Bad bosses, crazy co-workers, and low morale -- they’re all parts of what psychologists call a “toxic” workplace. Everyone has a bad day on the job now and then, but the people and practices in some workplaces can make you dread Monday mornings and feel defeated at the end of each workday.
If that describes you, then you’re not alone. A 2019 survey by HR.com, an online community for human resources (HR) professionals, found that nearly 1 in 5 American workers had left a job in the past 5 years due to bad company culture. Fewer than half of the respondents agreed that their workplace is “positive and nontoxic.” More than half said that negative stress is a problem where they work.
Psychologists and HR consultants say that the coronavirus pandemic, which forced a great many workers to stay home and work remotely, made some jobs even more toxic. How do you know if your workplace has turned toxic? And what should you do?
3 Reasons a Workplace Can Turn Toxic
1. The boss is a jerk. Psychologist Paul White, PhD, is harsh in his feelings about what he calls “toxic leaders.” “These people are nasty,” says White, who is a business consultant, speaker, and co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment. “They are manipulative, they distort the truth, and they take credit for things 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 else. “Everything is about them and they use others for their own purposes. When a person no longer serves a purpose, they’re gone,” White says.
While toxic leaders may pretend to care about their organizations’ goals, they’re only motivated by one thing: Improving their own life, whether that means lining their pockets or building their resume to move on to a better job. And these qualities are not limited to the person in the corner office, White says. Department managers and anyone in a position of power within an organization may be a toxic leader.
2. Your colleagues create chaos. At first, a co-worker who often complains about having too much work or their cubicle being too tiny might feel like someone you can confide in when you’ve got a gripe of your own. But that negativity can get out of control, White says. “Dysfunctional colleagues behave in ways that don’t fit with reality,” he says. “They constantly blame others for their failures. They make excuses and don’t accept responsibility for their choices.”
Worse, dysfunctional co-workers add to a toxic environment with their inability to manage their emotions, White says, unleashing outbursts of anger and frustration. They often feel entitled to privileges they haven’t earned, withhold information you need to succeed, and even lie to your face.
3. The system is sick. Even if your boss and co-workers are kind and decent people, the organization may be structured in a way that creates 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 major U.S. accounting firm.
Often, Kerzner says, senior management fails to spell out a company’s goals and their employees’ roles and responsibilities, then criticizes workers for not hitting their marks. “If you’re not getting the information you need from your supervisor, you might end up not knowing what to focus on,” Kerzner says. “When everyone isn’t rowing in the same direction, that can create a toxic environment, and you can end up feeling like you must have done something wrong.”
Another common problem, Kerzner says, is that employees aren’t given any way to develop their skills and feel like they’re adding value to the company. “If the organization doesn’t provide tools, leadership, and training to help employees feel like they're making an impact, that could create low morale,” Kerzner says. “Employees can feel like they’re spinning their wheels.”
The coronavirus pandemic created new types of on-the-job toxicity by forcing many of us to work remotely, Kerzner says. When you only see co-workers a few times a day on a computer screen, “you can feel like you’re on an island by yourself and you’re not getting the support and collaboration you need from colleagues,” Kerzner says. “Zoom and text messages don’t take the place of being in same room.”
The Toll Toxicity Takes
No surprise here: The frustration of working in a toxic environment can make a mess of your life at home. “You can become caustic, irritable, and prickly,” White says. “You’re on edge all the time and constantly feel like you’re going to lose it.” Unless you manage to leave all that at the door when you come home, your partner, children, and friends may find you unbearable to be around or you may withdraw, either because you’re covering your feelings or simply lack the energy to deal with others. “That cuts you off from potential sources of support,” White says.
Bringing home tension from the workplace can take a toll on your body, too, White says. “It’s amazing how many people in stressful work environments get sick,” he says, noting that problems such as insomnia, chronic headaches, back pain, and other physical ailments are common among employees in toxic environments. “Listen to your body,” White says. “It will 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 need to protect yourself, too, White says.
Do your work. Don’t let the calamitous climate interfere with your responsibilities, so that a toxic leader or dysfunctional colleagues can’t accuse of you of not doing your job, White says.
Put it in writing. Keeping record of the orders you get from a supervisor is essential. If you have a meeting where you are assigned a new responsibility or task, follow up with an email to all your managers. “It should spell out: this is how I understand what we agreed I would do. If that’s not right, please tell me,” White says.
Limit contact with toxic people. If possible, do not have meetings alone with a colleague or supervisor you see as toxic. Having another co-worker on hand can help protect you from a denigrating verbal attack if you fear that’s a possibility, White says.
Take a reality check. If you think you’re stuck in a toxic work environment, find a friend who will hear out your concerns. “Otherwise, you can wind up thinking you’re crazy,” White says. Find someone to talk with who is not involved in the situation, such as a colleague in another department or, preferably, a nonemployee.
Manage “up” to your supervisor. That’s how Kerzner describes approaching your manager and discussing the problems that are making your workday so miserable and intolerable. “Have a transparent conversation,” Kerzner says. “If you don’t, then you’re adding to a toxic work environment. On the other hand, that dialogue could shift the paradigm just enough to get the organization to start thinking about what they have to do to change.”
Lead a balanced life outside of work. “If you realize that you’re unable to change the workplace, you may be able to survive a toxic environment if you work on feeling better and more balanced outside of work,” Kerzner says. Schedule time to spend with your family, whether it’s eating a meal together every day, planning a group walk, or penciling in a date night. Stay connected with friends, even if that means Zoom check-ins. Get some exercise every day. And stay in touch with your spirituality, which can mean practicing your faith, meditating, or making time for a pastime that engages you in a deep way, whether it’s listening to favorite music or flyfishing.
Or You Can Quit
If you reach a point where you simply can’t tolerate a toxic environment, then the next logical next step is to leave. “You do have a choice,” White says. “You may not like that choice, but you don’t have to stay.” Staying in a toxic work environment that’s making you sick perpetuates the idea that you’re a victim and powerless, White says, “and I don’t think any of us are powerless.”
Before you pack up the family photos and clean out your desk, here’s what to do:
Make a pros and cons list. Weigh the benefits and downsides of quitting. Kerzner has seen employees quit jobs, then return in 6 months because “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Make sure you’re not going to have ‘leaving remorse,’” he says.
Be ready to market yourself. “Before you head out the door, be sure your personal branding is up to date,” Kerzner says. “Take stock of the work you’ve done and your accomplishments in the last 5 years.” Make sure those achievements are included when you update your resume and LinkedIn profile.
Don’t leave in a huff. Quitting one day on impulse is a bad idea. Give your employer fair 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 move from a negative workplace to a really good one without some sort of interim space where you go to pull yourself back together,” he says.
And when you start interviewing for a new job, see if you can speak not only with human resources and your potential supervisor, but others who work or have worked for the company. “Try to find out,” White says, “if the culture is a good fit or not.”