“Sari” used to love going to work. But not lately.
Her division has been in upheaval for months with constant “streamlining.” Leaders come and go and colleagues who were once cordial are now pitted against each other, fearful of losing their jobs.
Contributors in her department are advised to just do what they are told. Questions are discouraged and one-on-one conversations with managers all but avoided.
No one knows who is in charge.
No one knows what will happen next.
Everyone is worried and no one knows what to do about it.
Once a motivated employee with a bright future, she now dreads Mondays. On Sunday evenings, the thought of steeling herself for the week ahead makes her stomach hurt.
She’s drinking far too much coffee, her skin is breaking out and she feels both sluggish and wired, even when she’s not at work.
“The atmosphere,” Sari says, “is totally toxic.”
It’s not the first time a colleague, client or friend has used that word to describe a work situation that’s just, well, not working for them.
But when we say a workplace is “toxic,” what exactly do we mean?
A toxin is a poison. So a toxic work environment is a poisoning one that can do irreparable harm. More than just bumming you out, it can take a toll on your motivation and mental and physical health.
So how do you know if you’re in a workplace that’s truly toxic vs. one that is just… not that much fun? (There’s a reason they call it “work” after all!)
Do any of these points sound like your particular poison? Here are ten signs your workplace might be toxic:
- You are regularly overworked to the point of exhaustion
- Managers are aware of issues but choose not to do anything about them
- Politics abound – it’s less about what you do and how you do it and more about who you play up to
- You find yourself consistently understaffed while facing unreasonable demands
- Policies and procedures are either non-existent or erratically implemented
- You face constant criticism or are publicly reprimanded or humiliated for your efforts
- You are being bullied or harassed and have no recourse
- Your time at work is making you physically ill
- Your attempts at improvement or solution have been denied, ignored the source of derision
- Your professional dissatisfaction is creeping into your personal life
If your work is causing you so much stress that you’re in physical or mental decline, you need to take immediate action to change or leave the situation.
It’s what finally did when I learned to Stand on My Own Two Feet and Walk Away, a realization I came to only after excitedly awaiting (very painful) double-foot surgery just so I could take a much-needed leave of absence. Once rested, I was able to see my dilemma more clearly and make thoughtful plans to improve my work future.
But how to manage a toxic work environment if leaving is not an option? What’s the antidote to counteract a poisonous situation?
- Prioritize your personal well-being. Make healthy food choices, try to get enough sleep, and if you don’t have time to hit the gym, at least take a walk to clear your head.
- Set boundaries. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. Be professional and responsible, but don’t risk your health for people who don’t appreciate you.
- Document the issue and seek advice from trusted higher-ups. What are some reasonable solutions to address the problem?
- Don’t go at it alone. Whatever you are feeling, it’s likely others are too. Find out where there are common challenges and how you can support each other. A toxic clean-up requires a hazmat crew.
- Put on your protective gear. There’s no literal hazmat suit for workplaces that seem toxic, but you can imagine a protective bubble around you and avoid where the toxins ooze the most.
- Above all, know that. it’s not YOU. So often we blame ourselves when things go wrong. Know that just as this environment is not right for you, you are NOT this environment. Stop telling yourself Unhelpful Stories about your role in this mess and work to clean up your involvement in it.
Sometimes things that are truly toxic are in our path to put into perspective what once troubled us but now seems mundane in comparison. Suddenly the bumbling boss or always-jammed printer doesn’t seem quite so bad.
Sari knows this. She’s walking off the stress of the day each evening and relishing in the time she has with friends and family. She’s focusing on what’s good about her job and letting go of what she can’t control until the time comes to make a bigger decision. Until then, she’s dosing herself with mental medicine – more of what makes her feel healthy and happy.
What about you? When have you faced a toxic situation at work and what did you do about it?
Valerie Gordon is an award-winning producer who helps high-achievers ascend the leadership ladder with storytelling strategies for success. The founder of career and communications firm The Storytelling Strategist and the Commander-in-She blog, she works with high-achievers to capitalize on the power of story and trains corporations to use story to build strong, equitable teams. She can be reached at email@example.com