your start and finish times at work – and you feel guilty taking breaks – this is a sign of a toxic workplace and, Cate says, is often indicative of examples set from those working at the top of a company.

“If this is the example set by management, it can then be viewed as the way to be successful and get promoted in a job,” she says. If you’d like to dismantle this component of a toxic workplace from your own routine, here’s what you can try:

Set a boundary: Cate says that finding “concrete ways” of requesting a boundary with your management and colleagues in this instance is key. For example, she encourages booking non-negotiable times in your day where people cannot book meetings, and declining any meetings that do conflict.

“When discussing this with management and employees, explain that you need this time in the day to carry out various tasks,” she says. This may be met with negotiation, and she encourages being flexible and “solution-focused” with setting out these new boundaries so that everyone gets what they need.

Personal life: how to make sure your private life is considered

Working hours aside, if you feel as if your working life is encroaching on your personal life and making a work-life balance impossible, this could be a symptom of a toxic workplace.

To try and combat this, and safeguard your personal time, Cate says it’s crucial to sit down and work out how you’d like your ideal work-life balance to look, and how work is stopping you from achieving that. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Do you want to be ‘logged off’ completely at a certain time every day?
  • Do you want to be off calls from a certain point in your working day?
  • Do you want to be able to cook dinner at a certain time?
  • What time do you need to mark as time for yourself?

After you’ve done this, you can start to set out what elements of your working day is encroaching on these goals for balance.

Cate adds that any experiences of working remotely through the Covid-19 pandemic will help with this, as working from home for a large proportion of the year will have indicated to you what times of the day or rituals you need to preserve in order to establish boundaries between working and relaxing at home.

Set a boundary: Once you’ve got an idea of what changes to your routine you’d need to safeguard your personal life, it’s time to schedule a conversation with a manager to see how plausible this is.

Bear in mind that you may not get 100% of what you’re looking for, but be clear of what that is from the outset – is it a cut-off from responding to messages? Is it a zero-tolerance approach to work calls during your annual leave?

Cate stresses the importance of consistency again, here, to ensure that this solution remains sustainable.

Creative space: how to make sure new ideas and thoughts are welcome

If you don’t feel comfortable enough to suggest new ideas or break away from the norm, for fear of judgement, this could be a sign of a toxic workplace. “At this point, it’s almost like you’re becoming too afraid to do your job, and this can be one of the worst parts of working in a toxic environment,” Cate says.

She insists that an employee’s “psychological safety” to contribute without feeling anxious is imperative, not just to your progress but to your team’s and your employer’s.

Set a boundary: This time, Cate suggests setting new boundaries with your fellow employees – opening things up and asking them how they feel about the current status quo. That way, if they’re feeling the same, this could provide a way to broach this with your management as a way to make brainstorming ideas or meetings that much more effective.

You could also work on “creating your own environment of psychological safety”, Cate says, by leading by example.

“If you’re running a meeting, make sure you’re asking other people what they think. So you’re displaying the behaviour that you want your management teams to be displaying. Make sure other people feel they’re able to speak up in these meetings, [encourage them to do so], volunteer your own ideas and make it clear to others that they can disagree.”

In summary:

What to do if:
  • Your work is being micromanaged – “ask your colleague or boss for an alternative means of communication for them to “manage” your work output.”
  • Your working hours are not clear – “block out non-negotiable time for you to work without interruption.”
  • Your personal life is not being respected – “work out what needs to change in your routine, and after you’ve found a compromise with your manager – make sure you’re consistent in maintaining these boundaries.”
  • You’re not able to be creative or make mistakes without judgement – “set your own example by being open to other people’s ideas – you can use this example to ask for more openness from those in management.”

When navigating a toxic workplace, Cate says it’s all about “working out what’s actionable and what isn’t”. But if you find that your attempts at action don’t work, and nothing changes, this may be the time to draw a line and think about changing jobs or teams.

Drawing these initial boundaries, she says, are a way of proving you’ve done everything you could and have given your colleagues space to improve or change the situation.

“When tackling these issues, it’s all about deciding what you need to change, then setting and enforcing those boundaries that allow for change to happen,” she says.

  • Cate Sevilla, author and journalist

    Cate Sevilla
    Cate Sevilla

    Cate has led and managed editorial teams for some of the world’s largest media and tech companies - including Google, BuzzFeed and Microsoft. Now, she hosts careers podcast The Heart Of It and her first book How To Work Without Losing Your Mind is out now.