6 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

Surgeon General Proclaims Toxic Workplaces are a Health Hazard

Over the years, we’ve discussed occupational health strategies, managing up (dealing with those bad bosses), mental and physical health in the workplace, and so much more. The link between health and a healthy work environment is evident, and the Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek H. Murthy, stated in his October report that “toxic workplaces can harm your physical and mental health.”

“Toxic workplace”, though, can mean many different things. And as easy as it is to say, “Just find another job,” that’s not a reality for many. If you have to stay and navigate toxicity, here are 6 signs you are in a toxic work environment and what you can do about it. Your health depends on it.

1. You are expected to be on call 24/7. That 9:00 pm phone call you must answer; the 6:00 am wakeup email; the extra weekend hours and the glorification of giving everything you are to the job are all red flags. Some toxic work environments lack work-home boundaries.
Strategy:Fall back and adhere to the company communication policy that clearly defines response times to messages and appropriate times to send communication. Establish a personal communication policy. Learn to discern between urgent and important with the Urgent Important Matrix (Crises, Goals & Planning, Interruptions, Distractions). Use this when filtering information you receive from your supervisors and clarify the level of urgency and importance of the tasks they’re asking you to complete.

2. Diverse opinions and ideas are not valued. You don’t share a new point of view for fear of being made fun of. Failure is not an option, as it’s a risk-averse, psychologically unsafe work culture. You would rather go with the status-quo, as compliance prevails over empowerment.
Strategy: Defensiveness and blame are two big pieces of risk aversion. As an employee, if your supervisors are not encouraging you to share your ideas and opinions, this can be tough. Taking risks requires trust, and it’s clearly not happening here. Build trust first. Ask a supervisor to allow your team to brainstorm THE CRAZIEST SOLUTIONS to a problem – no judgement. Help a coworker with a project. Admit when you’ve made a mistake. Create trust in your little bubble of work because just as negativity is contagious, so is positivity.

3. There are no opportunities to grow. This is that feeling that you’re a hamster, just running on a wheel. It’s a pretty crummy one. Top performers get run to the ground when their workplace stops challenging them and providing them with meaningful growth.
Strategy: Opportunities mean everything from promoting from within, receiving necessary training to keep relevant, getting stretch tasks, increased responsibility, and more. Set up a meeting with your manager to put together a professional development plan. If they’re not helpful, take things into your own hands. Look at the job descriptions and requirements for positions that interest you and start developing necessary leadership and/or technical skills required for that job. Attend MOOCs. Apply for conferences. Take charge of your personal and professional development.

4. You have a bad boss and/or monstrous coworkers. This can be anything from an obsessive micro-manager to the conniving, envious coworker who will talk about you behind your back. In an ideal world, we’d all work it out over coffee and laugh at the misunderstandings. In the world of horror films (and toxic workplaces), these people might saw your legs off (Misery) to keep you from escaping or kill you and steal your identity (Mr. Ripley). Take the last two examples as metaphors.
Strategy: Identify the monster type you’re dealing with, whether it’s a narcissist, control freak, or somebody you simply don’t understand. Then treat each type of really difficult, awful personalities like your most difficult client ever and manage up. For the micromanager, understand their triggers (pressure from the board, wanting to see a personal project through) and have a discussion about establishing boundaries. They might not even realize they’re doing it. Take the time to define the problem and find strategies to make it better.

5. You experience physical problems. An increase in absenteeism is a clear sign of mental stress. Over time, high levels of stress can eat away at people’s health (hence, the Surgeon General’s warning). These physical problems can include everything from migraines and gut health problems to fatigue, aches, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Strategy: Seek support. Discuss challenges and stress with colleagues and your supervisor. Evaluate options to change expectations, reach compromises, or consider a bigger change. Define work-home boundaries and stick to them.

6. The last resort. Any one of the following workplace incidences require contacting an employment attorney: sexual harassment, physical intimidation, unlawful conduct, and discriminatory practices.

If work is making you sick, you need to remember you can’t work if you aren’t well. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of being able to leave an unhealthy work environment. These strategies, hopefully, will lesson the burden on you so you can navigate the toxic waters until your work culture changes or you find someplace else.

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