7 signs you’re in a toxic work environment – and what you can do about it

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Working in a toxic environment doesn’t just have the power to make us hate our jobs – it can lead to more serious problems including burnout, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Here, an expert explains the tell-tale signs of a toxic workplace culture, and how to address it.

It’s often the case that we spend more time in the office with our colleagues than we do at home with our friends or family – so why do so many of us fail to make our happiness and wellbeing at work a priority? Studies have shown that being happy at work is a recipe for success and productivity, but with the pressures of ‘always on’ culture and increasing stress levels taking up more and more of our headspace, it’s becoming harder to get that perspective and put our happiness ahead of our careers. 

As a result of these increasing pressures, it’s becoming all too easy to become oblivious to the signs of a toxic work environment. Whether you excuse your boss for shouting all the time, “because they’re stressed,” or dismiss your colleague’s passive-aggressive comments as them having a bad day, these behaviours can quickly build up to create a toxic working environment for everyone involved.

“Toxic work culture describes a culture where the workplace is plagued by in-fighting, passive aggressiveness, shouting across the office, drama and unhappy employees to the point that productivity is impacted,” explains Alexandra Lichtenfeld, business mentor at Client Matters.

Three women working in an office
People who find themselves in a toxic work environment will rarely attempt to make change.

“The mental wellbeing of employees will also be affected when working within a professional environment such as this. In a toxic work culture, ordinarily, nobody raises issue with these behaviours and attempts to influence change.

“If you are in a toxic work culture, the feeling of despair can carry over into your personal life, damaging everything from your self-esteem to friendships. A toxic workplace can also impact upon your mental health and general wellbeing. The increased stress of working in an environment like this can lead to burnout, fatigue, anxiety and sometimes depression.” 

With this in mind, it’s incredibly important that we all know how to deal with a toxic work environment should we ever find ourselves in one. Here, Lichtenfeld unpacks the seven key signs of a toxic workplace – and what we can do it. 

Signs of a toxic work environment

1. Low Morale

“No one smiles, no one ever seems happy or says hello or good morning or goodbye when they walk in or out of the office. Heads are down and no one speaks to one another, often with an over-reliance on email as the preferred mode of communication.”

2. Ineffective middle managers

“This is where the professionals in middle management are just figureheads and have had no management training,” Lichtenfeld explains. “They don’t know how to run a team and often make mistakes that they will not admit to and don’t know how to communicate.”

A woman at work
The presence of ineffective middle managers can create a toxic atmosphere at work.

3. Having a manager who is a bully

“When a manager makes you feel like you are lucky to be there, or when they are controlling and won’t listen to new ideas, or when they expect you to come into work even when something bad is happening in your personal life – without any compassion – that’s a red flag.”

4. A culture of policies over people

“This style of company culture can often indicate a toxic workplace – sometimes a policy just doesn’t apply to a situation and a more human approach is required.”

5. High employee turnover

“This speaks for itself and can be due to a combination of all the previous reasons leading to a toxic working culture,” Lichtenfeld explains.

6. Cliques and groups in the office

“These can be very upsetting,” Lichtenfeld says. “You can feel ostracised, left out, made to feel you are the one employee who doesn’t fit in, and often these groups will blame you for some mistakes happening on the job.”

7. Poor or no communication

“You may feel like you are being left out of the loop, there is very little advice given on the work you are doing and there is absolutely no feedback,” Lichtenfeld says. “If there is, it is always negative.”

How to deal with a toxic work environment

Dealing with a toxic work environment can feel like an impossible task – especially if you’re someone who has little power to change the culture in your office. However, according to Lichtenfeld, there are things that people can do – whatever level of the company they’re on – to fix things.

“The victims of a toxic work culture are often the employees,” she explains. “While the onus is on management to define and correct the culture if necessary, they stand a higher chance of getting that done if they get feedback from and involve the employees. 

A modern day office
Try to stay out of the office gossip – it may be tempting to get involved, but you're just fuelling a toxic environment by doing so.

“It’s people who make the culture. If you change your own mindset and the way you go about things at work, it can have a positive knock on effect for everyone.”

According to Lichtenfeld, there are six key ways we can work against the trappings of a toxic work environment.

Firstly, she says, it’s important to stay positive – and trying to maintain a sense of humour is a great way to boost your mood. When this fails, she adds, it’s important to try and tune out of all the negativity going on in the background. 

“It can help to tune out and ignore the toxicity,” she says, “although sometimes this is difficult to be able to do.”

Alongside these, Lichtenfeld suggests disengaging from workplace politics (although a gossip in the kitchen may feel like it’s helpful in alleviating stress, it’s only going to worsen the drama) and getting outside to take regular breaks (“fresh air does wonders in clearing the mind”).

Perhaps most importantly, however, she advises that you talk to someone about your concerns: “Do not suffer in silence – make sure you talk to somebody about your concerns and how it is affecting you.”

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