10 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment & How to Deal with One
Interviews / Opinions

10 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment & How to Deal with One

, Content Marketing Manager

There’s a big focus on the employee experience in today’s workplace. It’s resulted in more flexibility and a greater awareness of work-life balance. But many employees still find themselves struggling in a toxic workplace.

Whether you’re a concerned employee or an HR leader, the first step to ensuring a positive workplace experience is learning to see the signs of a toxic culture. Then you can turn your situation around with tips for managing your own experience and improving your employees’ well-being.

1. What is a toxic workplace?

2. What are the signs of a toxic workplace?

3. How remote workers can identify a toxic work environment

4. How to deal with a toxic workplace

5. How to improve a toxic workplace

6. Cultivating a healthy workplace is a journey, not a destination

What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic workplace is more than doing an unpleasant, difficult, or boring job. It’s not just about long hours and heavy workloads either (although those can contribute). It’s a work environment where negativity and unhealthy behaviors permeate the company’s culture. Which, in turn, drains employees of energy, enthusiasm, and even their sense of self.

Effects of a toxic workplace include constantly dreading work, having trouble sleeping, or feeling increasingly negative. Of course, work can be challenging. But it shouldn’t leave your employees feeling depleted, scared, anxious, or hopeless.

Ultimately, in a toxic workplace an ongoing cycle of negative behaviors hurts employee well-being and productivity.

It’s easy to write these symptoms off as typical ups and downs of any job. But toxic workplace culture may be more common than you think. Consider the following data.

By the numbers: How common is toxicity?

  • According to a 2023 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), almost one in five workers (19%) report having a very or somewhat toxic workplace.
  • A study by MIT Sloan Management Review shows that a toxic work environment is the strongest predictor of employee turnover. It’s 10.4 times more likely to contribute to employee departures than concerns over compensation.
  • TalentLMS research in the software industry shows that 45% of employees working in a bad work environment plan to quit because of the toxicity.

These numbers paint a concerning picture. A toxic work environment isn’t just bad for employee morale. A toxic workplace can have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line through lost productivity and high employee turnover.

10 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment & How to Deal with One

What are the signs of a toxic workplace?

Does your workplace leave you feeling more frazzled than fulfilled? It may be more than just a typical work slump.

Check these 10 warning signs to see whether you’re working in a toxic work environment:

1. Communication breakdown

A toxic workplace culture is often built on poor communication. Information is siloed, colleagues withhold crucial details, and important messages get lost in the shuffle.

Poor communication isn’t limited to team members in a toxic work environment. Leadership also plays a role.

People at the top may dismiss employee concerns or feedback, creating a one-way street for communication. Or offer only unclear or inconsistent communication. Which means? Different employees end up getting conflicting information—or no information at all—about projects.

This lack of transparency breeds distrust. It also makes it difficult for people to do their jobs.

2. Culture of blame

When mistakes happen, the finger-pointing starts. In a toxic workplace culture, there’s no focus on learning or improvement, just a relentless search for someone to take the fall.

This fosters an environment of paranoia and discourages collaboration. In a toxic workplace, people hesitate to take risks or share ideas for fear of being excluded.

3. Unrealistic expectations and unhealthy work-life balance

A toxic workplace normalizes poor work boundaries. This might play out in constantly looming deadlines, unmanageable workloads, and an expectation that employees will use their evenings and weekends to catch up.

Some organizations see taking time off as a sign of weakness. This relentless pressure is one of the sure signs of a toxic workplace which leads to burnout and chronic stress. And to physical and mental health issues.

4. Lack of recognition

Employees in a bad work environment often feel underappreciated. Their hard work goes unnoticed, the company downplays their contributions, and they feel that their efforts don’t matter.

The lack of recognition associated with toxic workplaces can be demotivating and make it difficult for people to feel invested in their work.

In a healthy workplace, leadership and teams celebrate employee successes. And people feel valued for their unique skills and perspectives.

5. Hostile and unprofessional behavior

A toxic workplace culture often thrives on harmful interactions like rudeness, office gossip, or even bullying. Colleagues might take pleasure in putting others down or creating stress for one another. Or act this way simply to survive.

There’s also a general lack of respect for boundaries and professionalism. Meetings that end in yelling matches, and a disregard for personal time, both indicate an unhealthy environment.

This pattern of behavior typifies toxic workplaces and can damage morale and make coming to work a daily struggle.

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6. Lack of trust

Trust plays a big part in the toxic workplace equation. Instead of letting employees do their jobs, leaders micromanage them. They check in multiple times a day, second-guess decisions, and provide overly specific instructions.
These toxic behaviors stifle creativity and productivity. They give employees little autonomy over their work. And, ultimately, destroy confidence and ambition.

7. Favoritism and cliques

In a toxic workplace, leaders grant promotions and opportunities based on personal connections rather than merit. There’s a clear “in-crowd” that receives preferential treatment. While others are left feeling ostracized and undervalued.

Favoritism can stifle career growth for qualified employees. And cliques harm employee relationships, fostering hostile work environments and further undermining trust.

8. Unethical behavior

A company culture lacking in trust is one of the biggest signs of a toxic workplace. And it can be a breeding ground for less-than-ethical behavior. For instance:

  • Leaders cutting corners
  • People taking credit for others’ work
  • Employees in key roles concealing important information

Lack of integrity can leave employees feeling pressured to go along with unethical practices for fear of losing their jobs. It also makes it difficult to believe in or support the company’s mission or values.

9. Low morale

In a toxic work environment, employees lack hope. A cloud of negativity hangs over the office. Complaints and office gossip are rampant. And there’s a general sense of dissatisfaction.

This negativity can be contagious and make it difficult to stay motivated. Instead, employees disengage and sink deeper into feelings of despair.

10. High turnover

It’s difficult to stay productive in a toxic workplace and, eventually, people burn out and quit trying. You might see employees leaving the company at an alarming rate. And those who stay are often exhausted and cynical with little motivation to go the extra mile.

In a toxic workplace, high turnover disrupts workflows and creates additional work-related stress for remaining employees.

Signs of a toxic workplace: How remote workers can identify a toxic work environment

Remote workers aren’t immune to the ill effects of a toxic work environment. While the lack of physical proximity can mask some problems, the harmful effects of toxic workplaces are far-reaching.

Here’s how to identify a toxic environment from afar:

  • Information blackout. Important updates or project details are shared only among certain colleagues. Others are left out of the loop. When you ask for clarification, you get slow responses or vague answers.
  • Excessive digital micromanagement. Your manager relies on constant check-ins via chat or video calls, and you have little to no autonomy. You get deadlines with unrealistic expectations, while those at the top scrutinize your every move.
  • “Always On” culture. Emails and messages ping throughout the night and on weekends. There’s an unspoken pressure to be constantly available, even when you’re supposed to be off-the-clock.
  • Lack of a voice. You feel less heard than your in-office colleagues during virtual meetings. There are no deliberate efforts to include remote workers in meetings, provide opportunities for feedback, or celebrate individual and team achievements.

How to deal with a toxic work environment

So you’ve identified the signs and think you might be in a toxic work environment. Now what? Knowing how to survive a toxic workplace can feel like a daunting or even impossible task.

But the good news is that there are steps you can take to learn how to deal with a toxic work environment. And minimize the impact on your well-being.

So, how to protect yourself in a toxic work environment? Here are some key strategies for dealing with a toxic workplace:

Set boundaries and prioritize self-care

A significant step towards learning how to survive a toxic workplace is to establish clear boundaries between your work life and your personal life. Communicate that you won’t be checking work emails outside of work hours or taking calls in your personal time. Then follow through.

Your mental health should be a priority. Make time for activities that help you de-stress and recharge, whether it’s exercise, spending time with loved ones, or pursuing hobbies. A healthy you is a more resilient you.

Document everything

In a toxic workplace (as in any workplace), you can’t control others’ toxic behavior, but you can protect yourself. If you experience harassment, discrimination, or other inappropriate behavior, keep a record.
Note the date, time, details of the incident, and any witnesses present. This documentation can be crucial if you need to take further action.

Seek support

Isolation can compound the negative impact of a toxic workplace. Knowing how to survive a toxic workplace means involving others in your struggle. As well as providing support, this approach will help you see red flags so you can take action to reduce mental stress.

Try talking to a trusted friend, family member, therapist, or career counselor. It can help you process your experiences and develop coping mechanisms. Building relationships with colleagues who share your values can also provide support and camaraderie.

Focus on what you can control and invest in your skills

As an individual employee, you may not be able to change the overall work environment. But you can control how you react to it. This is an important lesson in the quest towards knowing how to protect yourself in a toxic work environment. Focus on doing your job well and don’t get drawn into negativity. Instead, prioritize your well-being.

For instance, take advantage of training opportunities or pursue professional development. Investing in yourself can boost your confidence and open doors to better opportunities.

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Know when to walk away

When it comes to knowing how to protect yourself in a toxic work environment, sometimes the healthiest option is to leave the situation altogether. If the toxicity is severe and impacting your mental or physical health, start exploring new job opportunities.

Leaving a toxic workplace can empower you. By knowing the signs and what to look out for it can pave the way for a more positive and fulfilling work experience elsewhere.

How to improve a toxic workplace

Of course, knowing how to deal with a toxic work environment isn’t good enough. Change needs to come from the top.

A toxic work environment isn’t just bad for employees. It hurts an entire organization. A culture gone wrong can result in high turnover, decreased productivity, and a damaged reputation.

But red flags don’t mean you’re doomed to a toxic company culture. When you’ve learned to see the early warning signs of a toxic culture, you can take corrective action.

Leaders and HR managers can use the following tactics to identify and dismantle workplace toxicity. And to foster a thriving workplace instead:

  • Keep communication open. Offer psychological safety by creating an environment where employees feel comfortable raising concerns or offering suggestions without fear of retribution. Hold regular meetings, conduct anonymous surveys, and encourage open dialogue.
  • Lead by example. Leaders set the tone. If you’re a manager, model respectful communication, ethical behavior, and appreciation. Be quick to address negativity and hold everyone accountable for maintaining company values.
  • Set clear expectations and realistic workloads. Make goals achievable, provide adequate resources, and empower employees to manage their workloads. Micromanagement breeds resentment, so trust your team to deliver.
  • Invest in training and development. Educate your team on all aspects of company culture. Offer training on topics like effective communication, conflict resolution, and stress management. And provide opportunities for professional development to keep employees engaged and motivated.
  • Promote a better work-life balance. Encourage employees to take breaks, use vacation time, and disconnect after hours. Celebrate achievements, big and small, to show appreciation for employee contributions.
  • Publish clear anti-harassment and discrimination policies. Have policies in place that outline unacceptable behavior and the reporting process. And make sure there’s a thorough and fair investigation of all complaints.
  • Offer resources for conflict resolution and mediation. Equip managers with the skills to mediate conflict constructively. Or provide mediation services where people can discuss issues collaboratively and respectfully.
  • Focus on well-being. Help employees identify and leverage their strengths. Encourage a culture of well-being by offering resources for mental and physical health support.

By taking a proactive approach, you can transform a toxic work environment. And make it a place that fosters innovation, productivity, and success for everyone.

Cultivating a healthy workplace is a journey, not a destination

Creating a healthy work culture isn’t a one-time fix. Defining a company culture is an ongoing process that requires commitment from both leaders and employees.

Prioritize open communication. Invest in employee well-being. And set a clear example of ethical behavior. These steps will nurture a workplace where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered to do their best work.

A healthy and positive work environment isn’t just good for employee morale. It’s essential for your organization’s long-term success. So why wait? Start building a better workplace today.

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Marialena Kanaki - Content Marketing Manager

Marialena hates talking about herself in the third person. She loves to inspire people with authenticity. And she prioritizes that in all her content—without the need for smoke and mirrors.

Marialena Kanaki LinkedIn

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