Are your co-workers always fighting like they’re on an episode of “Maury”? Does the sound of your boss’ voice make you cringe? Are you dreading going into the office, or logging online for work each morning? Maybe you feel exhausted at the end of every day, but you’re unable to turn off your thoughts about all the difficult things you have to do — or face — at work. If these sound familiar, or if you’re feeling burned out and experiencing heightened physical or emotional reactions to your workplace, it’s possible you’re in a toxic work environment.
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Clinical health psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, talks us through how to spot the signs of a toxic environment, how to better manage symptoms and when it’s time to leave.
What is a toxic work environment?
From systemic issues to the aggressive actions of your boss and colleagues, many things contribute to a toxic work environment. But Dr. Sullivan suggests that analyzing all the details that make a place toxic isn’t nearly as important as what you feel in your gut.
“A toxic work environment is a feeling and not necessarily a checklist,” says Dr. Sullivan. “People know when they’re in a toxic work environment because you pay attention to what your gut is sharing with you as well as any physical responses.”
To determine if you’re in a toxic work environment, you should start by asking yourself a simple question: “Does my workplace align with my value system?”
“Your value system is basically your core beliefs, your core values, things that are crucial to who you are as a person,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It’s what you hang your hat on in terms of personality and behavior and beliefs. Core beliefs are strong values that you are not willing to sway from.”
Signs you’re in a toxic environment
If your colleagues do things that don’t align with your values, or if your workplace upholds practices that don’t mesh with what you believe in, you might start feeling the strain. The constant stress could lead to physical or psychological reactions. Here are some clues that you’re in a bad work environment.
Your gut reactions are making you feel nauseated
Sure, it sounds very surface-level, but it’s actually really important to listen to what your gut is saying.
“Your gut reaction is intuitive, but it’s also that feeling of, ‘something feels off for me right now. Either the way I’m being talked to or the way I’m not being included,’” says Dr. Sullivan.
When you experience this icky feeling, go for a walk, get some fresh air and take the emotion out of it by looking at both sides of the situation. If you’re still feeling nauseated, or if you experience that icky feeling on a regular basis, you may be dealing with a toxic situation.
You’re having trouble sleeping because you can’t turn your brain off
Unfortunately, we can’t always leave work at the door. Sleeplessness is a huge red flag that something is wrong, especially if you go to bed tired but can’t stop thinking about situations that have taken place at work or have anxiety about returning to work the next day (did someone mention Sunday Scaries?).
“Sleep is restorative. It helps our bodies rejuvenate and regenerate. If we don’t have that ability, then we can’t think, and therefore respond, during the day,” says Dr. Sullivan. This sleeplessness can also occur thanks to our own worries. If you’re staying up late and wondering, “What if I’m the problem?” chances are, it might be something else.
“We constantly look at ourselves as if it’s our issue instead of thinking perhaps there’s an issue with the environment,” explains Dr. Sullivan.
You’re feeling tight in your muscles, have joint pain or migraines
That full-body feeling of tension in your muscles, back and joints can be a real problem. If left unchecked, this tension can progress into a variety of other issues. “Muscle tightness can lead to chronic pain, migraines and other sensations that don’t feel great,” says Dr. Sullivan.
Microaggressions happen often in the workplace
A toxic work environment doesn’t always show itself in physical manifestations. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell, and it can come in the form of microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups, specifically those of different genders, races, ethnicity or sexual preferences.
“Historically marginalized groups are more likely to be discriminated against and it’s really important that we pay particular attention to how diverse populations may feel in an environment, that they are heard and, most importantly, that we take care of each other,” says Dr. Sullivan.
There’s an attitude of entitlement instead of an attitude of gratitude
There’s always room for improvement, but if you’re not being respected or heard, and you’re not being valued for the work you’re doing and compensated fairly — either financially, emotionally or otherwise — or your needs as an employee are not being met, you may be dealing with entitled leadership. That sense of entitlement, says Dr. Sullivan, leads to employees feeling overlooked and underappreciated.
There’s a lack of enthusiasm and opportunity for growth
It’s natural to experience the ebb and flow of excitement that comes with a job. But if you’ve been pigeonholed in a position, if there’s a lack of upward mobility or you feel like you’re not growing in your role, you might want to cut your losses.
“You have to be able to communicate with your administrative teams or whoever’s above you and get their impression on what you’re doing well and maybe some of the areas that should be targeted for growth. Also, give them an idea of where you see your future going. You want to feel heard and you want to feel like your work is valued,” advises Dr. Sullivan.
Expectations from leadership are unreasonable
Late nights every night? Working weekends without compensation? These are pressurized situations in which your boss might be taking advantage of you.
“A toxic work environment is an environment where there’s no communication and where your leader is not respectful or responsive to your needs,” says Dr. Sullivan. “I think we need to be able to communicate. We need to be able to ask for help.” And if help isn’t offered, that’s a huge sign something is majorly wrong.
You’re having major work-life imbalance
This one is a toughie. For many of us who’ve had to transition to working from home, the boundaries between work and our daily lives have grown thin. But, this can apply to a variety of situations in which you just find yourself experiencing several physical symptoms of stress even when you’re not working.
“When we think about how toxic work environments play out, they affect the people you care about the most and they eventually affect your health — which in the long run will have an impact on those same people,” says Dr. Sullivan.
Tips for dealing with a toxic work environment
A toxic work environment is a dangerous place to be, both for your physical and mental health. But there are some things you can do in the moment that can help you manage some of the symptoms you’re experiencing until you’re able to get out of the situation.
Find a supportive network of co-workers
First, it’s important to band together. Rely on camaraderie among your peers; if you’re experiencing some of these symptoms, chances are you’re not alone. It’s incredibly important to be an ally to those who are experiencing microaggressions as they happen, or to even establish friendships with people who care about you when the company at large or certain leaders might not.
“Having an ally or work friend that you trust helps you feel connected, supported and not alone,” says Dr. Sullivan.
Try an employee coaching program
Some companies offer employee coaches through human resources, and if they don’t, it’s possible to hire one for a session or two to get at the root of what’s really happening.
“There are coaches that will help you parse things out and see how you’re contributing to the environment and how you can shift your mindset and perhaps set goals. It’s good to evaluate what you’re going through with an unbiased person,” explains Dr. Sullivan.
Make time for yourself
And, of course, you need to find ways to recover when you log off by doing something you enjoy. This could happen in a variety of self-care rituals, projects or just by simply giving yourself the space to turn everything off and try to relax. This not only helps start improving your work-life balance, but it also gives you the space to do something entirely unrelated to your immediate stressors. “Always go towards your joy,” says Dr. Sullivan. “I cannot stress this enough.”
You know when it’s time to go
Ah, yes, as Taylor Swift would say, “When the dinner is cold and the chatter gets old, you ask for the tab.”
Check in with yourself often and pay attention to those intuitive gut reactions. If you’ve tried addressing some of the problems you’re experiencing but nothing has changed and you’re ready to leave, take small steps toward making that happen.
“Don’t settle for a toxic work environment. It’s not worth your physical or psychological health or your important relationships,” says Dr. Sullivan. “There are ways you can manage your emotions, but if you’re being disrespected, it’s certainly not OK to continuously stay in that environment.”