How to identify and cope with a toxic workplace

How to identify and cope with a toxic workplace

Friday July 22, 2016,

5 min Read

We have all had our share of horrible bosses, nosey co-workers and inconsequential assignments. But most often, they turn out to be just the one odd stain among many other good things that make you want to keep coming to work. But what if your workplace is just plain toxic? What if it is pulling you down and even making you sick from all the negativity, stress and malice. According to Marsha Petrie Sue, author of Toxic People: Decontaminating Difficult People At Work Without Using Weapons Or Duct Tape, research has zeroed in on high blood pressure, increased anxiety, insomnia and even eczema as the consequences of working among toxic people in an adverse environment. A study published in Science Daily found that those who experience psychological stress at work have an increased risk of being affected by cardiovascular diseases.

Image credits: Shutterstock
Image credits: Shutterstock

A toxic workplace is very similar to a dysfunctional family. It is characterised by chaos resulting from poorly made decisions, high levels of resentment, stress and lack of mutual trust and support. If you find yourself nodding your head in agreement, it may help to confirm if you are, indeed, working in a toxic culture. Here are some sure-shot signs of a toxic workplace:

Rude, dominating or narcissistic leaders

Bad bosses might seem like a blessing if you were working under a worse one. If your boss is a bully, is outright condescending, doesn’t listen to your ideas or is manipulative, you can be sure that he is one of main reasons for the toxicity in your office. Toxic leaders mean low levels of trust among employees and a high turnover in their departments. They are usually found in the mid-level management and may be responsible for your shunted growth within the organisation.

Policy inconsistencies

In a toxic work environment, it is most likely that no one knows what’s going on, and consequently, they constantly shift the blame of mistakes to others. No one wants to take responsibility for their actions, and either there are no policies in place or the existing ones are not followed. There is no sort of monitoring by seniors, and unfair choices are made on a daily basis. Such an environment not only breeds frustration, it can lead to disgruntled clients and translate into fewer sales and thereby, lower revenue as well.

Poor communication systems

Good internal communication is one of the cornerstones of successful organisational management. If you are working in an environment where proper communication channels do not exist or the existing ones are confusing or tangled, it is a clear sign of toxicity. The signs to look out for, according to this piece in Fast Company, are employees being left out while making important decisions, messages being sent through middlemen, important information being withheld and misleading information being circulated. It is almost impossible to deliver positive results working in an environment that is plagued by poor communication systems.

Existence of negative cliques

It may not be possible to be friends with everyone at work. But if your co-workers are too nasty, rude, gang up against you and remind you of school bullies, it is a sure-shot sign that the atmosphere cannot foster productive work. If your co-workers are extremely hostile to you, spread unfounded gossip about you and sabotage your efforts intentionally, it is time to take action or make a move.

Physical and emotional health effects

Finally, if your workplace makes you sick, both literally and figuratively, it is a sign that it is toxic. If your productivity at work is decreasing, you are not able to sleep, are gaining or losing weight and are experiencing other health issues, you can be sure that it is a direct effect of a toxic workplace. Studies have found that working in such environments can increase the risk of hypertension and depression. You may experience emotional changes like increased anxiety, frustration, hopelessness and anger, and these may start affecting your personal life as well.

Your job could, indeed, be killing you. A 20-year long observational study conducted by Tel Aviv University found that those who worked in toxic environments faced a higher risk of dying young. During the course of the study, of the 820 respondents interviewed, 53 people who had reported hostile work environments had died. The first thought would be to leave your job and move on to a healthier environment. But if that isn’t a viable solution given your financial limitations or other deciding factors, here’s how you can attempt to detox your workplace:

  • In case of gossip mongers or cliquey co-workers, when things go out of hand, the best option is to ignore them. If someone is constantly interrupting you, distracting you or working against you, confront them politely and tell them why it is important for you to finish the job at hand. If the problem persists, take it up with your supervisor or the HR manager.
  • The best way to deal with a toxic mid-level manager or boss is to talk to the higher-ups. Go to the top management if necessary and make the situation known to them.
  • Consciously disengage yourself from negative groups, cliques and conversations.
  • Make a list of how you can use your time efficiently at work so that you do not have to compromise on your productivity or be carried away by the negativity that surrounds you.

If none of these work, update your resume, start networking and gradually plan your exit from the organisation. Remember that no paycheck is big enough for you to put yourself through such a hostile and unhealthy environment.