5 signs of a toxic workplace

Here are five signs that will help you determine the degree to which your work environment may be dangerous to your mental health.

From negative communication patterns to low morale, five indicators that your workplace is sapping your energy and mental health. Plus a new resource to help.

The 2018 Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year: TOXIC. Not surprisingly, recent results from an anonymous survey found 52% of employees report they believe their work environment to be toxic.

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. Here are five signs that will help you determine the degree to which your work environment may be dangerous to your mental health.

Unhealthy communication patterns

An initial sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is that there are significant problems in communication, and often across multiple areas–between employees and their supervisors, from management to supervisors, across departments, with suppliers, and even with customers:

Lack of communication: where employees actually 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.

Policies and procedures are non-existent 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 a company that has major problems with their policies and procedures being implemented.

When a company’s policies and procedures are not followed, chaos, inconsistency, and poor quality follow. Customers, vendors, and employees wind up hating having to deal with the company and its staff because of the frustration experienced.

The organization is led by one (or more) toxic leaders

Whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or 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, they take credit for others’ successes, and they manipulate others to ensure that they look good. Trust and teamwork deteriorate in their areas; they have a high turnover rate in their department, and they will eventually destroy the health of the organization.

Negative communication patterns

A toxic work environment exudes negative communication across the organization and in multiple forms; in fact, negativity becomes a defining characteristic of the organization.

Grumbling and complaining by employees are ubiquitous–staff can find something to complain about almost anytime. Next, sarcasm and cynicism show up, demonstrating an increasing lack of trust of the management and leadership, and 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 start to withdraw, stop interacting with others, or leave the organization.

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, “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.

The “bad news” is that many, many workplace cultures continue to be seriously unhealthy (toxic?) — with seemingly little understanding from top level leaders why this is the case and what to do to improve their culture. One reason, I believe, is the presuppositions they approach the question “what is work?” with. Work is not just getting tasks done, and it is clearly not just “making 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 large multinational corporations, large government agencies, and all kinds of businesses and organizations — are finding and starting to use our resources. They are being challenged to think about the people on their teams — and understand that we all have value, and are learning how to affirm employees through authentic appreciation. Good news indeed!

This article was originally published on Appreciation at Work.

Paul White|is a psychologist, speaker, consultant, and the author of The Vibrant Workplace, co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace and The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.