Toxic work environment
Image: Kapustin Igor/Shutterstock

How to tell you have a toxic work environment and what to do about it

1 Aug 2017

We’ve all experienced a stressful work period, but what happens when that becomes constant? You might have a toxic work environment.

When you have a full-time job, you spend more time at work than you do at home. Therefore, it’s no surprise that your work environment can have a major effect on your life and health.

This often becomes abundantly clear to us when we go through stressful periods. Those headaches, skin reactions and tight stomachs have probably flared up from time to time when you’re experiencing a lot of pressure at work.

Employees need to look after themselves during these periods, but things happen in peaks and troughs and the occasional stressful time is all part of working life, right?

Well, there is a difference between stressful anomalies and a fully toxic work environment. If you’re workplace is toxic, it can have even more of a detrimental effect on your health than the high pressure or stress that comes with being busy.

But how do you know you have a toxic work environment? What if it’s just you? And, if it is toxic, what can you do about it?

First, here are a few signs.

Inconsistent demands or policies

When you don’t know what to expect from one day to the next, it can create a very negative environment.

Employees need to know their deliverables, their targets, how their performance is measured and what is against the company policy. If you’re expected to telepathically know when and how the goalposts change, you can’t be expected to work efficiently.

Sometimes things change but if they’re changing all the time, without warning and for no apparent reason, then your workplace can get toxic very fast.

A lack of proper communication

Whether this comes from your colleagues or the people higher up, good communication is key to any organisation. There’s a reason it’s considered one of the most important skills for jobseekers.

If important information isn’t being properly communicated, mistakes are made and the work you’re doing suffers.

Sometimes, a simple breakdown in communication can be a once-off, or it might highlight a problem that needs to be fixed. But, if it’s a company-wide issue or a constant problem within your team, it can create a negative atmosphere.

Disgruntled colleagues

Have you ever felt hard done by in work only to look around at your colleagues and feel like you’re not the only one with the problem?

While being alone in your feelings doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a toxic work environment, other disgruntled colleagues are a definite sign.

Can you feel the negative energy? Are your colleagues constantly bitching about certain situations? Are a lot of them generally grumpy? This might be highlighting bigger issues within your work environment.

Suffering burnout or other physical effects

Feeling tired can be chalked up to working late. That headache can be attributed to the stressful week you’ve been having. That knot in your stomach? Probably just a lot on your mind.

Employees are often guilty of dismissing low-level symptoms to standard stress instead of looking at deeper levels of burnout and anxiety caused by a toxic work environment.

Not only that, but if other colleagues start to experience the same symptoms or are even calling in sick more often, the workplace could be the cause.

Horrible bosses

Bosses come in all shapes and sizes; you might have the supportive one, the super-organised one or the one who wants to be your friend. But they are just the good ones.

There’s also the contradicting boss, the narcissistic dictator and the one who never follows through. If your boss is in the bad category, it can create an undesirable work atmosphere for you and your colleagues.

Opinions are consistently ignored

When the higher-ups don’t want to listen to their staff’s opinions, that’s when the workplace gets really hard to deal with.

It can go hand in hand with those narcissistic bosses who believe their way is always the right way, but it can come from a team that doesn’t listen, too.

Some of the best decisions in history come from people standing up and pointing out what’s wrong with the current situation and how they can change it for the better. In the workplace, if your opinions are never taken into account, it can make you feel like another cog in a machine, and an unimportant one at that.

5 tips for coping with a toxic work environment

Document everything: Toxic work environments are sure to have tangible examples and situations that can be tracked and documented. Before you proceed with the next step, it’s good to have some backup.

Bring concerns to HR: It’s your HR manager’s job to look after you and your colleagues while you’re in work. If negative behaviour and culture are affecting you, they should be informed and something should be done from their end. Those tangible examples we mentioned do help.

Circle the wagons: This does not mean create a mutiny. However, if your disgruntled colleagues feel the same way, multiple discussions about the same issue with a HR manager will help address the toxic environment as a whole.

Change your mindset: While bringing the situation to HR is important, there is only so much you can control in your workplace. Therefore, an important part of coping is limiting how much the negative situation impacts your mindset. Learn to switch off from work, compartmentalise the bad energy and practise mindfulness to disengage with the toxicity.

Know when to get out: Sometimes a toxic work environment can’t be changed, and there’s only so much you can do to stop it from impacting you in a detrimental way. Once you’ve tried everything you can to fix the situation, sometimes it’s best to know when to move on.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading