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We spend so much of our lives at work. While we don't expect our jobs to be perfect, they shouldn't feel like places of torture either.
Let's go back in time about ten years, shall we? I was one of a handful of people in a small office. I adored my supervisor and liked joking with my fellow colleagues, but it didn't stop tension from occurring.
I couldn't take more than five minutes coming back from my lunch break before the high-strung Assistant Manager would ask my direct supervisor if I was, “back from break yet?” This one small thing made all of the good moments seem like distant memories.
After one particularly stressful day, I went to the doctor who was concerned over my dangerous blood pressure level. I left work early the previous day, shaking and almost quitting, due to a showdown with this same assistant manager.
Needless to say, despite a room of MOSTLY balanced people, I was in a toxic work environment.
What Is a Toxic Work Environment?
A toxic work environment is any place of employment where the day-to-day operations have an unhealthy and unprofessional level of stress.
Toxic workplaces can range from bullying, harassment, and discrimination… to unreasonable deadlines, heavy workloads, and unrealistic expectations.
This environment can be the result of a toxic boss, bad colleagues, or oppressive policies. It can also come from a general atmosphere of disrespect that leads to employees feeling devalued and unappreciated.
Ramifications of Staying in a Toxic Work Environment
If you work an average of 40 hours a week, that's over 2000 hours per year. If you're in a toxic work environment, those hours will be filled with fear and stress, with a lack of any positive motivation or reinforcement.
This can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, leaving you drained and demoralized. And remaining in a toxic work environment can have serious consequences on your mental, physical and emotional health.
In fact, research has shown that working in such hostile environments can lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also lead to increased stress levels that may affect the quality of your life outside of the office.
15 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment or Culture
Sign #1. Poor Communication
In an ideal work setting, there should be clear lines of communication between management and employees.
If these lines become blurred or nonexistent, it can create confusion and chaos that spreads throughout the workplace.
For example, do your emails go unanswered? Are meetings called with no agenda or clear purpose? Are there signs of favoritism toward certain employees over others? How do people act when speaking face-to-face?
I remember feeling invisible at one job based on how certain people would come up and start talking to the other person and ignore me, although I was clearly already talking to that person.
Sign #2. Lack of Respect Among Colleagues
Observe how coworkers interact with each other. If they are constantly bickering, gossiping, and making negative comments about each other then it is likely that there is an unhealthy work culture.
This situation is even worse when supervisors and managers are involved. If they are joining in on the negative banter or engaging in it themselves, then this can create a hostile work atmosphere that breeds resentment and fear.
Poor respect can manifest itself in other ways like belittling comments, intimidation tactics and micromanaging.
Sign #3. Lack of Recognition from Management
A toxic workplace can be characterized by a lack of recognition for good work. In such an environment, employees may feel like their contributions are not appreciated, which can lead to feelings of worthlessness and a lack of motivation.
If good performance is ignored or not rewarded in any way, then it can be difficult for employees to remain motivated and invested in their work. This can also lead to conflict between management and employees as the latter may feel like their work is not being taken seriously or valued.
Such a lack of recognition for hard work can lead to high turnover rates as employees become frustrated and disappointed.
Sign #4. Unreasonable Expectations
A sign of a toxic workplace can be unrealistic and unattainable expectations from management. If your boss is demanding that you complete tasks that are out of reach, then this could be a sign that something isn't right.
In addition, if you are constantly being asked to work overtime and put in extra hours without any additional compensation or reward, then this could also be a sign of a toxic workplace.
If such expectations become the norm, it can lead to burnout and low morale among employees.
Sign #5. Unclear Goals & Objectives
Another warning sign of a toxic work environment is the absence of clear goals and objectives. If the company’s direction isn’t clearly outlined, then how can employees be expected to hit their targets?
In such an environment, it will be difficult to measure success and failure, as there won’t be any clarity about what the expectations are. Without this clarity, employees may feel like their efforts aren’t being valued and become frustrated with the lack of direction.
Sign #6. Bullying and Harassment
Bullying and harassment should never be tolerated in any workplace. This can come in the form of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, or physical intimidation.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal laws.
If you find yourself in the middle of a toxic work culture, it’s important to speak up and report any signs of bullying and harassment that you notice. You should also look out for signs of such behavior in other colleagues or employees and take action to ensure that it is reported.
Sign #7. Excessive Monitoring
If you find that your boss or colleagues are constantly monitoring your every move, then it could be a sign of a toxic work culture. This could take the form of intrusive surveillance through cameras or software, as well as constant emails and phone calls.
Excessive monitoring can be an attempt to control and micromanage employee behavior, which can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety. It is important to set boundaries and let your boss know when you feel like your privacy is being invaded.
Sign #8. Favoritism
Favoritism in the workplace is a common issue and is prevalent in a toxic environment. This is when certain employees are given preferential treatment over others, often in the form of promotions or bonuses.
If you find that these privileges are given to certain groups of people and not others, then this could be a sign of favoritism. In such a situation, it is important to speak up and voice your concerns.
Sign #9. Bad Language
Years ago, I remember being in a job interview where the interviewer constantly used the same swear word over and over again. I didn't get the position and realized I probably dodged a bullet.
In a healthy work environment, it is expected that employees use language that is respectful and appropriate. If you find yourself in a workplace where bad language is the norm, then this could be a sign of a toxic work culture.
Sign #10. Unresolved Complaints
A healthy work environment should be one where employees feel comfortable voicing their concerns and know that their complaints will be listened to. If an issue arises, then it needs to be addressed and resolved promptly.
If, however, you find that complaints are not being taken seriously or not addressed at all, it's a sign that stakeholders don't care. No employee should feel like their concerns are falling on deaf ears or that they are not being heard.
Otherwise, the same problem will continue to build and possibly get worse. In some cases, unheard complaints about a particular employee resulted in tragedies in the workplace.
Sign #11. High Turnover Rate
Let's face it, people don't leave jobs in high numbers when things are going great. Sure, people move on… but when a job can't keep staff for long, it's usually a sign that something isn't right. There may be a revolving door of people in a department, specific job title, or company-wide.
If you find yourself in a job where the turnover rate is high, it could be a sign that this isn't the right fit for you. This change can be noticeable if you were at the job with the same people for a while but suddenly notice that many people are leaving or getting replaced.
Sign #12. Poor Health Conditions
Sure, some jobs come with built-in danger such as being a fireman, but there is no excuse for employees to be mistreated or put in any type of danger.
This might include being asked to do tasks that are out of their job descriptions, such as cleaning up hazardous materials or working in extreme temperatures for hours on end.
It's important to be aware of signs that could indicate a lack of proper safety regulations and procedures, as well as signs of physical and mental abuse.
Sign #13. Discriminatory Behavior
Discrimination in the workplace is still an issue, even though it is something that should have been addressed and eradicated long ago. This could include anything from ageism, sexism, racism, and more.
This behavior may be limited to a particular manager or be an unspoken part of company policy. For example, you may see signs of ageism in hiring practices. Certain ethnic groups may not get the same welcome or training as others.
Sign #14. Unprofessionalism
Unprofessional behavior is a telltale sign that a work environment isn't healthy. This could include employees not following protocol, such as showing up late or not dressing appropriately… as well as managers making inappropriate comments or treating employees poorly.
Is a colleague not carrying their workload and it seems to be a common trait among that department? Do managers forget to show up for meetings and then blame it on their team's lack of preparation? All signs of an unhealthy work environment.
Sign #15. Fear of Speaking Up
Are there certain topics that are off-limits among the team, or is it a case of all work and no play? Do employees hesitate to voice their opinions or express ideas that could benefit the company?
While it may seem silly that an adult can't speak their mind in fear of repercussions, this is a common sign of a toxic work environment. In many cases, the problem isn't that employees don't have ideas… but rather that they fear speaking up due to a feeling of helplessness.
There may be an unspoken rule that bringing problems or new ideas to light may result in retaliation. Such retaliation may be in the form of verbal or mental abuse, getting fired, or simply not being taken seriously.
Does Remote Work Mean No More Toxic Work Environments?
The answer to this question is a resounding no. Yes, remote work has its advantages, but it is still possible to have a toxic work environment, even if the entire team is in different places.
Remote workers may still experience signs of a toxic work environment, such as feeling micromanaged, not being appreciated for their work and contribution, or receiving inadequate support.
It may also be easier to expect an unreasonable workload or contact availability in a remote setting.
In a remote setting, signs of a toxic work environment can be more difficult to spot, so it's important to stay vigilant and look out for signs of unprofessionalism or unhealthy team dynamics.
Final Thoughts about Toxic Work Environments
A toxic work environment is an unhealthy situation that can lead to serious physical and mental health issues for employees. That is why it is important to be aware of the signs of a toxic work environment… as it can be damaging both in the short and long term.
Leaving a Toxic Work Environment may be the only option – and one you’ll feel thankful for in the end. Additionally, if you are unsure as to how toxic your work environment is, take one of the 7 Toxic Work Environment Quizzes to See if It's Time to Leave.