9 Signs You’re in a Toxic Work Environment

You might be working in a toxic environment without even knowing it.

This might sound like a strange assertion. But often, people blame themselves when circumstances beyond their control are causing them stress. Rather than seeing that it’s their co-workers or managers who have co-created an unwelcoming work environment, they convince themselves that they haven’t worked hard enough or well enough to deserve more respect.

So how can you know that it’s not you but your work environment that’s toxic? Here are nine signs that reveal the truth.

#1 The workplace atmosphere is tense rather than professional

There will be tension in every workplace from time to time, when deadlines are nearing or when there are disagreements over strategy. But this should only happen occasionally, and in special circumstances.

A toxic work environment, on the other hand, will be infused with chronic low-level tension that flares up into drama on a disturbingly regular basis. Your workplace won’t feel friendly. To an outsider, the business may not look like it’s professionally run.

If you’ve been in a toxic office or workspace for a long time, you may have gotten used to the uncomfortable vibes. But if you speak to someone who’s relatively new on the job, the chances are they will have noticed the tension and they may ask you to explain what it’s all about.

#2 Mistakes are always punished, and often quite harshly

While no boss or manager is tolerant of repeated mistakes, in toxic workplaces even the most minor slip-ups are treated as catastrophes—and the person deemed responsible for these blunders is made to pay the price. Healthy environments do the opposite. They see errors as learning opportunities and accept mistakes as a natural part of doing business.

Needless to say, bosses who play the blame game contribute to a ratcheting-up of workplace tension. When mistakes are seen as tragedies, employees will walk around on eggshells all the time because they’re afraid of screwing up.

#3 There is high employee turnover

When you’re exposed to a toxic workplace, you may accept it for a while. But you’ll never be truly happy or satisfied with the experience, and neither will your fellow employees. Your supervisors and managers will be worn down as well, even if they’re contributing to the toxic dynamic without realizing it. 

This is why companies that don’t maintain a supportive workplace environment have a hard time holding onto people who have options and can find employment elsewhere.

One of the defining characteristics of a toxic workplace is that it usually transcends the actions of any one individual. So even if someone who has helped make the work environment unpleasant leaves, the toxic culture will often outlast their presence.

#4 The workplace is overly competitive

There is nothing wrong with healthy competition, even if it is between workers in the same company. But when the competition leads to conflict, hostility or resentment, it’s a sign that it’s slipped into unhealthy territory and is not benefiting anyone.

Competition can create a sense of shared purpose when everyone is treated with respect and given additional opportunities to prove themselves. But it can tear a workplace apart when people are encouraged to act like the stakes are life and death, and to believe that losing is synonymous with failure. 

#5 You don’t feel physically or emotionally well

Your body will let you know when you’re spending time in a toxic work environment. The truth will be revealed by the chronic stress you feel, which will hang over you like a shroud and stay with you even when you’re safe back at home.

Some of the physical signs you’re unhappy and in a toxic workplace include muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, and vulnerability to colds, flus and other common illnesses. You might also feel flat-out exhausted when you get home from work each day.

#6 Your bosses aren’t interested in hearing from you

When you have a complaint, concern or a personal issue to discuss, your boss should be willing to listen and work with you to find a resolution. You should trust that they have your back and will support you if you come to them for assistance.

Unfortunately, managers who supervise toxic work environments often refuse to take responsibility for what goes on under their watch. So if you do come to them for help, they may try to minimize your concerns or promise to do something about the situation but never take any action at all. They may even become upset with you for coming to them in the first place, insisting that it is your problem to solve.

#7 Work boundaries aren’t set or are ignored

The occasional overtime, late-night or weekend working session is to be expected. But in toxic work environments, managers will often demonstrate a distinctive lack of respect for the normal working boundaries. They may expect you to be toxically productive and sacrifice your personal life to the job.

If this is going on in your workplace, you were probably shocked when you discovered that your bosses expected you to be on call every day at almost any time, treating you like a possession they own and control. And if you’ve ever tried to say ‘no’ to requests that cut into your free time, they may have held it against you when it was time to give out raises or promotions.

#8 Mutual trust and respect are noticeably absent

When a workplace environment has turned toxic, it will be reflected in the way people treat each other—which may be disrespectful, or without much sign of warmth or interest. There’s a clear trickle-down effect in toxic environments. So, you won’t just have to deal with a boss who is lacking in empathy but a whole range of problematic or stress-ridden relationships up and down the line.

In a toxic workplace, everyone will be worried about survival to one extent or another. This causes internal division and leaves everyone wondering who they can trust. You may find yourself feeling skeptical about your co-workers’ true motivations and agendas, just as they will be suspicious of yours. In such an environment, giving each other the benefit of the doubt will seem naïve, and mutual respect will be lacking.

#9 Your company is riddled with factions or cliques

Every workplace has friendship groups—it’s normal for people to interact more warmly and more frequently with some people more than others, based on shared personality traits or interests. But in healthy workplaces, everyone will treat each other with respect and consideration, as all are united by a shared vision and sense of purpose.

In a toxic environment, these types of healthy relationships will be absent. The team dynamic will be missing, and people will divide themselves up into cliques or pairs that remain separate. Breaking up into mutually exclusive groups is a natural reaction in a toxic workplace, since people will gravitate toward those they are most certain they can trust.

How to protect yourself from toxic work environments

In some instances, what seems like a toxic work environment to you may seem perfectly fine to someone with different standards or a different frame of reference. Your perspective may be an outgrowth of your identity, as a particular workplace may simply not be fit for someone with your personality profile or characteristics.

To increase your odds of finding the right career and the best work environment, you should take at least one comprehensive career aptitude test before applying for any new job. These detailed examinations can help you identify your most distinctive and fundamental personality traits, while pointing you toward jobs and careers that would be a good fit for someone with your disposition. 

A career aptitude test can also tell you more about the work environments you’re likely to find most satisfying, and also reveal which environments would likely cause you to experience stress, frustration and dissatisfaction.

Once you realize your current job has put you in harm’s way, or that a career you’ve been considering might clash with your personality, you should change direction and move on as quickly as possible. Life is too short to willingly expose yourself to a toxic workplace environment. 

Nathan Falde
Nathan Falde has been working as a freelance writer for the past six years. His ghostwritten work and bylined articles have appeared in numerous online outlets, and in 2014-2015 he acted as co-creator for a series of eBooks on the personality types. An INFJ and a native of Wisconsin, Nathan currently lives in Bogota, Colombia with his wife Martha and their son Nicholas.