published October 15, 2019

Does this sound toxic to you? 6 signs your workplace is poison

Does this sound toxic to you? 6 signs your workplace is poison
  • A toxic environment can have a variety of sources, but most often it starts at the top.
  • A toxic workplace can ruin companies and the people who work in them.
  • Bad bosses and toxic environments are often enabled and tolerated, but that doesn’t make it right. It does, however, mean that you’ll need to protect yourself.
  • Learn how to recognize if and when your workplace is harmful.

How to Recognize a Poisonous Job Situation

Is it a job or is it suicide?

When you left work today, did you feel like dirt?

Welcome to the toxic workplace.

Most often, this is a top-down phenomenon as it’s those at the top of the pyramid that tend to have the most influence on the character and culture of a company. A bad leader can create an environment where all the employees—from C-level management on down—believe they have to fight for every crumb of the leader’s attention. In toxic job situations like this, staff can be so fearful of appearing incompetent that they will blame those they manage for any mistakes or failures to prevent being criticized themselves.

The cause of workplace toxicity can be a narcissistic boss but it can also be vindictive and uncooperative co-workers or a lack of order, confused and non-specific workflows, tiresome work schedules, on and on. And it’s far more than an inconvenience, headache, or morale buster; it’s health-damaging.

Work stress can manifest in your body and cause an array of health problems. Toxic behaviors will only increase the harm. Stress like this can stimulate hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and decreased mental health. And research suggests that these conditions can have fatal consequences.

Interestingly, toxic workplaces cost companies money, not the least of which is attrition—a Gallup report found that roughly half of 7,200 adults surveyed had left a job “to get away from their manager.”

Social costs of workplace stress: It’s responsible for at least 120,000 deaths each year and up to $190 billion in health care costs. Also:
  • Nationally, workplace stress increases health care costs by 5% to 8%
  • Job insecurity increased the odds of reporting poor health by 50%
  • Long work hours increased mortality by almost 20%
  • Highly demanding jobs raised the odds of diagnosable illness by 35%

Stress levels can also be amplified when a job eats into personal time and encroaches on hopes for a work-life balance.

Is your workplace environment toxic? Warning signs to look for:
  • Chronic stress: Do you dread going to work? You could be like 42% of all U.S. workers who had left a job due to an overly stressful environment.
  • Overworking: Being overloaded with responsibilities is a symptom of a hostile workplace. Overworking can also lead to burnout and resentment. This resentment is often directed outward at employers or coworkers.
  • Office gossiping: One can be a victim of or a contributor to office gossip—or both. While gossip, culturally, can be seen as a bonding behavior, it always comes at someone’s expense. Overall it benefits nobody and contributes to a hostile environment by circulating the toxicity. Gossip is often the black market of office politics: Always be careful about what you say and, especially, to whom.
  • Ill-tempered bosses: A raging boss can consistently hurt the self-esteem of subordinates and may routinely undermine their ability to do good work.

The scourge of bullies:

In the workplace, bullying is defined as “repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees; abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; work sabotage; or verbal abuse.”
  • A supervisor or manager with a need to control others and who strategically chooses their targets, timing, location, and methods is a bully. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this but most often they’re done by acts of commission (doing things to others) or omission (withholding resources from others).
  • A bully will enact consequences on the targeted person and will often involve others in their cause, either voluntarily or through coercion. Bullying can undermine legitimate business interests when the perpetrator’s personal agenda takes precedence over work itself.
  • A bully breakdown: 61% of bullies are bosses; 33% are peers with the same rank as their targets; 6% of bullies are, surprisingly, subordinates.

Workplaces are made of people and people have issues. No workplace is without its challenges and no workplace, however happy, is completely positive. Therefore, determining what’s within the normal range of difficulties in a workplace and what constitutes dysfunction or worse can often be complicated.

What causes a toxic work environment?

Before you can understand how to fix a toxic work environment, you need to first know what it looks like, above and beyond the usual workplace stress.

Here are five guidelines to help you determine whether the stresses of your workplace are genuinely toxic and threatening to your mental health:
  1. A Rotten Head
The old expression, “the fish rots from the head,” while biologically untrue, is often used to describe how bad leaders can corrupt a whole culture—as in a top-down rotting. It could be that toxic workplaces foster toxic leaders or toxic leaders foster toxic workplaces. The two seem to be inseparable. As for a poisonous leader’s particular style, whether they’re drunk on power or ego, don’t understand leadership well, are in over their heads, or have a full blown malignant narcissistic disorder, working with them and their whims can be physically and psychologically detrimental.

Generally, the toxic boss tends to be, in some form or another, a narcissist. Whether their narcissism is borderline or full-blown, most likely they’ll believe they can do no wrong. It’s also a standard they won’t grant to anyone else. They demand loyalty, expect praise, and see disagreement as defection. They’re convinced that they’re the brightest star and without them the organizational universe would collapse. Often, their bad behavior is camouflaged in what most assume are the characteristics of business leadership. Add narcissism to the mix and they’ll believe that rules don’t apply to them while at the same time demanding perfection from everyone else. Textbook narcissists seem to have a disproportionate ability to rise to power.

They’ll treat others condescendingly, take credit for the successes of others, and do whatever necessary to ensure they look good. This often comes at someone else’s expense. Trust and teamwork die here. Because of their leadership, they’ll have high turnover rates in their department. This can come at great expense to the organization. The narcissist will only see those departed as lacking in necessary commitment and drive. Given the opportunity, they’ll decimate the health of an entire organization.

According to a Harvard study, overconfidence—the hallmark of narcissism—increases the likelihood of toxicity. Toxic behavior induces others to be toxic and a toxic culture is born; it’s viral and epidemic.
  1. Boor Communication
When communication—or usually, the lack thereof—is not received as the toxic communicator would have imagined, this can result in a storm of grief. The interesting thing here is that when emotions get difficult to manage, which is the side effect of angered and intemperate communications, the result is stalled, unproductive dialogue. Psychologists would recommend “reframing” the conversation: to step back—or out—of the conversation to try to gain a new, calmer perspective. But when it’s raining on you, all you can think about is getting wet.

Miscommunication can cross multiple areas and channels including between supervisors and subordinates, from management to supervisors, across departments, with vendors and contractors, assignments and accountability, and even clients.

Problems of communication can be broken down into four categories:
  • Missing communication: when employees actually find out about decisions after they have been implemented
  • Indirect communication: sending messages through others
  • Withholding information
  • Misleading information

Effective communication is the key to any healthy organization. Without it, there’s no team, only rabble, and accomplishing the tasks of the organization becomes virtually impossible.
  1. Transparent no longer apparent
With no clear standards of how your performance is measured, it’s easy to assume you’ll always be on the verge of a failure. Changes are made but often they’re not fully explained. There could be a reason for this—they don’t want you to know. Not wanting you to know is the opposite of transparency and very often what you don’t know can hurt you.

This can also be expressed as objectives changing in the middle of a task or project. You feel like you’re standing on quicksand. Without transparency and clear communication about objectives all the way up the chain in an organization, there’s little hope for mutually respectful, trusting relationships to flourish.
  1. Workflow is a no go
Fear of reprisal can damage the workflow process:
  • Tasks are assigned but no one has ownership
  • Ownership is lost while the task is underway; the original owner no longer has control over the task but finds they’ll still be held responsible for the task’s success
  • Everyone has a different idea or answer for what is the brand, product, service, mission, task, etc.
  • Policies, procedures, and standards are introduced and never quite implemented; they’ll change often—in this circumstance the work is the planning for change, not the change itself because that rarely happens
  • Everyone on a team pursues tasks in a different way that affects outcomes

Without consistency or a standard, what follows is chaos, disparity, and poor quality. Clients, vendors, and employees become frustrated and feel disconnected from the work, and ultimately, the organization.
  1. Negativity Inc.
No coach leads a team to victory with only derision. Good leadership inspires; toxic environments miss the memo.
  • Negativity—anger, despair, frustration, hopelessness, etc.—can become the defining characteristics of the organization
  • Complaining, grousing, and pessimism become the organization’s lingua franca
  • Without solutions, this transitions into sarcasm and cynicism, a distrust of management and leadership, and worse as it goes on
  • Staff finds ways to avoid accountability and the only successful channel in the organization becomes the one that shifts blame
  • Team members withdraw, stop interacting with others, hole themselves in their offices with the doors closed; if they don’t actually leave the organization they’ll dream about it, often; the only team activity becomes commiseration
  • Inevitably, word on the street—and notably, on the job boards—will be that this is a toxic workplace; a must to avoid—abandon hope all ye who enter here
  1. It goes home with you
Toxic workplace behaviors are sticky. They tend to follow you home. That prolongs the stress and makes it even less healthy. When a workplace is toxic, by definition, it’s measurably unhealthy and damaging to those who work there. Staff may notice changes in their health. Symptoms can include not being able to sleep, weight gain, and having various other increased medical problems.

Other dysfunctional workplace signs

The tolls can be emotional too. It can be expressed as increased irritably, being easily triggered or “touchy,” and quick to anger. Sustained, it can lead to depression. Feelings of anxiety and a general sense of dread are felt when employees think about work.

Friends and family will notice the change and make comments about moods. They’ll sense something is wrong and may even suggest “talking to someone.” Eventually, personal relationships could be impacted. No job is worth the destruction of intimate relationships or family estrangements. All of these are signals that it’s time to seriously take a look at what’s going on.

Toxic workplace solutions
Money and work are stressful, even under the best circumstances, and the workplace, in general, is only getting more stressful. Spending too much time and energy at work adds stress to those with families.

That aside, toxic workplaces are banally common and you may indeed be stuck in one. Here’s a workplace checklist of things you might do if your company’s culture has gone south:
  • If the source of toxicity is negative actions, the cure may be positive ones: Knowing you’re in a toxic situation isn’t enough; there’s work to be done. Don’t put it off. Things won’t magically change on their own.
  • Toxicity is often about imbalance: too much this, not enough of that. What can you do to help find equilibrium? Getting needed help, allocating tasks, establishing more realistic expectations? Even if that equilibrium can only be found before and after work. Here, a work-life balance can save your life. Find it wherever you can.
  • Toxic office communications have been described as “an evil version of the game Telephone.” Supervisors and co-workers may not listen or if they do, it’s been filtered through someone else’s agenda. Information about you and your work may be unrecognizable from the actual truth. Getting more control of your narrative can help.
  • There will be situations where the only way to escape a toxic work environment is to leave. It’s been suggested by recruiters that we no longer live in a work culture where staying long in a job is not a good career move. In fact, changing jobs is the best way to get salary increases. It’s not just moving on from a toxic workplace—often just moving on is a good idea itself.
  • Building strong friendships with coworkers can provide many benefits. They’re also a great buffer against hostility. Friends won’t be toxic. Co-workers who are friends can have benefits for the organization too by creating strength and solidarity.
  • Be consistent, fair, flexible, and try to have fun. Often, fun can act as a disinfectant. Light conversation and listening to others can often exorcise dark feelings and animus someone may have against you.

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