Five signs to watch for
The term toxic workplace has become ubiquitous. In fact, a few years ago, Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year was toxic. Not surprisingly, one survey found 52% of employees report they believed their work environment was toxic.
Negative workplaces, toxic leaders, crazy coworkers — the news and internet are full of stories. And those who work in a toxic environment face an unending cycle of challenging situations and discouragements.
Is your workplace toxic?
All workplaces have some challenges and negative characteristics, so it can be difficult to determine if your workplace has a normal amount of challenges, is seriously dysfunctional or possibly really toxic. At a foundational level, a toxic workplace is one that is unhealthy and will create serious health problems with long-term exposure.
Worker turnover because of toxic office culture has numerous costs — financial, relational and emotional. In fact, staff turnover has been identified as the single largest non-productive cost to businesses.
Two key questions to consider:
- Do I really work in a toxic work environment (or is it just normally “bad” and stressful)?
- What, if anything, can I do to make my work situation better (regardless of whether it is toxic or not)?
Do I really work in a toxic environment?
If you only had to deal with one inappropriate coworker or a bad boss, your days might be easier to manage. An older colleague may tell you, “Work is work. Get over it.” This is true, work takes effort and obstacles are encountered. But alternatively, work doesn’t have to be torturous or so demanding that we have no physical or emotional energy left for other areas of our lives.
There is also the “people” factor to consider. A continuum exists in how well or poorly people behave in different situations. Over time, questions may arise: Is this person just temporarily stressed? Is this just a “growth area” they need to work on? Or are they a jerk and actually dysfunctional?
This article identifies five signs that will help you determine the degree to which your work environment may be dangerous to your mental health.
1. Unhealthy communication patterns are the norm.
An initial sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is the presence of significant problems in communication, often across multiple areas, such as between employees and their supervisors, from management to supervisors, across departments, with suppliers and even with customers:
- Lack of communication: where employees find out about decisions made after they have been implemented
- Indirect communication: sending messages through others
- Withholding information
- Giving misleading information
Why is communication so key to a healthy organization? Because without effective communication, working together to accomplish the tasks of the organization is virtually impossible.
2. Policies and procedures are nonexistent or poorly implemented.
Have you ever been a customer in a business where no one really seems to know what they are doing, or you get different answers to questions depending on who you ask, and eventually the employee just seems to say “whatever” and does what they want? Then you’ve experienced an organization that has major problems with policies and procedures.
When a practice’s policies and procedures are not properly implemented, chaos, inconsistency and poor quality follow. Patients and their family members can wind up hating having to deal with a dysfunctional practice’s staff because of the frustration experienced.
3. The organization is led by one or more toxic leaders.
Whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or already-toxic workplaces are a magnet for toxic leaders is not completely clear. In either case, the two usually go together. The hallmark characteristic of a toxic leader is their narcissism. They are all about themselves. They view themselves as categorically brighter and more talented than anyone else around. As a result, they believe they are deserving of special treatment; the rules that apply to everyone else really are beneath them.
Toxic leaders consistently relate to others in a condescending manner, take credit for others’ successes and manipulate others to ensure they themselves look good. Trust and teamwork deteriorate in their areas; they have a high turnover rate in their department and will eventually destroy the overall health of the organization.
4. Negativity dominates.
A toxic work environment exudes negative communication across the practice and in multiple forms; in fact, negativity becomes a defining characteristic of the organization.
Grumbling and complaining by employees seem neverending — staff can find something to complain about almost anytime. Next, sarcasm and cynicism show up, demonstrating an increasing lack of trust in the management and leadership; this turns into a low-level seething disgruntlement. Finally, making excuses and blaming others becomes widespread and commonplace; no one seems to be willing to accept responsibility for their decisions or actions.
Eventually, team members either withdraw and stop interacting with others or leave the organization.
5. Your personal life is affected negatively on many fronts.
When a workplace is toxic, by definition, it is unhealthy and damaging to those who work there. Individuals who work in toxic work environments begin to see problems with their own personal health. This can include physical symptoms, such as not being able to sleep, gaining weight and having increased medical problems.
Emotionally, they become more discouraged, which eventually can lead to depression. For some, they are more irritable and touchy, and demonstrate problems managing their anger. Others experience anxiety and a general sense of dread when they think about work.
Finally, you know your work is affecting you negatively when your friends and family start to make comments on “how you’ve changed,” or “you seem stressed” and “maybe you need to talk to someone.” When your personal relationships are impacted, it is time to take a serious look at what is going on. If you’re facing a constantly stressful and degrading situation at work, it’s time to take action.
What, if anything, can I do to make my work situation better?
Most of us don’t have the position, influence or skills necessary to change our whole workplace culture. And, we certainly are not able to change the unhealthy individuals with whom we work.
So, first we need to examine (and probably change) our view of workplace culture. Most of us tend to think about culture as being external to us. Culture is something that is external, around us and we can’t affect it much.
In reality, culture is simply the aggregate of hundreds and thousands of interactions between individuals, including our daily communication with those around us. One way to make a difference in one’s culture is to be intentional in how you interact with those around you. Be positive (vs. complaining), and focus on everyone as a person (vs. as a resource to get a task done).
Second, we need to become more proactive rather than reactive. Begin collaborating with others around you to think, behave, communicate and respond differently than with those thoughts/behaviors/responses you don’t like that have become part of the workplace culture.
Finally, learn more about what makes workplaces unhealthy and the practical steps you can take to prevent or remediate toxicity in your workplace. Discussing whether or not your workplace is toxic is tricky at best, and it is not a topic you can typically talk about safely with others at work. However, it is difficult to solve a problem if you don’t clearly understand what creates negative behaviors. So, explore available resources to help you understand the dynamics of a toxic workplace more fully.1,2
The “bad news” is that many, many workplace cultures continue to be seriously unhealthy with seemingly little understanding from leaders as to why this is the case (and what to do to improve their culture). One reason is the presuppositions they approach the question “what is work?” with. Work is not just getting tasks done, and the sole goal is not just “to make money.” These views lead to a commoditization of employees — that they are just resources to be used to attain goals.
The “good news” is that many, many workplaces — including both small and large medical practices — are finding and starting to use resources to create healthier workplace cultures.3-5 They are being challenged to think about the people on their teams, understand their value and learn how to affirm employees through authentic appreciation. Applying these concepts can lead to a healthier, more functional organization where team members actually enjoy their work!
PAUL WHITE, PhD, is a psychologist, speaker and leadership expert who “makes work relationships work.” He has been interviewed by the New York Times, BBC News and other international publications. He is the coauthor of the best-selling book “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace,” which has sold more than 550,000 copies (with Dr. Gary Chapman, author of “The 5 Love Languages”). For more information, go to appreciationatwork.com.
- Chapman G, et al. Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment. 2014. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.
- Lencioni P. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, 20th Anniversary Edition 2022. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Chapman G, White P. The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People. 2019. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.
- Appreciation at Work. Appreciation at Work Implementation Kit. https://www.appreciationatwork.com/employee-motivation-workplace-training. Accessed Nov. 9, 2023.
- Appreciation at Work. The Expanded [Medical version] Motivating By Appreciation Inventory. https://mbainventory.com/expanded-version/medical-workplace/. Accessed Nov. 9, 2023.