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Toxic Workplace vs. Healthy Workplace

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 24, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused you to rethink your work life. Maybe you realized you’re unhappy in your job, or you want better work-life balance. Regardless of where you are, knowing if your work environment is toxic or healthy can help you make important career decisions going forward.

No job is perfect. But a toxic workplace can hurt your mental and physical health. On the other hand, a healthy workplace can boost your overall well-being.

Why Is Mental Health at Work So Important?

A toxic workplace can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health. And the pandemic really got people thinking -- and doing something -- about that. About 24 million U.S. workers left their jobs between April and September of 2021 in what’s known as the “great resignation.”

Of those, more than 75% had at least one symptom of a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, which was up from 59% before the pandemic started. In another survey, 84% of those people said one aspect of their workplace had a negative affect on their mental health. Emotionally draining work and challenges to work-life balance were most common. That's why you may hear about “quiet quitting,” which refers to focusing on other areas of your life besides work or putting in less effort at your job.

Surveys and studies show more people are looking for positive workplaces. In fact, 81% said in one survey they're looking for places to work that support their mental health.

Understanding which situation you’re in may help you decide if you need to make a move -- or how you can make things better in your current job.

How Can I Tell If I’m in a Toxic Workplace?

Some signs of a toxic work workplace can include:

  • Feeling like you aren’t respected or supported
  • Being paid unfairly
  • Being micromanaged
  • Dealing with microaggressions or discrimination
  • Being subjected to unhealthy work conditions or spaces
  • Being asked to work more hours than you were hired to
  • Being threatened, bullied, or feeling unsafe

 

What Are the Physical Health Impacts of a Toxic Workplace?

Chronic stress (like dealing with a boss who constantly yells at you, or a mean co-worker) has been linked to increased risk for infections, high cholesterol and blood pressure, obesity, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases.

It’s also associated with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and substance misuse. You also may have muscle aches, joint pain, migraines, or trouble sleeping.

What Can I Do If I’m in a Toxic Work Culture?

If you’re in a toxic work environment, you may not be able to switch jobs or careers. These tips might help:.

Put yourself first. Prioritize self-care to combat or avoid burnout. Identify how to make your work environment less stressful and try to separate work from the rest of your life at the end of your shift. How can you incorporate self-care into your day? Can you take a walk at lunch, set boundaries with colleagues, or speak up about your concerns to your boss? It may help to know if you want to leave your company or you want to improve things while you’re there.

Focus on what you can control. You can't control other people's responses, but focusing on what you do control can help -- and that may improve your happiness on your job. Can you establish boundaries about your schedule? Identify which aspect of your work is the most draining or upsetting, and try to think up ways to take control.

Ask for help. Maybe you tried to speak up in the past but it went nowhere. Don’t let that stop you from getting the support you need. If you can connect with your boss or your company's human resources department, they may be able to help you without retaliation. If there’s no support at work, confiding in a friend may help.

Consider leaving. If things are bad and unlikely to change, you may decide to change to a job in a healthier workplace. Having a timeline to get another job so it doesn’t create a gap in your employment record can help.

What’s a Healthy Work Environment?

You feel good in a healthy workplace. If you’ve been in a toxic work culture, you can easily compare how it felt to the feelings you have when you’re in a positive work setting. Positive workplaces foster respect, trust, diversity, cooperation, unity, and individual growth. They respect individual boundaries and the need for work-life balance.

Whether you’re a worker or a boss, you can have an impact on your workplace. Listening to others, recognizing others, as well as sharing and seeking productive feedback, can create a positive work environment.

Some organizations navigated the pandemic more easily, and their workers are thriving thanks to strong focuses on the culture. Organizations with open communication, transparency, opportunities for career advancement -- and those who treated people well -- reported feeling stronger despite the pandemic.

What Are Some Signs of Healthy Workplace?

In 2022, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, issued guidelines for healthy workplaces. He said healthy work environments should:

Protect you physically and mentally. You should feel safe at work, and your employer should prioritize your physical and mental health. Promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion can make everyone feel safe.

Bring workers together. Your work life should be a community where inclusion, teamwork, trusted relationships, and mutual respect are center stage.

Show workers they matter. Healthy workplaces should offergood pay, recognize your efforts, and engage you in decisions that affect the organization.

Foster work-life balance. In a healthy workplace, you’ll have more of a say in how you get things done. You may have flexible paid holidays, be able to set your own hours, or be able to decide if you work remotely. There may be more defined boundaries about when you’re off work, such as not receiving calls or emails after the end of your shift, or not getting work messages when you're off work.

Support your growth. Healthy workplaces give you access to training, mentoring, and productive feedback in order to thrive. They also provide opportunities to move up in your career.

How Does a Healthy Workplace Impact Your Well-being?

You’re less likely to have chronic muscle aches or debilitating job stress when you have a healthy work culture. That's because good work environments aren’t linked to cancer, obesity, anxiety, and other health problems like toxic workplaces are.

Working in a healthy workplace is linked to:

  • Better success for the whole company
  • Lower health insurance costs
  • Better productivity
  • Improved quality of life
  • Lower risk of disease
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Positive contributions to your community

Even if you have a healthy work environment but decide to leave your job, you’re likely promote characteristics of a positive workplace wherever you go. That's because you’ll know the value it offers.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: "APA’s 2022 Work and Well-being Survey Results."

Cleveland Clinic: “8 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment,” “Coping with a Toxic Work Environment with Dr. Chivonna Childs.”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "How Toxic Workplace Environment Effects the Employee Engagement: The Mediating Role of Organizational Support and Employee Wellbeing.”

Johns Hopkins University: “What is Quiet Quitting?”

Michigan State University: “The Characteristics of a Positive Work Environment.”

Public Health Reports: “The Value of Worker Well-Being.”

MIT: “Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation.”

Office of the U.S. Surgeon General: “The U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being.”

Society of Human Resources Management: “Research: Employees Rely on Employer Culture to Navigate Pandemic."

The Stability Network: “How to Take Care of Yourself In a Toxic Work Environment.”

 

 

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