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What is a Toxic Work Environment and What Can You Do About It?


A toxic work environment is when behavior or communication harms employees' well-being, performance, and overall satisfaction. Many times, toxic work environments develop when trust is replaced by suspicion, resulting in micromanagement, gossip, and backstabbing. Regrettably, having a poor manager isn't against the law and it's not unlawful for a work environment that conflicts with your values, character, and integrity.


Here are five signs you are working in a toxic work environment and five actions you can take to protect your well-being.


How to determine if you are working in a toxic work environment:


1.     Negative atmosphere: If there's a pervasive sense of negativity, tension, or hostility in the workplace, it could be a sign of a toxic work environment. Do you feel tense every time you are in a conversation with certain coworkers or all coworkers? Do you hear constant gossip and it seems to become the norm? If you can’t communicate with your colleagues without complaining or gossiping, there is a good chance you are working in a toxic work environment and if you are participating, you are part of the toxicity.

 

2.     Altering your behavior: A lack of trust can cause you to alter your desired behavior as a coping mechanism. When you feel the need to be careful in every communication or interaction and refrain from asking for clarification or expressing concerns, fearing negative repercussions, you could be working in a toxic work environment. Further, the lack of trust can lead to you feeling compelled to document every conversation and follow up with emails to create a paper trail, not out of necessity for clarity but to protect yourself from potential blame or misunderstandings. Being overly cautious or altering your normally acceptable behavior in a work setting could be a sign you are working in a toxic environment.

 

3.     High turnover: A consistently high turnover rate may suggest there are underlying issues with the workplace culture. Most people want to be recognized and appreciated for their work and they want to feel engaged with their team and company. In the absence of being compensated and appreciated for the value you bring to the company, you may become demotivated and disengaged. When employees leave a company, it’s not just because they were unhappy. Many times, employees' mass exodus is the result of witnessing unsavory behavior that makes employees uncomforable and unwilling to continue being an accomplice to the toxic behavior.

 

4.     Bullying, harassment, hostile work environment: These are all illegal but to prove any of these, you must be experiencing bullying, harassment or hostile work environment because of your race, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability or based on some other protected class. Further, harassment allegations must prove the behavior is unwanted, offensive to a reasonable person and the conduct is severe or pervasive. Just because the situation you are experiencing may not rise to the level of a legal claim, it doesn’t mean that you are not in a toxic environment. If you are feeling bullied or harassed, then the environment does not align with your values and may be considered unhealthy for you.

 

5.     Physical, emotional, mental symptoms: Stress, burnout and exhaustion could be signs that you are personally experiencing trauma from a toxic work environment. A toxic environment can also cause physical symptoms like headaches, back pain, or emotional symptoms like anxiety or depression. Always discuss emotional mental and physical symptoms with doctors to rule out other medical conditions. In the absence of a medical condition, the symptoms are signs that your physical, emotional and/or mental health are being impacted by an environment that is less than desireable.


What you can do about it?


1.     Assess the situation: Reflect on the specific behaviors or dynamics that are contributing to how you feel about specific individuals, teams, or the overall organization.  When you look closely at the behavior, you can determine if the behavior is incongruent with how you believe people should behave and your own values. Determine if there anything you can do to work collaboratively with others to address the underlying issues contributing to the toxic environment. This may involve facilitating open dialogue, implementing conflict resolution strategies, or advocating for changes in organizational policies or practices.

 

2.     Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries to protect your well-being and mental health. This may involve limiting interactions with toxic individuals, setting aside time for self-care, and prioritizing activities outside of work that bring you joy and fulfillment. Understand your values – what is important to you – and ensure that you are living in a way that fulfills your values every day.

 

3.     Communicate constructively: If you feel comfortable, address the issues directly with the individuals involved or with relevant stakeholders such as your manager. Express how the behavior impacts you directly and propose constructive solutions for improvement. If colleagues constantly want to engage you in gossip, consider asking, “Before you tell me what you need to tell me, are you looking for advice or for a listening ear?” This question makes it clear you will not join in or engage in gossip.

 

4.     Seek Support: Reach out to trusted mentors, family members or your HR representatives to discuss your concerns and seek support. Talking to others in a constructive way can provide different perspectives and guidance on how to address the situation effectively. Once you’ve experienced behavior that doesn’t resonate with you, it is easy to emotionally reason a negative intent behind subsequent behaviors. Therefore, keep a record of any instances of toxic behavior or misconduct, including dates, times, and specific details. Documentation can be valuable if you need to escalate the situation or seek outside assistance.

 

5.     Explore options. If efforts to address the toxic environment are unsuccessful or if the situation becomes intolerable, consider exploring other options such as transferring to a different department, seeking alternative employment opportunities outside your company, or consulting with legal counsel if necessary. You have to look at the reality, not how you want it to be if you are unable to influence change. Since one employee can’t change an entire culture, recognize when it may be time to move on for your own sanity and well-being.


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Remember that addressing a toxic work environment may require patience, persistence, and collaboration with others. The more you can prevent it from being "you v. them," and focus on yourself, you will be able to prioritize your well-being and take proactive steps to advocate for a healthier and more positive workplace culture.

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