How to Handle and Identify the Signs of Toxic Work Environments

How to Handle and Identify the Signs of Toxic Work Environments - Style Nine to Five

I can remember feeling like I was in the wrong all the time. I felt isolated, lonely and completely debilitated from the choices or actions that I made. I tried conveying what I felt to my boss, only to have it thrown back in my face.

I was told a variety of things on a daily basis, each time striking a different chord; that I was emotionally immature, that I’m not sensitive enough, but also too sensitive, that I need to take initiative, that I worked too fast, but not fast enough, that I shouldn’t get involved, but also not a team player, that I shouldn’t help because it’s not mine to help with… all coupled with unsupportive higher ups, reckless gossip, constant disparagement and unaccompanied team members which only exacerbated the frantic culture.

It’s unfortunate, but toxic workplaces do exist and I, like many, have tolerated them. I wasn’t equipped with the knowledge, needed strength or the skills in order to identify the signs of toxicity in a work environment, nor did I have an outlet or resources to tell me otherwise. It wasn’t long before my own behaviour changed and hit an all-time low, I began exhibiting little to no interest in anything and my depression rightfully plummeted. As a result, I suffered the wrongdoings of a toxic workplace.

While there is a lot of controversy around what constitutes toxicity in the workplace, it’s important to understand that intrinsically, toxic behaviours and actions are forms of abuse, no matter the scenario or environment. That’s why it’s ever so important to familiarize yourself, whether you are an employee or employer, with the signs and the affects they can perpetuate for both individuals and the organization itself.

Top Signs of a Toxic Workplace

Bad days, weeks and even months are totally normal. But when one bad month turns into six, it may be worthwhile to take a step back. Take some time to check in with yourself and ask questions with regards to the surrounding feelings, behaviours and mood that you’re picking up on.

With success, you’ll come to notice frequent patterns and trends that are leading the toxic environment. Some examples are:

• Bad communication

• Unmotivated coworkers/employees

• Little to no work/life balance

• High employee sickness

• Cliques, exclusion and gossipy behaviours

• Your gut feeling – trust it!

(Read this article on grey rocking.) Often overlooked, toxic work environments can also induce physical ailments that impact one’s health in a variety of ways. These physical signs can include:

• The very thought of going to work makes you tired, depressed or physically ill

• Racing heartbeats before, during or after work

• Damaged self-esteem

• Lack of sleep or insomnia

• Changes in eating habits

• Relationships with family and friends suffer or diminish

Toxic environments not only affect employees within the organization, but also the organization itself. Organizations who exhibit toxicity often coincide toxic trends. These can include:

• High employee turnover = more training = more $$

• Low morale = lackluster productivity = loss of sales or profits

• Disorganized operations = high workloads = missed opportunities

It’s Not You, It’s Them

I wanted to believe that the place I worked was collaborative, inclusive and a generally good place to be. (Some workplaces totally are, and if you’re someone who’s got that consider yourself lucky!) Work environments are hard to navigate, even for the best of us, and I learned that the hard way.

Toxic cultures are the result of everyone’s actions That means your bad behaviour was inherited from your bad boss, and your bad boss is the product of their bad boss and so on. The same goes for the overall workplace environment. It’s a hierarchy of unrelenting behaviours, circumstances and people that typically go on for years without consequences.

You have every right to take a stance against the improper culture and it starts by recognizing your worth. Don’t let their ways define who you are. If you are experiencing duress due to an unhealthy workplace or tormenting boss, know that it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them.

Redirect Your Energy

I’d say the hardest thing to overcome from my toxic workplace, was accepting that it wasn’t going to change. This place was toxic before I got there and is likely still toxic even though I’m gone. Because I’m naturally a giving person, I spent way too much time trying to evoke an atmosphere that was just not attainable, and my energy suffered.

Use your energy sparingly, but wisely. Don’t participate in the events that make your workplace unpleasant. Better yet, find ways to avoid them entirely. People who participate in toxic workplaces and behaviours often show little care for how others feel and their well-being. Sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. It’s best to keep yourself busy. The more you direct your energy and are focused on the actual tasks and the work that needs to be done, the less likely it is that you’ll be affected by the negativity and gives you reasons to keep going.

Learn to Deal

More often than not, leaving the toxic organization is the best and safest way to improve the situation. However, there are instances where that isn’t an option. While no one is asking that you condone the behaviours that take place, it is important to try and find ways to manage the interim. There isn’t one set strategy, so it’s worth trying a few different tactics that are workable to help get you through.

• It’s easier said than done, of course, but controlling your own behaviour and responses in a toxic workplace will only save you in the end. Focus on your own language and ‘kill them with kindness’.

• Reach out to people who feel the same way you do, or those that can lend an ear. (It doesn’t have to be people you work with). You’ll have a sounding board to vent and also someone who will have your back.

• Explore after work activities that support stress relief and positive cognitive functions. The key is to combat the drama with reinforcing healthy tactics that’ll leave you questioning why you were upset in the first place.

• Document EVERYTHING – Literally, everything. Should you find yourself in need of filing a complaint, you’ll have a textbook of evidence to back it up.

• Plan an exit strategy so that you can stay positive while things are tough. If you need to leave ASAP, consider temporary or freelance work to help keep you active while you search for a new job.

• Sometimes legal action is necessary. Severe cases of harassment, discrimination or a violation of your employee rights are grounds for legal action. Speak up and take an active role in seeking advice.

I’ll be honest and say that my toxic work experience left me feeling a bit jarred, and there are still times where I’m not the most optimistic in believing there’s a silver lining to it all. But believe it or not, I’m thankful for my experience because I have been able to learn from it. 

Toxic workplaces aren’t every workplace, but they do exist. If you’re someone who’s looking for a new job, invest time in researching the company beforehand – including the department and people you’ll be working for and with. Thanks to the internet, it’s likely to find workplace reviews, articles or people in your network that can offer up information and advice.

Lastly, don’t go at it alone. Reach out with what you’re experiencing and know that it is valid. You’ll be surprised by how many others out there can attest your feelings and offer support!

Style Nine to Five takes pride in its recruitment and staffing capabilities. The company’s Founder, Christie Lohr, combines quality candidates with great organizations. Employer Services are offered a-la-carte, with full package and individual requests available.

Meghan Kelemen – Hailing from Toronto, Canada, Meghan is a Fashion Management alumnus of George Brown College and garners 10+ years’ experience in retail business and creative management.

Feature Image: Adobe Stock