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With labor unionization efforts underway at Amazon and Starbucks, people quitting in record numbers and continued delays in returning to the office, workers appear to be putting their foot down when it comes to less-than-ideal work situations.
Bosses and employees alike should care about the quality of the work environment, research has shown. A 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health determined a toxic workplace “can be detrimental and lead to unnecessary stress, burnout, depression, and anxiety among the workers.” Further, it found that negative employee well-being will spread to other workers and bring down the quality of the work they do.
The study also found the inverse: Employee well-being increases work performance, and a workplace that actively supports employees “brings sustainability to organizational performance.”
Basically, a toxic workplace is bad news for everyone involved.
On the workers’ end, the increased stress and depression of poor work life can also put a strain on interpersonal relationships, said Alisha Powell, a therapist whose areas of special practice include work-life balance.
“Many times employees can bring that stress home to their families, and it’s something that impacts their day-to-day life even when they’re not at work,” Powell said.
In addition to worsened mental health and strained relationships, employees may also turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress, said Dr. Kristen Fuller, a medical reviewer specializing in mental health and addiction with a background in family medicine.
Here, experts share how you can tell if you’re in a toxic work environment – and what to do about it.
Recognizing a toxic workplace
Signs of a toxic workplace aren’t necessarily as obvious as a lot of people believe, Fuller said. Your mind might go straight to verbal or sexual harassment, she added, but it isn’t so straightforward.
“It’s any workplace that makes you feel uncomfortable,” Fuller said. “Anything that makes you feel like you can’t ask for the things you need and that you’re not supported.”
A toxic workplace can be an environment in which an employee “may feel stuck,” Powell said.
“Many times with a toxic workplace, people are not given opportunities to move forward or to get promotions,” she said. “Being passed over for promotions or not having any upward mobility can also really impact workplace morale, knowing that no matter how hard you work, there’s no promotion that you can gain.”
A telltale sign of a toxic work environment is when supervisors micromanage employees, Powell said. When a manager closely observes employees, constantly checking in on every little task, employees can feel like the company doesn’t trust them.
“If you’re being micromanaged, you’re more likely to believe that your job doesn’t necessarily have your best interest at heart and that your job doesn’t fully trust you to do the role that they’re paying you to do,” Powell said.
Another not-so-obvious sign of a toxic workplace is the idea that you should be available all the time, outside of work hours.
Employers may ask you to work weekends or longer hours without additional pay, Fuller said, and those can be “smaller red flags” that people often brush off as regular work culture.
Powell said this toxic work culture is also demonstrated when employees feel obligated to respond to work-related calls, messages and emails off the clock, which constitutes unpaid overtime work.
“While most jobs aren’t going to say, ‘We expect you to respond after the workday has ended,’ many times there’s an unspoken expectation,” she said.
What to do in a toxic work environment
If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, Powell and Fuller both advised that it may be time to look for a new job.
“You can do all the coping mechanisms to deal with it, but I don’t think you should be dealing with it,” Fuller said. “I think you should get out of it.”
Powell said she encourages her clients to establish an internal timeline for their job searches, perhaps setting a goal to begin actively looking for a new job within the next three to six months. She also recommended keeping records of any actions or behaviors in the workplace that indicate an unhealthy work situation while you’re in the process of looking for new positions.
However, quitting immediately before securing new employment is not feasible for a lot of people for financial reasons, Powell said.
If you can’t just up and leave, Powell had some suggestions. To try to make improvements at work, you should think about what boundaries you want to enforce and begin working on them, she said. If you want to show your coworkers that you’re not available outside of work hours, but you’re afraid to say it outright, you can set your phone to send calls to voicemail when you’re off the clock. Or set your email signature to say that after a certain time, you will only respond the next business day.
If there are issues you want to bring to the attention of your supervisor, you can make it less daunting by writing out a script for yourself, Powell added.
Outside of work, she recommended implementing more self-care practices into your daily routine such as physical activity or a hobby. She also emphasized seeking therapy to manage work-related stress. Some full-time workers can access therapy through an employee assistance program offered by their company, Powell added.
“It’s time to bulk up some of those self-care practices so that you’re better able to manage stress,” she said, “because it’s unavoidable within a toxic workplace.”