What is a toxic work environment?
If you find yourself in need of a workplace detox, what do you do?
And, how do you avoid working in a toxic environment in the first place?
Like, what are the warning signs of a toxic workplace?
They say that most bosses are horrible, some are just okay, and a rare handful are amazing.
They told me that the primary reason most employees leave their current position is because of bad bosses.
But nobody warned me about how easy it is to find yourself in a toxic work environment. Nor the signs to look out for and questions to ask during an interview to avoid a toxic work environment.
I didn’t learn how to navigate toxic work environments until my late 20s. To be honest, I still have much to learn about how to avoid a toxic work environment in the future.
What is a Toxic Work Environment?
I once realized I was working in a workplace that was toxic.
Like so toxic that there was a figurative coup d’etat of leadership occurring!
Toxic work environments are rife with negativity and a corporate culture that destroys and drains its employees.
Maybe your skin even crawls when you walk through the doors, and you’re constantly counting the seconds until you can walk out on the workday?
You’re afraid for the security of your job and constantly feeling judged about your work performance? Are you stressed to your limits and motivated by fear? Maybe the rules apply to some, but not to all and gossip and drama are the priorities of the day.
Anyway, you get the picture, I seriously can write a book about my experiences within this department. And know what, maybe I just might do that! If I do, you all will be the first to know!
But until then, this is what I want to do for you – I’m going to share with you an action plan for when happen to find yourself (because you probably will at some point in your career) in a toxic work environment.
Step 1: Identify If Your Work Environment is Toxic
Toxic workplace symptoms are well documented, the ones listed above are just the beginning. To properly diagnose the health of your work environment, check out these two comprehensive articles on toxic workplaces here in Forbes and here in Bustle.
Below are 2 seemingly innocuous symptoms of a toxic work environment. However, if you look beneath the surface, you are likely to find more symptoms of a toxic work environment.
- High turnover. Great companies worth sticking around at have a few things in common: employees are paid well, employees are valued, employees value their colleagues, leaders invests in their team, work-life balance is respected. If companies do not offer at least most of these, you will see high turnover and chances are that is is because the environment is toxic. Oh, by the way, high turnover includes the firing of employees too.
- The pay is either really, really good or really, really bad compared to the market but the company is not a startup. Ok, seriously!? Startups are either in one of two states: 1) bootstrapping or not funded well yet; so the pay won’t be good. Or 2) are well-oiled machines that can pay a livable or lucrative wage. So, if your company is not a startup and you are being paid horribly, either the company is on a financial decline. But more likely than not, the company does not value their employees. On the other hand, if your company pays well above market, either they are raking in the dough, and handing all the profits to employees. This isn’t the norm. More likely than not, they are trying to entice talent from leaving for greener pastures because everyone is miserable.
Step 2: It’s Time for a Detox
If you are like most people, you will only be able to tolerate operating in a toxic work environment for so long. I mean, we spend the majority of our waking hours at work. Therefore, it is important to be able to recognize the signs that you have been exposed to too much toxicity.
- Increased stress at home. You may find yourself arguing more with your spouse, friends, and family. Many arguments may start off because you are complaining about work, and truthfully, your loved one is tired of hearing about your workplace drama. While other arguments may begin simply due to increased irritability.
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- Health issues may suddenly appear. For instance, increased and unresolved stress can lead to insomnia, gastrointestinal troubles, migraines, and many more illnesses. Also, stress can lead to weight loss in some and weight gain in others. Therefore, it is important to note if you feel like you have drifted significantly from your physical baselines.
- Mental health becomes problematic. If you have any mental health issues, you may find your symptoms flaring. Regardless of having a diagnosed condition or not, you may find yourself dreading going into the office when your alarm goes off in the morning. This feeling happens more often than not.
- You have become numb to your work environment. You may think this is a good thing, but it can actually be counterproductive. When you withdraw completely from your colleagues, you may find that you cannot effectively perform at your job. Additionally, going numb is effectively brushing the issues under the rug. In reality, you should acknowledge the issues you encounter for 2 reasons: 1) to report to HR in case something is illegal or unethical directly affects you AND 2) to note for when you transition to a new department or company what you don’t want in your life in the future.
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- You feel drained and lack the motivation to do what you use to love. You may feel burned out and find it hard to remain productive. If this sounds like you, complete the “Why Don’t You Feel Like It” Self-Analysis. After completing this self-assessment, you may just discover that it is your job that is the source of your lack of motivation. Burnout often occurs when you love the work you do, but hate the job.
Step 3: Damage Control and Minimize Future Exposure
If you find that you are in a toxic work environment and are experiencing any toxicity symptoms as described above, it is important to detox and proactively protect yourself from future exposure. The following are 3 areas I believe will offer the greatest impact on your well-being while you are still with your current work team.
- Practicing Mindfulness. Try following guided meditation or practicing yoga. The art of both of these practices is to allow yourself to be in the moment: not judging why you feel a certain way. Instead, you are taking the time to focus on your breath while noticing how thoughts and feelings pass through your mind and body. Overall, mindfulness allows you to be at peace with what is going on around you, which leads to a sense of calm and control. I personally started using Headspace and I haven’t looked back. Read more about my Headspace journey here.
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- Selective Isolation. Most toxic work environments are toxic because of select colleagues. One bad apple ruins the bunch, right? If there is a certain co-worker or leader whose actions rub you wrong, if possible, decrease the frequency of when or how you have to interact with them. Identify co-workers who you enjoy and who bring positivity to your work environment. Begin to nurture those working relationships to add some sunshine to your day.
- Taking Breaks. If you hide out at your desk for a working lunch, STOP! If you work nonstop until lunch and then again until it’s time to go home, STOP! Research suggests that we are more productive if we take a 20-minute break after 50-90 minutes of work. While on your breaks, consider enjoying a brisk walk outside or getting an express mani. Basically, just do something that allows you to pamper yourself during the workday.
Step 4: Plan Your Escape
Now, onto the trickier part of your action plan. If you identify that you are in a toxic work environment, and there is no hope for improvement, it may be time to plan your escape. You should immediately begin actively looking for another employment opportunity or begin seriously building your freedom business. While you are planning your escape, I suggest that you also do the following:
- Reflect and Prepare for Your Future. Think about your current department and your skills: What did you like? What did you not like? What do you want to learn more of? What was not interesting to you? You want to be thoughtful about this step because you don’t want to run off to the first job that gives you an offer letter because you may find yourself in a similar or worse environment. Whenever I am at a career transition point, I revisit the book “What Color is Your Parachute?” which has helpful activities to guide you in career reflection and action planning.
- Increase Networking. Networking and relationships are key to building a strong career or business. Relationships literally can make or break you. If you are serious about finding a new job, most jobs are landed through networking. If you are for real about developing your business, most clients are going to find you through networking.
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- Begin Stacking Your Paper. You never know when your current environment will take a turn for the uglier. Therefore, you want to start saving as much as you can in what we can call a “F*ck Off” Fund. Set a goal for at least 3 months of living expenses that way you can leave with your financial feet under you in case you need to quit before landing another opportunity.
How to Leave a Toxic Work Environment.
No employee deserves to work in a toxic or hostile work environment. If you are currently in a toxic workplace, know that you deserve better and that you have options.
If you’ve spotted the signs of a toxic work environment at your place of work, and you don’t see things improving, it’s time to start planning your escape. Either to a new position with another company or by starting your own side hustle, blog or business.
Also, let’s face it, if we are trying to grow our side hustle into our main hustle, a toxic work environment is a contraindication to becoming our own boss! Don’t ignore the signs and signals from your toxic workplace that are affecting you, use them to motivate you to make a change.
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Trust me, once you’ve decided to go, quitting is the easy part, it’s making sure you’ve prepared for your transition period between jobs and career choices that requires proper planning and preparation.
If you aren’t in a toxic work environment, but you know a blog/biz best friend who is, be sure to share with them this action plan.
Are you working in a toxic environment?
More About Guest Contributor
Hi! I’m Christa! I’m the Founder and Curator of Freeing She— the Ambitious Woman’s Guide to Life + Career. I started Freeing She to document my journey of achieving my most ambitious goals. While I share my career and life chronicles, I also provide tools, resources, and fresh perspectives for women of color who are seeking freedom in their careers: breaking through the glass ceiling or excelling as an entrepreneur.
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