What Is a Toxic Work Environment – and How Can I Avoid It?

 In Work Environment

When you hear the word “toxic,” you might think of hazardous waste or a substance that could make you physically ill. But in the workplace, toxic environments can also be detrimental to your health.

Tired businessman working late on laptop while sitting at illuminated desk in office



Toxic work environments are common in the United States. In fact, 22% of workers say they have experienced harm to their mental health at work, according to the American Psychological Association, which surveyed 2,515 employed adults across the country in 2023. Additionally, 19% saw their workplace as somewhat or very toxic.

If you suspect your workplace may be toxic, read on to learn more about what a toxic work environment is and how to avoid it.

What Is a Toxic Workplace?

A toxic workplace has overwhelming negative factors that affect the well-being of those within it. A toxic work environment can manifest through discriminatory practices, harassment, lack of respect among colleagues, poor communication, excessive workload, lack of teamwork and overbearing office politics.

Ultimately, this workplace toxicity can lead to lowered productivity or high employee turnover and can even spill over into workers’ personal lives, causing physical and mental health issues.

Signs You Are in a Toxic Work Environment

It’s not always easy to pinpoint the signs of a toxic work environment, but here are some red flags you should watch out for.

Poor Communication and Unrealistic Expectations

“A toxic workplace often has managers who don’t communicate well, or there might be frequent, unclear shifts in expectations without proper briefing,” says Maria Tomas Keegan, a career and life coach at Transition & Thrive with Maria.

And when your bosses constantly pile on tasks without providing clarity on what they need from you, set unattainable goals or expect you to work around the clock, it can lead to chronic stress, burnout and a feeling that you’re never quite measuring up.

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A Leader Having a ‘Bad Day’ Means You Are, Too

Every leader has days when they feel off their game, and it’s easy to take out that frustration on their staff. But doing so regularly breeds a toxic work environment, says Deb Harrison, a consultant whose services span from career coaching to corporate facilitation.

Some examples of this behavior include disrespectful responses in meetings, a raised voice, grumbling down the hallway and keeping everyone in the office unnecessarily late.

However, Harrison emphasizes that if your boss makes this mistake once and immediately apologizes afterward, it’s not necessarily indicative of a larger problem. But if your boss’s irritability and short temper are a regular occurrence, that’s a different story.

People Are Afraid to Speak or Share Their Opinions

Psychological safety is the feeling of security that employees experience in environments where their opinions are valued and respected. Conversely, “in toxic environments, there is no psychological safety. Employees might fear retaliation for dissenting or even simply being honest,” says Ursula Mead, the CEO and co-founder of InHerSight, a career resource for women.

“Even subconsciously, they might chime in less during brainstorms or low-intensity meetings simply because they don’t feel their contributions are welcome,” she adds. So, if you’re constantly feeling reluctant or even scared to speak up, you might be in a toxic environment.

There’s a Lack of Support or Recognition

In a healthy work setting, employees typically receive encouragement, acknowledgment and support for their efforts and contributions. This recognition can come in various forms, such as praise, bonuses, promotions or simple words of appreciation. However, support or recognition is often lacking in toxic workplaces.

“Like in any relationship, when contributions go unnoticed or unappreciated, there’s toxicity afoot. It’s not hard to express gratitude – ‘thank you’ is two words – and the fact that it’s being withheld speaks volumes,” Mead says.

How to Avoid a Toxic Workplace

Learn to identify – and avoid working at – a toxic job by following these tips:

Research the Company

Before heading into an interview, research the company’s reputation, both online and through your professional network. Platforms such as Glassdoor and LinkedIn can shed light on what it’s really like to work there. Employee reviews and company news may also provide hints. You could reach out to current or former employees if you have connections in your network to gather firsthand experiences.

Ask the Right Questions During Interviews

The first step to avoiding a toxic work environment begins before you even step into the office. During the interview stage, ask questions that reveal the company culture. Some example questions include:

  • What is the company’s stance on work-life balance and flexibility?
  • How does the company encourage diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace?
  • Could you describe the company’s leadership and management style?
  • Can you describe the company’s approach to employee development and growth?

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Trust Your Gut

Sometimes, your gut feeling can be your most reliable guide. Pay close attention to how you feel during the interview and hiring process. Do you sense transparency, respect and professionalism, or do you notice red flags? Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to walk away if something doesn’t feel right. 

How to Handle a Toxic Work Environment

If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, don’t panic. You have options to address the situation. However, if the following strategies are ineffective for your case, it might be time to consider moving on to a more positive workplace.

Document Everything

The first thing you should do when you think you might be in a toxic work environment is document what you’re observing, says Gena Cox, an organizational psychologist, strategic advisor and executive coach. By making notes of the date, time, the observed behavior and the impact of the observed behavior on the team, you can be certain that the behavior pattern is real and consistent.

After writing down what you’ve observed, Cox suggests you share these observations with your manager by saying something along the lines of this: “Over the last (time frame), Person A has been doing X. When that happens, it has Y impact on the team and me. I would love to get your advice about what I can do to handle these situations in the future.”

After that, see what the manager does.

“If the manager does nothing, or worse, blames you for raising the issue, then you’ll know it’s time to leave that environment,” she says.


Source: US News

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