Is Your Workplace Toxic? Look out for These 7 Signs

Monday, January 8, 2018
Fatou Darboe

Image credit: Inc

You may think of your office as your second home since you spend a majority of your day, or perhaps nights, there. You may even think of your co-workers as your second family since you probably spend more time with them than you do your family.

But let’s be honest, we’re sure you don't love going to work all the time. Nobody does. However, there is a difference between workplace common hassles and a working environment that stresses you out or breaks down your spirit.

It is indeed normal to have a stressful day at the office once in a while. But a truly toxic workplace makes you feel uncomfortable, undervalued and overworked.

Perhaps you're experiencing outright bullying, condescension or screaming matches. Or subtle signs like poor communication, mismanagement, setting people up to fail, and a bad atmosphere.

It can come from your peers, your boss, clients etc.

But the sad reality is that it is common. Most professionals just accept the situation and it becomes their new normal. That can however harm them in the long run, both professionally and personally.

If you’re not content in your work environment, your unhappiness will spill over to other areas of your personal life and could damage your friendships, marriage and even your own self-esteem.

It can also affect your health: the stress of working in a defective office can lead to burnout and depression.

Image credit: meQuilibrium

If bells are going off in your head after reading that, it is indeed time for you to review the dysfunction in your workplace and see if you can fix it or make any changes; or just move on with your career.

But how do you know your workplace is truly toxic?

Here are seven signs that you may be working in a toxic environment.

1. Poor Communication

Do you sometimes feel left out of the loop, especially on important matters that directly impact your job? That is a sign of very poor communication which characterizes many toxic work environments.

You may get little or no feedback on your work performance, and when you do get it, it is negative and not constructive at all -- feedback that leaves you with no clue as to how you could improve and grow with the company, and as a professional.

This feedback is even worse when you are doing the work for multiple people; yet your boss, supervisor or colleagues are the ones that take credit for your achievements.

Perhaps you’ve gone to management or HR with those concerns and about your lack of growth in the company, i.e promotions, raises and engaging in more challenging projects.

If you haven’t seen any changes after a few months, or a year, it may be time for you to leave.

2. No Transparency

Speaking of lack of poor communication regarding your work performance, when you are unsure of how your performance will be graded, you’ve already been set up to fail.

Maybe your job description wasn’t made clear to you, and you had something completely different in mind.

Indeed, when you have a clear job description and a clear outline of the role and targets you’re expected to fill and hit; you are put in a better position to decide whether or not you will accept the job.

If those are still unclear when you take the job, or you find that they are completely different from what you expected, you may regret taking the job. You may consequently have self-esteem issues regarding your capability to do the work.

Even when you are proactive about getting feedback or line up your priorities with your boss’s, you may still feel like the goal or end line is still far away. Lack of transparency has that effect.

It creates a virtually dysfunctional work environment with very little respect and trust.

3. Office Drama

Is your workplace clique-y? Kind of like high school? That is a telling sign of a toxic work environment.

Clique-y environments make one anxious and paranoid. In particular, you may feel like your colleagues are constantly talking or gossiping about you.

If your colleagues are always hovering around the coffee machine, whispering to one another, they are most likely engaging in office gossip. That makes a workplace seem hostile and untrustworthy, as opposed to being friendly and supportive.

You end up working in an environment that is full of miscommunication or misunderstanding; infighting; or favoritism. And you won’t survive or thrive there.

4. People are Always Sick

Toxic workplaces lead to fatigue, burnout and ultimately, illness. If your colleagues, or even yourself, are constantly calling in sick or fighting viruses like the flu at their desks, those are red flags that you could be working in a toxic work environment where everyone is overworked and stressed.

Intense and chronic stress can take a toll on your body. More specifically, it can lead to autoimmune diseases, digestive issues, and even heart attack and stroke.

Chronic stress can literally wreck your wellbeing and lead to serious illness.

Don’t get us wrong. Sometimes people get sick because the flu is going around. But sometimes, it is simply because they are stressed.

Sometimes, it is the small but important things like sleep that may be lacking and lead to serious illness. So, if you are constantly or severely sleep deprived, that is a sure sign that you are overworked, and that an illness may be around the corner.

The question you should ask yourself is, “Is it worth it?”

5. Your Boss is a Tyrant

Is your boss or supervisor trying to control your every move? Or you feel like they are always waiting to pounce on you when you miss your targets?

Well, toxic bosses usually aren’t good listeners and feel that it is always “their way or the highway.”

If your boss likes to flaunt their power and show your colleagues that they’re in charge, he or she usually isn’t keen on helping on projects or giving you credit when you reach certain milestones or achievements.

Even worse, toxic bosses expect you to show up to work when you’re on your deathbed. We know, yikes!

It is indeed hard to imagine you could survive in a workplace where your boss doesn’t want you to thrive or grow. They instead control your career trajectory by hindering your promotions or growth opportunities.

We all want to work for, and with people, who see our potential and want us to grow. However, if you sense that your boss is jealous of your performance; takes credit for your accomplishments; is not putting you on challenging projects and starts creating roadblocks to promotions for you; then you need to consider looking for a new job.

It will be hard for you to advance in such a place.

6. Your Gut is Trying to Tell You Something

If you feel like something is fishy about your workplace, trust your gut and your instincts. Chances are, you’re right.

Have you been asked to omit something or hide something from your clients? Do you feel that your boss is being shady? Those are clear signs that something is off and that not everything is at it seems.

Your intuition will manifest into physical symptoms like sleepless nights, anxiety, sweaty palms, or a sprinting heartbeat. Those symptoms are signs from your gut that there is danger around the corner. Pay attention to it and plan to take action.

It is natural for us to second-guess our gut instincts for multiple reasons (mainly denial or fear of confirmation that you’re actually right), but if you have constantly recurring thoughts or feelings, you should look at why that’s happening.

It is there for a reason. If it is alerting you that you work in a toxic work environment, chances are that you do.

7. Your Family & Friends Notice Uncharacteristic Changes in You

Your family and close friends are the people who know you best in this world. So if they start telling you that they’re noticing a substantial change in your character since you took on a new job, it may be a good idea to listen to them.

If your gut feelings aren’t enough to convince you, ask family and close friends if they have noticed a significant change in your character or behavior since you started your job. If they do, that should tell you something.

Those are the 7 biggest signs that you are working in a toxic work environment. But to get a better grasp of things, let’s look at a case study of a toxic work environment in a company we’re all familiar with, Amazon.

A Case Study of a Toxic Work Environment: Amazon

Remember that New York Times article about Amazon’s workplace culture a few years ago? Who could forget it?

NYT reported that Amazon employees cry at their desks and talk and complain about one another anonymously. They also felt that their health and family concerns were treated trivially and that it was at times grounds for dismissal.


Image credit: Forbes

Human capital is essential to innovation and sustainable growth in any company. So if employees are crying at work and crying at home because of a hostile work environment, no company, no matter what their current share price is, can keep growing and keep being innovative in the long term.

The investigation from the NYT article depicts a highly pressurized environment with a lack of support which is quite common in the financial and legal sectors.

Any single parent with two jobs, any retail worker that has to deal with angry shoppers and any call center employee that is tied to a workspace will report equally hostile work environments as Amazon.

In fact, in Jeff Bezos’ response to the NYT article, he claims that Amazon is just like any other company he knows.

Bezos, and other CEOs like him, are in charge of their world. As CEO, he is the key driver of company culture.

He has created a culture in which he drives his best employees to do even better. Indeed, science shows that when you’re in control, you can tolerate the pressure and even thrive in it.

On the other hand, according to studies on job strain, it is an amalgamation of high stresses and low control that is detrimental.

According to the studies, employees with demanding jobs and very little control have a 400 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease and are 200 percent more likely to have depression. When you add lack of social support at work, the effects are more detrimental.

Based on the research studies around job strain, perhaps leaders like Jeff Bezos shouldn’t be so concerned about creating cultures. If you go into any technology startup, you will likely find sweatshop-like conditions of long hours, unattainable standards and uncomfortable working environments.

There is however a distinct difference though: the employees at tech companies have a sense of purpose, have high social support, less pressure (or lower expectations) and are applauded for their achievements.

Tech companies support their employees to feel in control so that they are able to overcome, and in some cases, supersede, the demands of their job and thrive – despite the extreme demands.

The data is clear: employees who have a keen awareness of purpose and motivation towards achieving a shared goal can better exercise control and withstand the pressure.

Employees in large healthcare, technology and communications companies were surveyed and the results showed that of highly stressed employees, 72% had low connection to their work.

And the ones that reported having a high connection to their work and a sense of purpose were 70% more likely not to feel stressed.

Most likely, the size of the company and the fast pace of its growth has gotten Amazon to where it is now. But to be frank, they reached a point where their employees no longer felt connected to their work and that made the pressures they faced (or perhaps are still facing) at work punishing and not worth it.

It is important for any company to have a fostering culture and aim for high performance standards. An efficient team needs to be supported and pushed.

Increased demands should correspond with more mentorship on how to do things better and a culture that makes employees feel valued.

Accolades and recognition need to replace fear and blame. When that is in place, highly driven and talented employees can have a greater sense of control and job satisfaction.

Wrapping Up

You may have a really good paying job. But is it worth it if you are working in an environment that makes your stomach turn every time you enter the office?

If you can relate to the warning signs and situations highlighted in this article, then you are definitely working in a toxic environment. So, how do you escape it?

The first thing you should do is make sure you are not getting into one in the first place.

Image credit: Inc

You should perform due diligence on workplace culture at any company you are considering working for. Interview them and look for the warning signs mentioned in this article during the interview.

If you’re already in a toxic workplace, you should start creating healthy boundaries to have better control of your time and have enough room to pursue your own goals and priorities, i.e., finding a better place to work.

And considering that the job market is currently doing fairly well, it won't hurt you to start looking for a new job.