Signs of a Toxic Workplace – and When to Call it Quits

Signs of a Toxic Workplace – and When to Call it Quits

February 15, 2023

man trapped behind window

Picture this: you’re chatting away with friends over a glass of wine without a care in the world, when someone suddenly decides to raise the topic of work. Whilst everyone else gushes about their friendly co-workers and supportive boss, you opt to share the fact that, unfortunately, you hate your job. Your office is a hotbed of manipulation, bullying, mismanagement, miscommunication and questionable power dynamics. You share all of this with your friends, who surprisingly laugh it off. “We’ve all been there”, they scoff. “Happens to the best of us”.

In reality, a toxic workplace is no laughing matter. At what point did an unhappy working environment become normalised? Working in a toxic environment can be incredibly detrimental to your mental health, leading to burnout, chronic stress, and anxiety – and this can ultimately seep into your life outside the office. In a recent survey, 42% of UK participants revealed that a toxic workplace culture negatively impacted their mental health.

A lot of us have worked in a toxic workplace at some point in our careers. It could be glaringly obvious from the get-go, but it may also seem so minor – a series of strange or awkward experiences that gradually pile on top of one another – that it’s almost imperceptible at the time. A toxic workplace culture cannot be boiled down to one single factor. It’s often more insidious than that, weaved into the very fabric of the company itself. It’s so deep-rooted that, unfortunately, changing the circumstances often lays beyond your control – leaving may actually be the only solution. A third of UK employees left their jobs in 2021 due to stress caused by a toxic work environment.

There are certain red flags you should remain alert to in order to ascertain if your workplace is toxic. Read on to find out what some of the warning signs are, and at what point you should consider making a clean break from a company that is dragging you down.

A bullying boss

One of the most obvious symptoms of a toxic workplace is a bad boss, who treats you poorly, yet somehow gaslights you into thinking that you’re lucky to be working there in the first place. More than two in five UK employees have left their jobs due to a bad manager.

Poor leadership manifests itself in many different ways: perhaps your boss micromanages you; fails to respect your boundaries (by calling or emailing you incessantly on the weekend, for example); criticises your work to no end, and holds impossibly high standards.

Lack of communication

Whether it’s coming from your manager or your colleagues, there’s nothing worse than feeling left in the lurch due to a lack of communication. In many toxic working environments, employees may feel haunted by a sense that their co-workers aren’t being entirely open with them, or that their working environment is not a safe space where they can openly raise concerns and vocalise any issues they may have.

You may feel in the dark, like you don’t know what you should be doing, or what falls under your remit. If something goes wrong, it often degenerates into finger-pointing – playing the blame game. There’s constant miscommunication, so that it feels like you’ve fallen into a particularly awkward episode of The Office.

Gossip and cliquey behaviour

Another red flag that often rears it head in a toxic workplace is gossip and cliquey behaviour. Working in these kind of environments can feel like you never left high school. You might be knuckling down on an important project when you hear anxiety-inducing whispers and titters emanating towards you from the water fountain, or perhaps you’re at a work social trying to make friends, but you’re instead met with cold stares and turned backs as everyone retreats into their pre-established cliques.

Gossip is one of the main culprits of poor productivity in a workplace; it creates an aura of discomfort, anxiety, and distrust. Teams that perpetuate and encourage this kind of behaviour are destined to underperform.

Toxic workplaces often don’t feel collaborative and democratic, but rather dominated by rumours, childish dynamics, and playing favourites. It can sometimes feel like you’ve been teleported back to a medieval royal court – there’s the same level of intrigue, drama and foul play going on.

Negative energy

Negative energy is hard to define. It’s a feeling that permeates the office, so much so that it weighs you down as soon as you walk through the door in the morning. It’s hard to put your finger on, but it lingers stagnantly in the air like a bad smell.

In a positive work environment, you’ll likely walk into your office and be greeted with “good mornings”. Any healthy working day is studded intermittently with the occasional snippet of office banter; perhaps someone sends you a funny meme or drops you a friendly message, asking about your weekend.

It becomes clear that your workplace is a negative space when colleagues don’t want to spend any time with one another outside of office hours. Rather than going for after-work drinks or forming WhatsApp chats for out-of-hours catch-ups, you’ll notice everyone leaving the office abruptly, as promptly as they arrived that morning.

When is it time to leave a toxic workplace behind?

Tip number one:  if you’re working in a toxic environment, never just say you’ll stick it out for a while and see what happens. If the atmosphere at your company is claustrophobic, lonely, gossipy, uber-competitive and full of bullies, that’s not going to change (at least not without some major readjustments and overhauls initiated by higher-ups in the company). You need to take decisive action and, if this proves futile, you need to move on for the sake of your wellbeing and your own personal development.

Whilst it’s worth starting out by raising certain issues with your HR department, you may find that some problems are so fundamental to the company that you cannot change the situation. In which case, the best course of action is to start looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Lucky for you, as you go through a new hiring process, you know now which red flags to look out for and when to bow out of a company’s application process. As soon as a company starts displaying symptoms of a toxic work environment, you know it’s best to steer clear. Is the hiring manager giving you hardly any time to complete a task and yet taking ages to get back to you with feedback? Raise questions in your interviews about company culture so you can gauge if it would be a more positive environment to work in, or if it would be taking you back to square one.

Ultimately, you have to do what’s right for you – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting your mental health first and leaving toxic circumstances behind.

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