Not everybody gets up in the morning and goes to their dream job, and we all have days where we'd like to run screaming from the building. But there's a huge difference between a workplace that is kind of annoying and one that is so extremely toxic that you need to leave it for good — like, yesterday.
The word "toxic" has been thrown around so much lately that it has largely sapped it of its significance. If we get down to the nitty-gritty meaning of the word, it refers to people or places (but, really, people) that poison you — maybe not physically, because, hello, lawsuit of the century, but definitely mentally. A toxic environment makes you feel less than human. It robs you of your dignity and sooner or later could affect your physical health and lead to sleepless nights and high levels of stress that can cause high blood pressure, headaches, upset stomach and much more.
If all of this sounds suspiciously a lot like how you feel right before you enter the place that pays your bills but you're not entirely convinced you should start putting the feelers out on LinkedIn just yet, here are eight signs experts say more or less prove you're clocking in valuable hours in a toxic work environment.
It's one thing to feel so passionately about one's work that conflicts have arisen because all of the people involved in a project are keen on making it great. It's quite another when Sally detests Jane because Jane is secretly reporting back to the boss about everything Sally does wrong in the hopes of taking over her job one day.
"Task-related conflict in the workplace is actually productive," says Courtney Clark, speaker and author of The Successful Struggle. "When colleagues agree about an end goal but disagree about how to get there, that task-related conflict can produce healthy conversation [and] problem solving, and can often lead to better business outcomes."
But when task-related conflict goes on for too long and is either unresolved or the flames are stoked by management that likes competitiveness, Clark says even a healthy conflict can turn into a people-related conflict. "In people-related conflict, shared goals are abandoned and it becomes about 'winning,'" Clark says. "Toxic workplaces are filled with people-related conflict, but it can all start with the simple abandonment of shared goals, which is why not all toxic workplaces are led by horribly abusive bosses, and any workplace could be at risk."
Every employer has his or her own style of leadership and not all bosses are cuddly teddy bears. But one of the major rules in a boss's handbook is: A carrot goes a long way in getting your employees to buy into the idea that working for you is rewarding (and yields more healthy carrots). "Employees within toxic workplaces are often accustomed to feeling like failures, because leaders in these workplaces often fail to offer praise or reward for a job well done," says Ben Brearley, the founder of Thoughtful Leader and a former Management Consultant and MBA who is passionate about leadership and communication. "When you feel sick on Sunday night before going to work on Monday, or you consistently worry about work when you are not there, you may be in a toxic workplace." If there are no bonuses, training or other perks to strive for, Brearley says it results in people just doing the bare minimum to avoid being blamed for failure.
If your boss calls you in for a meeting and spends the first 10 minutes talking smack about your coworker, you can bet the farm the same is happening to you behind your back — and the whole practice of doing this is completely toxic. An environment where only the loudest, most vocal employees are respected and the more introverted ones (no matter how capable they may be) are overlooked is also one in which you should be cautious, Brearley says. A healthy work environment is one in which workers don't have to worry about upper management assassinating their characters behind their backs and everyone's skills are respected, regardless of whether they want to go out for Happy Hour every evening.
An adult's workplace should not be like kindergarten — your opinion should be considered in at least some major decisions. If it isn't, and if the senior team or your boss sets the direction and makes all strategic calls without asking employees for their input, this could speak volumes about your employer's dictatorial management style. "Without shared ownership, employees often lose meaning in their work and engagement decreases," says Aimee Bernstein, president of Open Mind Adventures. "This mentality takes the spirit and joy out of work."
Some of the most brilliant decisions in history have been made because one person or a group of people took a stand against something they didn't feel was working. In a toxic work environment, however, those who disagree with team leaders sometimes pay for speaking their minds and are chastised for not being team players. "Thus, you meet with silence or arms crossed when you make a suggestion that is not the usual thinking within your team," Bernstein says. "Or, when you think out of the box, people talk behind your back, you may not get promoted or you are not included in the sharing of information."
Ever have a boss who can't sneeze without everyone jumping three feet into the air? When your team leader's feathers are so easily ruffled over every setback, employees sometimes respond by unconsciously passing on the poison. "Contagions theory says that both negative and positive emotions spread like a virus," Bernstein says. "When the boss is in a bad mood and snaps at someone, that person can easily spread the bad mood to the next person he or she speaks with. It’s a ripple effect that can affect a large group of people."
Overbearing bosses may feel insecure about their jobs or may have control issues that prompt them to take it upon themselves to manage every detail of your work. This, in turn, sends the message that you are not good enough at your job to handle matters independently — whether or not that's actually true. If all else checks out at your job, but your boss's micromanagement infuriates you, there are ways to handle a boss who micromanages, including anticipating his or her needs (which may ultimately prove impossible) and proactively providing work updates before they have a chance to request them.
There may be times when you're required to pick up a phone at 10 p.m. and get involved in an unusual work crisis. Such is life, particularly these days when computers and phones keep workers connected at all times. But there comes a point when you have to ask yourself if your boss is taking advantage of you and treating you like little more than a minion.
"Companies may create multiple change initiatives, expect 24/7 accessibility and load people with an unreasonable amount of work and pressure," Bernstein says. "This becomes the test for advancement. They don’t care if they burn them out because they’ll just hire others." At the end of the day, you're in control over whether this happens to you, and there are plenty of other work environments out there that will respect your need to have a life, family and job.
Originally published April 2016. Updated April 2017.
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