Is Your Workplace ‘Toxic’?

Bad bosses, crazy coworkers, and low morale – they’re all part of what psychologists call a “toxic” workplace. Everyone has a bad day at work from time to time, but the people and practices of some workplaces can make you dread Monday morning and feel defeated at the end of each workday.

If this describes you, then you are not alone. A 2019 survey by, an online community for human resources (HR) professionals, found that nearly one in five American workers had quit their job in the past 5 years due to a bad corporate culture. Less than half of respondents agreed that their work environment is “positive and non-toxic”. Over half said negative stress is a problem where they work.

Psychologists and HR consultants say the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced large numbers of workers to stay at home and work remotely, has made some jobs even more toxic. How do you know if your workplace has become toxic? And what should you do?

3 reasons why a workplace can become toxic

1. The boss is a fool. Psychologist Paul White, PhD, is harsh in his feelings about what he calls “toxic leaders.” “These people are mean,” says White, business consultant, speaker and co-author of Rise above a toxic workplace: take care of yourself in an unhealthy environment. “They are manipulative, they twist the truth, and they take credit for what they didn’t do.”

To make matters worse, White suspects that many toxic leaders have clinical narcissism or extreme self-interest at the expense of anyone. “Everything is on them and they use others for their own ends. When a person no longer serves a purpose, they are gone, ”White says.

While toxic leaders may claim to care about their organization’s goals, they’re only motivated by one thing: to improve their own lives, whether it means lining their pockets or building their CVs to move on to a better job. And those qualities aren’t limited to the person in the corner office, White says. Department managers and anyone in positions of power within an organization can be a toxic leader.


2. Your colleagues create chaos. At first, a coworker who often complains about having too much work or too small a cubicle may feel like someone you can confide in when you have a gripe. But that negativity can get out of hand, White says. “Dysfunctional coworkers behave in ways that don’t correspond to reality,” he says. “They constantly blame others for their failures. They find excuses and do not accept responsibility for their choices. “

Worse yet, dysfunctional coworkers add to a toxic environment with their inability to deal with their emotions, White says, triggering outbursts of anger and frustration. They often feel entitled to privileges they haven’t earned, to withhold the information you need to be successful, and even to lie to you in the face.

3. The system is sick. Even if your boss and coworkers are nice and decent people, the organization can be structured in such a way as to create a toxic environment. “Lack of communication is a clear sign of a toxic work environment,” says business psychologist Matthew Kerzner, PhD, who is director of the Center for Family Business Excellence Group at EisnerAmper, a leading US accounting firm.


Often, says Kerzner, top management fails to define a company’s goals and the roles and responsibilities of its employees, and then criticizes workers for not meeting their goals. “If you don’t get the information you need from your supervisor, you might not know what to focus on,” Kerzner explains. “When everyone is not rowing in the same direction, it can create a toxic environment, and you can end up feeling like you must have done something wrong.”

Another common problem, says Kerzner, is that employees have no way to develop their skills and feel like they are adding value to the company. “If the organization does not provide the tools, leadership and training to help employees feel like they are having an impact, it could create low morale,” Kerzner says. “Employees can feel like they’re spinning their wheels.”

The coronavirus pandemic has created new types of toxicity at work by forcing many of us to work remotely, Kerzner says. When you only see coworkers a few times a day on a computer screen, “you may feel lonely on an island and you don’t get the support and collaboration you need from your coworkers.” Kerzner explains. “Zooming and texting don’t replace the same part.”

The toxicity assessment

No surprise here: The frustration of working in a toxic environment can ruin your home life. “You can get caustic and irritable and prickly,” White says. “You are out of breath all the time and constantly feel like you are going to lose it.” Unless you manage to leave it all at the door when you get home, your partner, kids, and friends may find you unbearable or you may withdraw, either because you are covering up your feelings or just because. that you lack the energy to cope. other. “It cuts you off from potential sources of support,” White says.

Bringing stress home from the workplace can also take its toll on your body, White says. “It’s amazing how many people in stressful work environments get sick,” he says, noting that problems like insomnia, chronic headaches, back pain and other physical ailments are common. in employees in toxic environments. “Listen to your body,” White says. “He’ll tell you when things aren’t going well at work

What can you do?

If you work with toxic materials, you wear a Haz-Mat suit. Likewise, if you work in a toxic workplace, you also need to protect yourself, White says.

Do your job. Don’t let the calamitous climate interfere with your responsibilities, so that a toxic leader or dysfunctional coworkers can’t accuse you of not doing your job, White says.

Put it in writing. It is essential to keep track of the orders you receive from a supervisor. If you have a meeting where you are assigned a new responsibility or task, send an email to all of your managers. “It should clarify: this is how I understand what we agreed I would do. If not, tell me, ”White says.

Limit contact with toxic people. If possible, do not meet alone with a coworker or supervisor you deem toxic. Having another coworker on hand can help protect you from a derogatory verbal attack if you’re worried it’s a possibility, White says.


Take a reality check. If you think you’re stuck in a toxic work environment, find a friend who can share your concerns with you. “Otherwise, you may end up thinking you’re crazy,” White says. Find someone to talk to who is not involved in the situation, such as a colleague in another department or, preferably, a non-employee.

Manage “up to” your supervisor. This is how Kerzner describes approaching your manager and discussing the issues that make your working day so miserable and intolerable. “Have a transparent conversation,” Kerzner says. “If you don’t, you add to a toxic work environment. On the other hand, this dialogue could change the paradigm just enough to get the organization to start thinking about what it needs to do to change.

Live a balanced life outside of work. “If you realize that you can’t change your workplace, you may be able to survive in a toxic environment if you work on feeling better and more balanced outside of work,” says Kerzner. Plan some time to spend with your family, whether that’s eating a meal together every day, planning a group walk, or drawing in pencil on a date. Stay connected with your friends, even if that means Zoom recordings. Exercise every day. And stay in touch with your spirituality, which can mean practicing your faith, meditating, or taking time for a hobby that deeply engages you, whether it’s listening to favorite music or fishing for yourself. Fly.

Or you can stop

If you reach a point where you simply cannot tolerate a toxic environment, the next logical step is to leave. “You have a choice,” White says. “You may not like this choice, but you don’t have to stay.” Staying in a toxic work environment that makes you sick perpetuates the idea that you are a victim and helpless, says White, “and I don’t think any of us are helpless.

Before packing up family photos and cleaning your desk, here’s what to do:


List the pros and cons. Weigh the pros and cons of quitting. Kerzner has seen employees quit their jobs and then come back in 6 months because “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Make sure you don’t have “remorse”, ”he says.

Be prepared to market yourself. “Before you go out, make sure your personal branding is up to date,” says Kerzner. “Take stock of the work you have done and your achievements over the past 5 years.” Make sure these accomplishments are included when updating your CV and LinkedIn profile.


Don’t leave in a breath. It is a bad idea to quit smoking one day on impulse. Give your employer reasonable notice, which will give you time to form your escape plan. Don’t expect to find the perfect new job right away, White says. “It’s rare to go from a negative workplace to a really good one without some sort of middle space where you’re going to pull yourself together,” he says.

And when you start an interview for a new job, see if you can speak not only with HR and your potential supervisor, but also with other people who work or have worked for the company. “Try to find out,” White says, “if the culture is right for you or not.”

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Jothi Venkat

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