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7 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and Best Tips to Protect Yourself

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Astrid Tran 08 November, 2023 11 min read

How do you know you are in a toxic work environment? Is it OK to quit a toxic work environment? Let's check out the 7 signals long with 7 solutions to solve.

A toxic work environment properly is a result of poor management. It can lead to many negative impacts for both employees and organizations. It is important that learning about a toxic work environment can help employers and employees have better strategies to deal with it and improve a healthy workplace. Toxicity happens not only in offices but also in hybrid working.

If you are looking for the answers to these questions, this article might give you some crucial hints.

Table of Contents

signs of a toxic work environment
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What is a Toxic Work Environment?

Research conducted by MIT Sloan Management researchers indicates about 30 million Americans find their workplace toxic, which means that at least 1 in 10 workers experience their working environment as toxic.

In addition, about 70% of Brits admit they have experienced a toxic work culture. A toxic work environment is no longer a trivial issue, it is nowadays the biggest concern of every company, from small entrepreneurs to large corporations. 

A toxic work environment is when there is a lack of effective leadership, work design, and social norms. When it conflicts with your values and beliefs. Employees in a toxic workplace are more likely to get stressed, burn out, and quit. It can affect employees' mental health and greatly affects productivity and ethics.

Some specific industries are more toxic than others, with 88% of marketing, PR, and advertising becoming the worst work culture, 86% in environment and agriculture come to the second spot, followed by 81% in healthcare and 76% in charity and voluntary work.

Meanwhile, science and pharmaceuticals (46%), property and construction (55%), and media and internet (57%) are much less toxic work cultures, said the UK-based online printer instantprint.

7 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment You Should Avoid

According to the survey conducted by the UK-based online printer instantprint with 1000 UK employees, key red flags and toxic traits in a toxic work environment involve bullying (46%), passive-aggressive communications (46%), cliques (37%), bias from seniors (35%), gossip and rumors (35%), poor communication (32%), and more.

Moreover, it is also believed that poor leadership, unethical behaviors, and job design contribute to a toxic work environment.

So, what qualifies as a toxic work environment? Here, we try to combine and select the 7 most common toxicity signs to help you identify whether you have been experiencing a harmful and destructive work culture.

Sign #1: You are in a bad work relationship

You can ask yourself some questions to know whether you have a poor work relationship, such as: Do you get respected by your co-workers? Do they genuinely appreciate your achievement? Do you feel socially connected to your team? If the answer is no, it warns you that your work relationship isn't as good as you thought. In the cutthroat work culture, the obvious signs are cliquey behavior, bias, bullying, and unsupported. You are alone and isolated in your team.

Sign #2: Your manager or leader possesses toxic leadership

Leaders play a significant role in setting the tone of teamwork and building up a company's culture. If your leader has the following traits, you'd need to consider changing the workplace: They abuse power to force employees to serve their purposes at the expense of others. They will likely have nepotism, favoritism, or overprotect their followers with unfair perks and punishments. In addition, they have poor emotional intelligence, ignore employee feedback, lack empathy, and underestimate those who are not loyal to them.

Sign #3: You are facing a work-life imbalance

In a toxic work environment, you are more likely to be depressed and burn out because of work-life imbalance. You have to work overtime frequently, along with long hours, tirelessly. You don't have time for yourself and your loved ones. You are so busy with your rigorous deadline that your health seems to worsen. You cannot claim flexible work hours or get an absence to attend your family's important events. And over time, you lose motivation to work.

Sign #4: There is no room for professional growth

As the workplace gets worse and more toxic, finding an opportunity to learn and develop is hard. You don't get a reason to work harder, it is a dead-end job. Your employers don't care about you. There is no good model for you to follow. You become more expert and experienced in your field, but what you do now is the same as the previous two years. These examples can be a sign that you won't get an advancement or be higher up very quickly. 

Sign #5: Your co-workers show toxic social norms

When you see your co-worker behave like a jerk, never be on time, and exhibit verbal or nonverbal aggression, they can be listed as dysfunctional behaviors. Additionally, you should be very careful and fully awaked if your teammate takes unethical actions or if some employees in your department do dirty tricks to get work done. Your co-workers take credit for your work and make you look bad in front of managers.

Sign #6: The company goals and values are unclear

Listen to your gut if your company's goals and values are against yours because it can signify a toxic work environment. Sometimes, it takes time to realize that you are on the right track in your career or it is an ideal workplace culture for you to commit to. If you have been working hard but still conflict with the organization's values, the time is right to leave your job and find better opportunities. 

Sign #7: You are in stress due to ineffective job design

Don't let yourself get confused or manipulated into being responsible regarding unclear job roles. In many toxic work environments, you might encounter some situations where you have to work more than others or job requirements but get the same salary, or you can be blamed for other mistakes because it is undefined in the job design.

How to Protect Yourself in a Toxic Work Environment

The causes of a toxic work environment vary from company to company. By understanding the root of toxic work culture, by identifying and addressing these toxicities, employers can decide to implement cultural detox or employees reconsider leaving the job.

toxic work environment signs
How to deal with a toxic work environment - Source: Shutterstock

For employees

  • Remind yourself of what you can change and what isn't
  • Set boundaries and learn the power of saying “no”
  • Try to handle the issues and conflicts by talking with coworkers and managers

For employers

10 Signs of a Healthy Work Environment

A healthy work environment is characterized by several signs that indicate favourable conditions and practices within an organization. Here are some signs of a healthy work environment:

  1. Open Communication: There is a culture of open and transparent communication where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas. Communication flows freely across all levels of the organization, fostering collaboration and effective teamwork.
  2. Respect and Trust: Mutual respect and trust are fundamental in a healthy work environment. Employees feel valued, appreciated, and trusted by their colleagues and superiors. Respectful interactions are the norm, and there is a sense of psychological safety where individuals can voice their opinions without fear of negative consequences.
  3. Work-Life Balance: The organization recognizes the importance of work-life balance and supports employees in maintaining a healthy equilibrium between work and personal life. Policies, practices, and resources are in place to help employees manage their workload, avoid burnout, and prioritize their well-being.
  4. Employee Development: There is a focus on employee development and growth. The organization provides opportunities for training, learning, and career advancement. Managers actively support their employees' professional development and help them acquire new skills and knowledge to thrive in their roles.
  5. Recognition and Appreciation: Employees' contributions are recognized and appreciated in a healthy work environment. Mechanisms are in place to celebrate achievements, milestones, and exceptional performance. Regular feedback and constructive recognition help motivate employees and foster a positive work atmosphere.
  6. Collaboration and Teamwork: Collaboration is encouraged, and teamwork is valued. Employees have the opportunity to work together, share ideas, and leverage each other's strengths. There is a sense of camaraderie and collective effort toward shared goals.
  7. Healthy Work-Life Integration: The organization promotes a holistic approach to well-being by offering resources and support for physical, mental, and emotional health. Initiatives such as wellness programs, flexible work arrangements, and access to resources for stress management contribute to healthy work-life integration.
  8. Fairness and Equality: A healthy work environment upholds fairness and equality. There are clear and transparent policies and practices related to performance evaluations, promotions, and rewards. Employees feel that they are treated fairly, without discrimination or favouritism.
  9. Positive Leadership: Leaders within the organization exemplify positive leadership behaviours. They inspire and motivate their teams, provide clear direction, and lead by example. They actively listen to employees, support their development, and create a positive and inclusive work culture.
  10. Low Turnover and High Engagement: In a healthy work environment, employee turnover is generally low, indicating that employees are satisfied and committed to the organization. Engagement levels are high, with employees actively contributing their best efforts and feeling a sense of fulfilment in their work.

These signs collectively contribute to a healthy work environment that fosters employee well-being, satisfaction, productivity, and organizational success.

The Bottom Line

Over time, a toxic working environment might take a heavy toll on business performance. "What is in close contact with ink will be black; what is near light will be illuminating". It is hard for employees to be better in a place full of dysfunctional behaviours and toxic leadership. Everyone deserves to be in a healthy and rewarding workplace. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are 5 signs your work environment is toxic?

Here are 5 signs that your work environment may be toxic:
1. Constant fear and anxiety. Employees feel anxious about making mistakes, expressing opinions, or rocking the boat. A toxic culture breeds fear and dread.
2. Lack of support. There's little to no coaching, feedback or teamwork. People are on their own and not encouraged to help one another.
3. Unclear or unfair expectations. Goals and responsibilities are vague or change frequently, making it difficult to succeed. Rules also seem to apply differently to different people.
4. Negative communications. Sarcasm, put-downs, gossiping and other rude/hurtful communications are common. People aren't respectful to one another.
5. Favoritism or unfair treatment. A toxic culture promotes "in-groups" and "out-groups" through attitude, resources or opportunities. Not all employees are valued or treated equally.

How do you prove you work in a toxic environment?

Here are some ways you can build a case to prove you're working in a toxic environment:
1. Keep a detailed journal logging specific instances of toxic behavior - dates, quotes, witnesses. Note how events made you feel and any impacts on your work.
2. Document any unreasonable demands, impossible deadlines, public criticism or inconsistent standards that don't apply to all.
3. Save emails, messages or other communications demonstrating disrespectful, hostile or inappropriate language.
4. Talk to coworkers (discreetly) about their experiences and have them validate your claims in writing if needed. Look for patterns.
5. Check the employee handbook/policies for any violations of acceptable conduct, harassment or fairness guidelines.

Can you be fired for toxic work environment?

In most cases, leaving on your own terms is preferable to a wrongful termination suit if the environment has truly become intolerable. Documenting a pattern of toxicity can help support unemployment claims. Consulting a labor law attorney is also recommended.

Ref: Insider | MIT Sloan Management Review | MarketWatch | HR news