Toxic Work Environments: 14 Signs & Symptoms | Full Guide

Work is stressful enough. Toss in a toxic work environment, and it can send you over the edge. Nobody should have to work in an environment where their mental health suffers. But what exactly are the signs of a toxic work environment, and how should you handle these situations?

If you’re wondering whether or not you’re working in a toxic environment, it is imperative to know the signs of a toxic workplace. This article shares what a toxic work environment is, which red flags to look out for, and ultimately how to manage these workplaces successfully.

What Is A Toxic Work Environment?

Before we dive into the signs of a toxic work environment, it’s essential to understand what this term really means. Think of it this way: we’ve all heard of toxic relationships. Well, toxicity can extend to your professional connections, too.

Toxic work environments are characterized by their hostile atmosphere. There could be issues amongst coworkers, such as drama, uncomfortable office gossip, cliques, or dysfunction between management and employees. The overall culture of the workplace can be harmful, too, such as a low work-life balance or lack of growth and opportunity. 

Toxic work environments hurt all who are involved. It tends to lead to issues within an employee’s personal life, such as low self-esteem, depression, anger, and overall exhaustion. The company itself may struggle with low morale and a high turnover rate.

14 Common Signs & Symptoms Of A Toxic Workplace

Now that you’re aware of what a toxic workplace is, it’s time to understand the different signs and symptoms of an unhealthy work environment. Knowing these signs can help you determine whether or not you’re genuinely in a toxic situation or not.

#1. Poor Communication

Just like any other area of life, communication is critical. Communication should be held effortlessly and freely amongst coworkers and upper management. Employees should feel comfortable expressing themselves, whether it’s an issue with a coworker or asking for a day off. In a toxic workplace, communication is gawked at. Employees can feel scared or embarrassed to speak up. In turn, they’re left silent and dealing with issues that make them uncomfortable and sad daily.

#2. High Burnout & Fatigue

Sometimes, an unhealthy work environment has less to do with a lack of communication and more to do with a low work-life balance. If your company is asking you to do an enormous amount of days and hours per week with little time off, it’s only natural for one to become burnt out and fatigued. Struggling with burnout is not great for your overall well-being. Your mental, emotional, and physical health can deteriorate, leaving you sick, agitated, stressed, and more.

#3. Lack Of Morale

Low morale in the office can be caused by many things, most of which are associated with a toxic work environment. For example, there may be a lack of praise, training, or responsibility. Employees may be struggling with aggressive or imposing micromanagement. Unrealistic goals may be expected, leading to failure and disappointment and, eventually, lowered morale in the workplace.

#4. Nepotism & Favoritism

It’s hard for employees to work their hardest and their best, only to be “outdone” through nepotism and favoritism. If someone else is getting credit based on personal relationships, why would you continue doing your best? Nepotism and favoritism can cause plenty of strife in the workplace, creating a toxic environment for all.

#5. Inappropriate Chitchat & Gossip

Some things should not be discussed at work, such as inappropriate or offensive comments and jokes. The same is true for gossip, whether it’s untrue or not. These occurrences amongst team members can create an uncomfortable and toxic work culture. This is especially true for those at the brunt of the gossip, where they may find themselves excluded from their toxic coworkers.

#6. Toxic Leadership

There are many ways in which leadership can be toxic. One significant way is a lack of acceptance and responsibility. When something goes wrong in the company, the administration may blame the employees. Management with poor leadership skills will also struggle to direct their employees and may be arrogant, irritable, or incompetent.

#7. Poor Company Culture

When you’re thinking about starting a new job, you pay attention to the company culture. You want a healthy workplace that feels confident, involved, and caring. Well, a toxic work environment will not have a great culture. There will be issues such as poor communication, low work-life balance, lack of initiatives, toxic employees, workplace bullying, and bad habits such as lateness. If you notice a poor company culture, run for the hills.

#8. High Turnover Rates

Companies might try to sell to you that high employee turnover rates were caused by “bad” or “lazy” employees. While this might be true for one out of every one hundred workers out there, you can almost always bet that a hostile workplace causes high turnover rates. To put it simply — there is a reason why everyone keeps leaving this job. Should you really stick around to find out what?

#9. Unclear Job Roles

If you’re unsure about your role in the company, you can end up feeling confused, disoriented, and anxious. Over time, this lack of explicit instruction can make you feel like a failure as you’re not meeting specific “goals” or lack thereof. A company that does not provide you with a particular role and instructions on succeeding in that role is setting up a toxic work environment for its employees.

#10. Lack Of Growth

Spending weeks, months, and even years in a company without moving up can be frustrating, and that’s precisely what toxic work environments are designed to do. They do not want their employees to grow. They’d rather keep them down, paying them as little as possible for the hard work they endure. If this is a situation you’re currently in, the best option is to stop being a contributor since you’re not getting the respect you deserve.

#11. No Work-Life Balance

The term “work-life balance” has been tossed around a lot lately, mostly because people realized they want to work to live, not live to work. Toxic workplaces don’t care about that, though. They care more about you making them money, not the other way around. If you feel like all you do is work, it might be time to find a better job with a healthy work-life balance.

#12. Lack Of Human Resources

Human resources are a vital part of every company. The HR department works to recruit new employees, process payroll, handle disciplinary actions, and so much more. If you’re having a problem in the workplace and don’t have a human resources department to turn to, you might feel hopeless — and nobody should feel this way in their workplace.

#13. Sexual Harassment

With so many new laws and regulations, it can be easy to be duped into thinking that sexual harassment in the workplace no longer exists. I’m here to tell you it still exists. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is an ongoing problem and is undeniably creates a toxic workplace. Those experiencing sexual harassment should report the crimes to authorities right away.

#14. Bullying & Verbal Abuse

Bullying doesn’t stop in high school. Some toxic individuals bring their bullying nature into their adult life and have no plans to stop it. Bullying is never okay, whether physical, emotional, or mental. Any act of bullying or abuse should be reported to your supervisor, HR department, and in some cases, the authorities. Unfortunately, some toxic workplaces won’t do much to handle these instances, in which case you will need to move on from that career path.

How To Handle A Toxic Work Environment

The good news is there are ways you can handle toxic work environments. Here are just a few simple tips and tricks:

  • Find positive coworkers that feel the same way. Sometimes, all you need is another person you can vent to. Someone you can feel comfortable and confident around to help you ignore all of the surrounding toxic people.
  • Speak with upper management or HR. Now, this won’t work if you’re dealing with toxic leadership or a lack of HR. However, it’s worth a shot. Take your concerns and issues to upper management to see if you can find a solution.
  • Relax. Don’t ever take your stress home with you — especially when you’re dealing with a toxic workplace. Discover new ways to relax, whether it’s listening to music on the way home, going for a walk before bedtime, or practicing meditation before you head off to work.
  • Plan your exit. If you can’t take it anymore, it’s time to plan your exit. Don’t be abrupt, though. You should still provide a two-week notice and have interviews lined up in the meantime. Being “smart” about your exit will bid well for your future and wallet.

Effects Of A Toxic Workplace On Your Mental Health

A toxic work environment is highly harmful to your mental health. Here are just a few ways in which your mental health can deteriorate in this situation:

  • Anxiety. Dealing with toxicity in any form can cause anxiety. This is especially true if you’re dealing with cliques, an aggressive manager, or unrealistic deadlines.
  • Depression. All of the drama, dysfunction, and excessive hours you’re putting into your job can chip away at your overall happiness.
  • Burnout. Dealing with toxic situations day in and day out will ultimately lead to burnout, which is essentially physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion all at once.
  • Irritability. It’s not easy to deal with toxic situations at work. It’s not surprising that being endlessly surrounded by toxicity can bring someone to feel on edge, even after leaving the workplace.

Unfortunately, these mental health issues can easily seep into other aspects of your life. For example, you may not sleep or become sick more often. It may lead you to turn to unhealthy habits such as drinking or smoking.

Ways To Quickly Improve A Toxic Workplace Culture

There are many ways to improve toxic workplaces quickly and effectively.

  • Establish openness. You need to understand the problems going on in the workplace, especially if there is an abundance of toxic employees. By allowing for transparency and honesty, you can improve these situations.
  • Create rules. A lack of regulations is one of the most significant contributors to toxicity in the workplace culture. Establish a set of realistic rules that everyone can follow.
  • Give clear roles. Everyone has a job. Let them know what their job is, how to get it done efficiently, and always have an open door for questions and concerns.
  • Be positive. Positivity can go a long way, whether you’re encouraging the “slower” workers to improve their status or doing team-building exercises. The more positivity flows in a workplace, the better the culture is.

The Bottom Line

Toxic workplaces can be brought on by the employees, management, culture, or a combination of all three. The best thing to do is to try and stick it out and conclude how to fix it. If there’s truly no hope for the company, plan your exit, but do so carefully and smartly.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a toxic work environment illegal?

Although toxic work environments should be illegal, there is no legal claim against them. However, if the abuse or misconduct is severe, legal action can be taken. The behavior must typically be ongoing, too, rather than isolated instances. Things like physical violence and sexual assault are two forms of toxicity that can have legal repercussions.

What is the difference between a toxic and a hostile work environment?

The most significant difference between a toxic work environment and a hostile work environment is the level of toxicity. For example, a group of people in the office who form a “clique” and gossip are labeled “toxic” since it is not overbearingly harmful. Sexual harassment and bullying, on the other hand, is a hostile work environment that can (and should) be alerted to the authorities.

How do you know if you are in a toxic work environment?

Take a look at your company and re-read the signs and symptoms listed above. Do you notice any of these things in your workplace, such as unclear job roles, no work-life balance, or poor communication? How do you feel about your job? Are you feeling anxiety, depression, or burnout? Do you want to leave your role? These may be indicators that you’re struggling with a toxic workplace.