How to Deal with a Toxic Work Environment
Nov 04, 2021
9 min read

Think you might be in a toxic work environment? If you’ve sought out this article, chances are that you already know the answer. You shouldn’t be going to work each day with a knot in your stomach, sweaty palms, and a feeling of dread, and if you are – it’s time to do something about it. 

A Few Bad Apples

Toxic work environments are a headache for employees and managers alike. They’re bad for morale, bad for mental health and bad for productivity and profit. According to a study from the University of South Australia, toxic work environments triple individuals’ chances of developing depression, among many other mental and physical ailments.

The tough thing is, toxic environments are often the product of a few bad eggs, something Robert Sutton wrote about extensively in “The No Asshole Rule”. After monitoring countless workplaces, Sutton identified certain characters in the office, he dubbed “The Assholes”, that leverage their position to bully, tease, intimidate, alienate and/or belittle others. 

Not only is this hugely unpleasant for their colleagues, but the impact can be a nightmare for the company. Studies show that unhappy, stressful, or intimidating workplaces are hugely inefficient for productivity, since employees are more likely to be distracted by office politics, engaged in HR meetings, taking sick days from stress related illnesses, and even filing lawsuits. On top of this, time and time again, just one bad apple has been proven to change the mood of the whole group. Essentially – no-one wins by having assholes in the office.

Tell-tale Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

You Dread Work

Your body is always the first indicator of a bad office environment. When we experience stress, our brain triggers our fight or flight response, flooding our body with adrenaline and creating that uncomfortable feeling of butterflies, jitters, sweats and more. If opening your emails or waking up on a Monday morning triggers this response, you know something is off.

Negativity 

Did you know that some offices are enthusiastic, productive places, where people take the time to help each other out and jump on an exciting project? No? Well, it might be time to take a closer look at your own. We all have our bad days, and no-one expects the office to be a non-stop fiesta, but if you’ve never seen your colleagues crack a smile or express enthusiasm, this could be a sign of toxicity. 

High turnover and Sick Days 

Stress weakens our immune system, making us susceptible to illness and infection. If you find yourself constantly feeling burnt-out, exhausted, or ill (or you notice others taking sick days often), this is your body telling you that your environment is unhealthy. Equally, it’s a bad sign if the staff turnover seems unnaturally high.

Bad management

Creating harmony is one of the biggest (and most overlooked) responsibilities of all managers, so if the toxicity stems from them – others will quickly follow suit. If your manager is breathing down your neck, offloading high workloads onto you or barraging you with out of hours emails, you’re going to feel overworked, undervalued and stressed.

Gossiping and cliques 

A classic downward spiral for office culture is the gossiping that starts when poor management or corporate structure creates a rift between manager and employees. Distrust builds, cliques start to form, and resentment perpetuates bad blood between all.

Strategies for Dealing with Toxic Work Environments 

Lead by Example

This can be difficult, and there’s a case to be made for saying that if you’re suffering from a toxic work environment, the last thing you should be taking on is the unpaid additional labour of diffusing tension on behalf of those in management. If you are a manager, this unfortunately is your responsibility, but you may be able to reach out to HR for support and guidance.

Refrain from Gossip

The simplest thing to do is to simply refuse to participate. Treat everyone respectfully, do not pass on any rumours or gossip and sidestep any obligations to join a faction or clique. This often involves staying neutral on causes that you may care about, but these can be communicated through appropriate channels and forums ­­– not over group texts or behind people’s backs. 

Set Rigid Work/Home Boundaries

We all know how good it can be to vent, but taking your work frustrations home with you is generally bad practice. Your partner or family may start to resent the constant repetition of work grievances and you’ll find that the toxicity has seeped into your home life. Instead, leave it all at the door and try to compartmentalise the issue, so that you can focus on building healthy, relaxing leisure time at home.

Never Do Anything While Your Blood is Boiling

This is the most important advice you can take with you. Set an absolute blanket ban on ever acting whilst your emotions are running high. Sending a furious email to a colleague or marching over to their desk is a sure-fire way to say something damaging or escalate a situation. Wait until you’ve calmed down, strategise effectively and communicate only when you’ve assessed the situation from all sides.

Keep Everything Through Official Channels 

Any good office should have a standard protocol for airing grievances or discussing issues. If they don’t, this should be discussed with management. Insisting on going through these channels will not only get your concerns taken more seriously, but you’ll have a strong paper trail and case to your name, were things to ever be taken higher up. 

Vent

Having said all this, we’re only human and sometimes we need a good vent! Choose the right person (such as a friend at another firm going through similar issues) and swap stories over drinks one evening to really lay it all out. You’ll feel better, they’ll feel better, and it will help you organise your thoughts when it comes to communicating your issues in a more professional manner – at the right time.

Leave Your Job

There are usually many things you can do to tackle a toxic workplace environment, but sometimes it’s also important to know when to call it quits. For many of us, this unfortunately isn’t an option, but if you think it might be ­– it’s well worth considering. Toxic work environments are as valid a reason as any to leave a position, especially if you feel it may be impacting your mental health. 

Toxic work environments can rot your enthusiasm for your work, wreck your social and personal life and create a constant barrier to productivity. Sometimes, it can be remedied by weeding out a few bad apples, or having a healthy, communicative chat with your team or managers. Sometimes, it’s so deeply rooted that you have no choice but to get out. Make sure you’re always checking in on yourself, actively working to counteract the negative culture and taking the time to destress and step away from it all. At the end of the day, no-one deserves to have toxicity ruin their career, health and personal lives.

Hannah

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