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The 24 Telltale Signs of a Toxic Workplace


A person feeling stressed with their laptop because of toxic workplace culture

If you are in a toxic workplace culture, it can often be hard to tell. It’s like how a fish doesn’t notice the water it’s swimming in.  


If you have an inkling that your workplace culture might be toxic, but you aren’t quite sure, then you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll help you clarify how bad your work culture really is and give you tips to improve your situation.


What Is a Toxic Workplace Culture?


A toxic workplace culture is when an office environment is so unhealthy that it leads employees to feel unnecessarily high amounts of stress, burnout, overwhelm, apathy, or anxiety. In other words, a toxic workplace is when a company’s culture, management, employees, or systems are so unpleasant that they negatively impact an employee’s well-being and health.


Toxic work cultures can be hard to spot because there isn’t just one clear type of toxic workplace culture. There are actually several different categories of workplace toxicity. Here are the main ones:


  • Burnout cultures. Employees feel a constant pressure to work more more more, leading to overwhelm and exhaustion

  • Authoritarian cultures. Management keeps power by creating fear

  • Stagnation cultures. There is nowhere to grow or evolve

  • Chaotic cultures. Things feel painfully disorganized and inefficient

  • Machiavellian cultures. People act in cutthroat and unethical ways


Toxic Workplaces Are Bad for Employees and Companies


Because we hear the terms “toxic work culture,” “burnout,” and “work-life balance” so often these days, it’s easy to shrug them off as buzzwords. However, the reality is that these terms have become popular in the zeitgeist for a reason, and the existence of toxic workplace cultures is a real problem with real impact.


The impact of toxic workplaces on employees


Studies suggest that toxic work environments make employees less engaged and productive and can also lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, and unnecessary stress. 


And experiencing consistent, high amounts of stress is a big deal. A stressful life doesn’t just feel bad; it can actually impact your health. 


Here are some symptoms people might experience from an overly stressful workplace culture:


Cognitive symptoms of too much stress:


  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Memory impairment


Emotional symptoms of too much stress:



Physical symptoms of too much stress


  • Insomnia (challenges falling asleep or staying asleep)

  • Headaches

  • Digestive issues (including upset stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, or stomach ulcers)


And if a person’s stress is too high for too long, it can actually cause heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.


Stress is a big deal! 


So, if starting your work day feels like you’re stepping into an inferno of stress and anxiety, it’s worth taking a step back and figuring out how to better your situation.


The impact of toxic workplaces on businesses


Unhealthy work environments aren’t just bad for employees; they also hurt the business.


According to researchers from MIT Sloan, people are ten times more likely to quit a job because of a toxic work culture than because of pay. In a society that revolves around money, that’s saying something.


In fact, according to the study, a toxic work culture is the #1 leading reason (by far) that people will quit a job.


This has a huge impact on companies because a high attrition rate isn’t cheap! For each employee lost, a company must advertise the new position and onboard the next hire. Not to mention the work that didn’t get done while that position was unfilled. 


Gallup estimates that “Replacing exiting workers costs one-half to two times the employee's annual salary. Assuming an average salary of $50,000 that replacement cost translates to between $25,000 and $100,000 per employee.”


Further, studies suggest that the more stressed a worker is, the less productive they will be. The same study also suggests that there is an inverse relationship between work stress and work satisfaction. So, a toxic culture results in employees who are less productive and less happy.


And it’s not just that burnt-out workers are bad for companies; the opposite is true too. Happy workers are good for companies. Research suggests that companies whose employees report high levels of well-being are more profitable.


In short—toxic businesses aren’t as profitable as healthy ones, and they create unproductive, unhappy, unhealthy workers who are more likely to quit.


The 5 Types of Toxic Workplaces and Red Flags to Watch Out For


As an empolyee or a career coach, it’s important to be able to quickly identify a toxic workplace versus a healthy one. Workers can be unhappy in a healthy workplace if they’re in the wrong role or haven’t developed the right skills, but a worker in a toxic workplace will require different support from their coach. 


If you know the signs of a toxic workplace culture, then you can sniff it out either in the interview or when you first start the job. This can give you the power to pursue other options instead of getting trapped in a cycle of endless stress that deteriorates your mental health.


There are several types of toxic workplaces. For each of the following, we also provide a checklist that shows the main flags for that type of toxicity.


Your workplace might check boxes from one, two, or all five of the following toxic workplace types.


And please note that even if your workplace only checks a single box, it may still be toxic. 


With that said, here are the types of toxic work cultures.


1. The burnout culture


Burnout is real. 52% of workers in 2021 reported feeling burnout. 


In toxic burnout cultures, there is constant pressure to always be working. Want to get promoted? Work more. Want to not fall behind? Work more. Want to not get fired? Work more.


These work cultures are highly stressful and absolutely unsustainable.


According to a corporate survey, the top three factors that lead to burnout are


  1. Lack of support or recognition for one’s work from leadership 

  2. Unrealistic deadline and results expectations  

  3. Consistently working long hours or on the weekends


Employees in an "overwork and burnout" toxic work culture tend to feel:


  • Overwhelmed

  • Exhausted

  • Under pressure

  • Unvalued as a person


Reflect on the following questions to see if you might be in a burnout work environment:


  • Do I feel implicit (or even explicit) expectations to work nights or weekends (without more compensation)?

  • Does it feel like there’s always an aggressive or unrealistic deadline I have to sprint toward?

  • Do I feel pushback when I speak up about my boundaries around time or capacity?

  • Do people tend to come to work when they’re sick? And do I feel guilty taking a sick day?

  • Is the best (or only) way to get promoted or acknowledged through overworking?

  • Do I feel like I never receive adequate appreciation or recognition for my work?


If you are in a burnout work culture the best thing you can do is get clear with yourself on what your work boundaries are. 


How much are you willing to take on? How late are you willing to work? 


Then, communicate this to your peers and manager. The sooner you can set expectations, the better.


It might not be easy, but remember that your health is on the line. Here are a few more tips on how to set boundaries at work.


Ask this question once you get an offer to suss out if the company has a toxic burnout culture: “Can you provide examples of how the company supports employee well-being and prevents burnout?”


(Note: this particular question is best to ask after you get an offer. If you ask this too soon in the interview process, it could introduce friction and cut short your application).


2. The authoritarian culture


This is a fear-based work culture where employees feel like they are constantly on their toes, walking on eggshells, and in a high-alert state. It’s stressful and can shoot up your nervous system.


Employees in an authoritarian toxic work culture tend to feel:


  • Stressed 

  • Anxious

  • Low morale

  • Creatively stifled

  • Scared


Here are the main questions to ask yourself to determine if you might be in an authoritarian and fear-based toxic work culture:


  • Does my boss micromanage or surveil my work?

  • Does it feel like there’s no room for making mistakes and that I might “get in trouble” (be it fired or reprimanded) all the time?

  • When employees voice feedback or concerns, does management seem unwelcoming or dismissive?

  • Does management seem to communicate through subtle threats or intimidation instead of constructive feedback or encouragement?


The best you might be able to do to protect yourself in an environment like this is to give feedback to your boss about how you like to be managed. 


You might share that you are most effective when you receive encouragement or that receiving too much critical feedback can deflate your confidence in your work.


Ask this question in an interview to suss out if the company has a toxic authoritarian culture:  “Could you share an example of how a recent project failure or mistake was handled?”


3. The stagnant culture


Some work cultures are a dead end. Nobody around you seems to care about their job, and your own sense of passion and care is slowly draining out of you. Your job provides nowhere to grow and no hope of getting better. It feels like your work doesn’t matter, and going to work every day is starting to feel like you’re darkening your spark. 


This type of toxic work culture isn’t overwhelming or anxiety-inducing like some of the others, but it is more soul-crushing. And it might show in your work. Staying in a workplace like this too long can erode your self-confidence, and your performance might also suffer.


When employees don’t feel engaged, they are 60% more likely to make mistakes, 37% more likely to skip work, and 18% less proactive.


The feelings you might experience in such a workplace include:


  • Stuckness

  • Depression

  • Lack of purpose

  • Lack of motivation

  • Discouragement

  • Boredom

  • Apathy

  • Feeling invisible

  • Underappreciated


Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if this is the type of work culture you might be in:


  • Does it feel like there are no opportunities to grow, try new things, or evolve?

  • Do you feel discouraged from innovating or suggesting improvements because leadership resists new ideas and change?

  • Do you feel like you never get positively recognized for your work?


While the momentum won’t be in your favor, you might be able to bring some zest into the office. You can create projects for yourself that are more meaningful. For example, you could volunteer to create an in-house mentorship program where people can meet for coaching, training, and mentorship.


And even if your work is stale you can create a new “game” each week to challenge yourself in different ways and grow your skills. How efficient can you be on your next project? How creative can you get with solutions to routine problems? Can you improve your work quality without spending more time?


Ask this question in an interview to suss out if the company has a toxically stagnant culture: “Can you share examples of how employees have grown or advanced within the company?”


4. The chaotic culture


This type of toxic work culture does a number on your sense of grounding. It feels like everyone is spinning way too many plates. Many of which are dropping and shattering. 


Communication is terrible. And as a result, people never feel completely on the same page with each other. Your project assignments are always aggravatingly unclear. And things only get more aggravating because roles and responsibilities seem to shift all the time. 


And there’s always an air of confusion and tension because you don’t know what’s going on with other people.


In short, it feels like a 💩show.


Working in such a workplace might make you feel:


  • Overwhelmed

  • Confused

  • Frustrated

  • Like your efforts are being wasted

  • Unsupported

  • Disrespected

  • Stressed

  • Directionless


And here are some questions to ask to see if this is the type of workplace you’re in:


  • Do I feel consistently unclear about what the expectations are for any given assignment regarding project guidelines and outcomes?

  • Do I often find myself uncertain about the exact due dates for projects or feel that there is a lack of clarity around priorities and timelines?

  • Do I feel like my time isn’t respected because my calendar is full of pointless meetings that often run over?

  • Do I feel adrift because I lack support or wasn’t properly trained?

  • Does it feel like tasks often fall through the cracks or multiple people are unknowingly working on the same task because roles and responsibilities are so poorly defined and communicated?

  • Does my boss often make last-minute changes or decisions without clearly notifying everyone? 


If your manager is a lousy communicator, the responsibility rests on your shoulders to find clarity with them. If they give you an assignment with hazy objectives and foggy due dates, it’s your job to ask questions. Ask as many questions as you need to until you feel totally clear on what they expect from you and by when.


As far as the company organization goes, there’s a chance you can bring more order into the work culture with your own systems and organizational prowess. But odds are, this problem is bigger than you are. And your best bet here might be practicing letting go of control.


Ask this question in an interview to suss out if the company has a toxically chaotic culture:  “Can you describe the process for setting and communicating deadlines and priorities?”


5. The Machiavellian culture


Merriam-Webster defines Machiavellian as “principles of…cunning, duplicity, and bad faith.”


This is a workplace where the social norms are toxic. Subtle manipulation is commonplace, and nobody seems to act with decency or integrity. It’s almost as if you feel like you’re working in the halls of Slytherin.


In a workplace like this, you probably feel constantly unsafe, on edge, and like there’s nobody you can trust.


Studies suggest that when employees see their managers gossip, it hurts the employee’s self-esteem in the office and causes them to want to contribute less to the team.


The main feelings that might come up in a Machiavellian workplace are:


  • Isolation

  • Disconnection

  • Like you can’t act like your authentic self

  • Exhaustion from acting “fake”

  • Distrust

  • Unsafety

  • Paranoia

  • Competitiveness


Here are some flags to check for to see if this might be your workplace:


  • Is the office full of separate cliques that feel hard to break into?

  • Do people gossip (or even spread rumors) about each other?

  • Do people bully each other or put each other’s ideas down?

  • Does the workplace culture feel competitive or even cut-throat rather than collaborative?

  • Does leadership play favorites?

  • Do conflicts get swept under the rug or expressed passive-aggressively instead of with open communication?


If this type of behavior doesn’t feel good to you, the best thing you can do is abstain. It’ll be tempting to get sucked into the social norms around you, but if you can dodge participating in gossip, bullying, or other Machiavellian shenanigans, you’ll at least be able to come home each day feeling proud of how you held yourself.


Ask this question in an interview to suss out if the company has a toxic Machiavellian culture:  “How does the company foster a culture of trust and integrity among employees?”


How to Decide If You Should Stay or Quit


Okay, so you’ve realized you or your client are in a toxic workplace. This might not be ideal, but there are steps you can take.


First, it can help to clarify your course of action.


Here are your three options:


  1. Stay in the job indefinitely

  2. Stay in the job while you look for another job

  3. Quit. And then figure out what to do


Each of these options might be valid for different people depending on their circumstances.


Even if this work culture feels as inhospitable as the Saraha Desert, there might still be good reasons to stay. 


Maybe you need the money to support yourself or your family and don’t have time to look for another job right now. Or maybe this role will serve as a stepping stone because it’s giving you unique skills or incredible connections. 


And if you do realize you need to quit and find another role, you can either line up another job before you leave this one, or you can quit ASAP. The route you choose for this complicated decision depends on your appetite for risk, your financial constraints, and your tolerance for toxicity.


Action Step: When choosing between the three courses of action (stay indefinitely, stay until you find another job, or quit right now), it can be helpful to clarify what values you are optimizing for. 


Here are some options:


  • Mental health

  • Career growth

  • Happiness

  • Financial security

  • Purpose


Once you know the top values you want to optimize for, it can make your decision clearer.


Tips for How to Survive in a Toxic Workplace


If you absolutely need to stay in this toxic work situation, here are a few tips to help you get by.


Set boundaries and speak up


This tip is massively important. And difficult. Having strong boundaries is a lifelong practice. But the better you can recognize and voice your limits, the more you can protect your mental and emotional health.


And sometimes, it will be too risky to voice concerns. In those cases, your boundary might be an emotional one. 


Action Step: Identify the main cause/s of distress in your work environment. Then, challenge yourself to speak up. Either voice a boundary or make a request for change.


For example, if your boss expresses often expresses anger at you, can you ask them to communicate differently? If meetings constantly run over time, can you respectfully voice your frustration with losing time and ask meetings to be run more tightly?


If it doesn’t feel safe to speak up, can you create an internal boundary? Where you create some emotional distance between you and your workplace? This might mean caring less, disconnecting, or checking out. But if it’s to protect your well-being, it could be worth it.


Find workplace allies


If you can find friends within the company, it can make all the difference. Someone friendly who shares your values can become a safe haven to escape from the drama of work and person with whom you can process the mess.


If your office is full of vipers, you might not have the luxury of having any allies at work. But if there are some people who seem like they have potential, it could be worth reaching out.


Action Step: Is there someone in your office who you haven’t gotten to know yet but who seems like they might be on the same wavelength as you? If so, take a risk and ask them if they want to get lunch or coffee sometime.


Practice self-care


The more nightmarish your work situation is, the more important your free time becomes as a place to recover.


When you get home from work, you’ll probably be carrying a bundle of uncomfortable feelings with you. It will be very tempting to immediately plop down in front of Netflix and numb out.


And no shame on that. Coping strategies have their place, and sometimes, coming home and zoning out to Grey’s Anatomy is just what the doctor ordered. But often, there will be other more nourishing activities you can partake in.


Action Step: Write out a list of five to ten activities that tend to give you energy. Then, when you get home from work each day, pick an activity from your list that will be the most nourishing.


Here are some ideas to get your brain turning:


  • Meditating

  • Taking a bubble bath

  • Cooking

  • Calling a friend

  • Painting

  • Going for a run


Focus on what is in your control


As Reinhold Niebuhr famously wrote in The Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." 


You don’t need to believe in any God to apply this sentiment.


Being in a toxic work culture undoubtedly stinks. But it can dramatically help to figure out what is out of your control and what is in control.


The things that you have no control over, you might as well let them be. And when you find the things you do have control over, you might feel a sense of empowerment that you can better your situation.


For example, your boss might be a jerk. No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to make them nicer. But maybe you can set boundaries or make requests for how they deliver feedback to you.


Action Step: First, write out the worst parts of your work culture in a list. 


For example, your list might say:


TOXIC PARTS OF WORK

People gossip

Every meeting runs late

My boss never acknowledges my work


Then, next to each item in your list, brainstorm if there are any ways you can change the situation or change your attitude toward it.  Then, list parts of the situation you can’t change and where you’ll need to practice acceptance.


TOXIC PARTS OF WORK

WHAT CAN I CHANGE?

WHAT MUST I ACCEPT?

People gossip

I can choose not to partake

People are going to gossip

Every meeting runs late

I can speak up 10 minutes before the intended stop time

My boss is bad with time

My boss never acknowledges my work

I can treat it as an opportunity to practice empowering myself to ask for what I want (acknowledgment)

My boss isn't super empathetic.


Find support


Studies suggest that social support mitigates the negative effects of stress. A social support system of like-minded individuals can boost spirits and reduce isolation.


Do you have friends, friendly colleagues, or family who can listen to you vent about your coworkers?


If no safe people come to mind, you can also seek professional support from a therapist, life coach, or career coach.


Action Step: Text a friend today to hang out and tell them about your work situation.


Alternatively, Psychology Today offers a terrific selection of therapists.


Devise an Exit Plan from Your Toxic Workplace


If the work culture is toxic, it’s a bad idea to stay there forever.


At some point, it will benefit you to find a healthier work culture that fills you with energy instead of anxiety.


And it’s okay to quit! Even if you just started. In fact, about 50% of both employees and C-suite execs have quit a job because it was bad for their well-being. And 30% of workers say they left a job in the first 90 days because the “company culture was not as expected.”


To make space for planning your exit, it might help to lighten your work load as much as possible.


Action Step: Write out the steps you need to take to get a new job and what type of culture you want to work in.


If you’re not sure where to start, a career coach can be a great resource. Here is a directory of career coaches from the International Association of Career Coaches


Takeaways on the Signs of a Toxic Workplace


There are unfortunately plenty of toxic workplaces out there. And if you are unlucky enough to find yourself in one, it’s helpful to identify that this is the case as soon as possible.


Here are the five types of toxic workplaces, as well as the red flags for each type:


In toxic burnout cultures:


  • Pressure to work more nights and weekends

  • Aggressive deadlines

  • Guilty for taking sick days


In toxic authoritarian cultures: 


  • Micromanagement

  • No room for mistakes

  • No room for feedback


In toxic stagnant cultures:


  • No growth opportunities

  • Management resists change

  • You never get acknowledged


In toxic chaotic cultures:


  • Unclear work expectations

  • Unclear timelines

  • Too many meetings


In toxic Machiavellian cultures:


  • People gossip

  • Cutthroat culture

  • Passive aggressive


As a reminder, if you’d like any support navigating your way to a better job opportunity, here is a list of career coaches in the International Association of Career Coach’s directory.


Best of luck!

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