How to identify signs you’re in a toxic work environment, and what to do about it

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Jessica Rapana
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Gabrielle Union’s recent firing from America’s Got Talent has renewed the conversation around toxic work environments, but how do you know if you’re a victim? Here are the warning signs to look out for, and what to do about it.

Let’s get one thing straight: there’s a difference between a crappy workplace and a toxic one.

That is to say that Gabrielle Union’s experience on the set of America’s Got Talent falls into the latter, while an annoying colleague probably doesn’t quite make the cut.

According to Variety, Union was ousted as a judge on the reality series after raising concerns about racially insensitive jokes. As well as these complaints, Variety notes, Union was subject to a deluge of “notes” from producers on the television show saying that her hair was “too black” for audiences.

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As Union would have experienced first-hand, no doubt, standing up in the face of discriminatory or toxic behaviour at work is incredibly difficult, especially when taking into account fears of job security and reputation.

On the other hand, the importance of doing so cannot be underestimated. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that people in a hostile work environment had higher stress levels than the unemployed. 

In other words, being in an unhealthy working environment can affect our mental and physical health, which is why it is essential to know the red flags.

gabrielle union judge americas got talent
Gabrielle Union opened up about her experiences on Katie Lowes’ Katie’s Crib podcast.

How do I know if I’m in a toxic working environment?

If a job starts to take a toll on you personally or internally, this might be a sign that your workplace is toxic. To get a better read on this, it can be helpful to observe how you feel when you think about going to work the next day: do you feel anxious, irritable or panicked?

While most of us probably feel like this sometimes, what makes a workplace toxic, rather than just annoying, is identifying a sustained pattern of this kind of negativity.

It’s one thing to have a lot to do or an annoying colleague, but when you continue to bring work home with you, day after day, as well as struggling to see any positives about your job, you might be sliding into toxic territory.

According to one study from Michigan State University, toxicity in the workplace can spread quickly. This means that one person’s toxic attitude or comments can spark bad vibes, ultimately leading to lower productivity, poorer morale and mental fatigue across the board.

The study found that employees who experience condescending comments, put-downs and sarcasm are more likely to act in similar ways, suggesting one toxic individual can often pollute an entire workplace.

Chrissy Macken, a career coach who specialises in toxic workplaces, tells The Greatist she recommends looking out for these warning signs: leaving a meeting because you feel so angry/frustrated, dreading the idea of staying in your job another year, feeling ambushed by negative feedback, crying at work and being belittled or yelled at by your manager.

Women downplay achievements in the workplace compared to male colleagues
Toxic work enviornment: do you feel anxious at work?

What should I do if I’m in a toxic workplace environment?

First of all, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you’re not the problem, the culture is. Even if you made a mistake or had a bad day, these are never grounds to be yelled at or abused at work.

Secondly, switching off your emails can be a good way to set healthy boundaries. “One of the hardest aspects of being in a toxic work environment is that the negatives seep into all aspects of your life and also hurt the ones you love. For this reason, I recommend finding ways to be intentional about the transition from work to home,” Macken tells The Greatist.

While not long-term solutions, these methods can help you detach while working out your next move.

In the long-term, though, if you’re planning to speak up, career coach Maggie Mistal tells well+good she recommends arming yourself with a lawyer and fighting with specificity. 

“From attorneys I’ve talked to, they recommend the individual keep a log of the situations, comments, and that he or she feels are creating a toxic work environment – literally tracking date, time, location, who said what, and so on,” she tells the website.

Like toxic relationships, toxic workplaces aren’t healthy, and the same rules apply: you’re better off without them.

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Jessica Rapana

Jessica Rapana is a journalist based in London, and enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content. She is especially fond of news, health, entertainment and travel content, and drinks coffee like a Gilmore Girl.

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