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How to Recognize a Toxic Work Environment and Get Out Alive

Your place of work should be empowering, not constraining.

A toxic work environment is any job where the work, the atmosphere, the people, or any combination of those things makes you so dismayed it causes severe disruptions in every other aspect of your life. My words of advice: "Plan your escape immediately."

  • Do you dread the idea of staying in your job for another year?
  • Do you feel like your manager doubts your ability to make smart decisions about your work?
  • Have you cried at work?
  • Is your role continually changing?
  • Are you interrupted so often when you sit down to focus on a task that it's almost impossible to get work done?
  • Are you assigned tasks from multiple supervisors with little or no regard for the work already given to you?
  • Do performance reviews feel like an ambush of negative feedback that you've never been clued into?
  • Are you belittled or yelled at by your manager or colleagues?

The majority of individuals in the corporate workforce have most likely experienced toxicity in the workplace, especially if they are employed in the United States where many of us are overworked, underappreciated, and are drowning in an unhealthy work/life balance.

From negative, gossipy co-workers, tyrannical upper management, and a lack of benefits and compensation to inconsistent rules, the inability for vertical mobility and the absence of personal boundaries, a toxic work environment can linger into your personal life and cause you more mental and emotional turmoil than you can imagine.

I have been in a toxic professional environment in the past and quickly escaped; I literally left work one day and never came back; it was that bad. Unfortunately, I know I am not the only one who has experienced verbal abuse and emotional distress in a toxic work environment.

12 signs you are in a toxic work environment

Upper management is entitled and/or tyrannical.

Power does not breed leadership. Just because your boss or an upper-level manager is in a higher position than you does not give them the right to belittle you. They may have more years under their belt or a higher-level degree, but that does not mean they are better than you. If they do not treat you as an equal, then it is time to reconsider your job options.

Your management does not align with the company values.

When your boss talks poorly about the company or gossips about the board of directors, there most likely is a huge problem behind closed doors that may eventually trickle down to the rest of the company. The leadership in the company should always align with the company’s values and ethics.

Your colleagues are unprofessional.

If your colleagues do not take their job seriously, are always late to meetings, do not take pride in their work, gossip, complain, or are just plain rude, then you know something is wrong. Your colleagues should be supportive, happy, and professional and should make your workday that much better.

Your boss is a bully.

Enough said! If your boss says phrases such as, “You should feel lucky you have this job,” or if they give you ultimatums, do not respect your work-life boundaries, will not grant you days off, or talks down to you, then you are not in a healthy workplace.

Your work-life balance is more “work” than “life.”

Are you continually taking your work home with you, checking your emails at home, going into the office early, and staying late at the expense of your personal life? Are you unable to take a vacation? Are you constantly talking about work when you are at home or are out with friends? Although many of us do enjoy working hard, when our work starts to cut into our personal lives to the point our balance and happiness is thrown off, then there is a problem.

You feel like you cannot grow within the company.

Do you feel as though you are working toward a promotion or a raise or are you constantly denied pay increases? Is there another position that you can potentially grow into or do you feel stuck in your current role? Are you constantly begging and pleading for a raise or better benefits? If you feel that you cannot make a vertical move within your company, then it may be time to make a lateral move to a different company.

You are constantly getting sick.

Emotional and mental stress can have a large negative impact on your physical health. If you are working in a toxic environment, you are more likely to get sick and many toxic environments will not grant you the proper time off to recover from your illness.

Your personal life is becoming affected.

If you are so miserable at work that you find yourself miserable at home, in your relationships, and with your hobbies, then your toxic professional life is seeping into every other aspect of your life. You may find yourself constantly talking about work and complaining about your boss when you should be enjoying your time off. Eventually, your loved ones will become tired of your negative talk and complaining, and your personal life will take a major hit.

Your colleagues are always complaining.

You may think it is your fault that your job is sucking the life out of you but if your colleagues are miserable and constantly complaining, then it is clearly your job that is toxic, and it has nothing to do with you.

There's a lack of transparency.

Your boss and upper management should always be clear about things like deadlines, your work performance, meeting times, and changes within your role. If you seem to always find out about these big changes after they happen because everything is kept a secret, then there is something terribly wrong.

Rules are inconsistent.

For example, let's say your coworker gets a raise or gets promoted when you did the exact same thing, and are reprimanded instead. Unfair treatment among employees and unclear rules within the company can result in a huge power struggle and unhealthy competition among coworkers; a recipe for a toxic disastrous environment.

Your gut is telling you there is something off.

This visceral organ carries a lot of strong emotion, and when you “get that feeling something is off,” then it probably is. If you usually have good instincts, then listen to what you are feeling.

Finding a solution to the problem

The most important way to handle a toxic job is to understand that you are not the problem; it is a culture issue in which higher-level management enables abusers. Soon enough, that toxic mindset will become passed down throughout the company.

Most likely, this toxic work culture at your current job will not change, and therefore the only concrete way to end this is to find a new job — but this is often easier said than done. In the meantime, there are certain steps you can take to make your workdays (and your personal life) more bearable:

  • Set boundaries for yourself: Always taking a lunch break, not bringing work home, setting clear expectations, having friendships outside of work, and not sharing too many personal details at work.
  • Find a good support system among coworkers: One important way you can weather a toxic work environment is to find one or two good friends you can trust in your workplace and offer each other support and a place to vent.
  • Avoid the gossip, be nice to everyone, and keep your head down.
  • Find a healthy outlet: Whether its exercise, cooking, gardening, or church, finding a healthy outlet or hobby can help you get your mind off of work.
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