Signs that you’re in a toxic workplace environment, and how to let go

A poor working environment can damage employees, and the employer   (Christin Hume/Unsplash)
A poor working environment can damage employees, and the employer (Christin Hume/Unsplash)

Feeling a sense of dread going into the office? Anxiety when emails or messages from colleagues pop-up? Maybe you’re suffering from a lack of confidence in your own decision-making and finding yourself confused around what your responsibilities actually are.

You might be struggling to switch off at the end of the day, and even beginning to encounter a general sense of being undervalued, underpaid, and resentful.

If one or more of these concerns sounds familiar, it could be that you’re in a toxic work environment - and feeling stuck. Being in a “toxic” workplace can be detrimental not only to morale and wellbeing but to long-term professional development.

Half the challenge is identifying it in the first place. It can be difficult to see the real structure and culture of a business through the rose-tinted glasses of interviews and offers, and it’s often only after you’re embedded that a company begins to show its true colours.

That’s when you might face a conflict: you feel it’s a great opportunity and should stick it out for the experience; you think any professional would love to work for this brand and you shouldn’t give up now. Common are thoughts around how the business might change and that it’s a strange economy, so to leave would be too high a risk.

These thoughts aren’t untrue or invalid - sometimes staying the course can lead to better, bright days ahead. But if second chances have turned into fifth, sixth, and seventh, and you’ve run out of solutions to bring to the table, it could be time to get out.

What makes somewhere toxic?

Spotting a toxic work environment isn’t difficult. You might not be able to place your finger on why it’s toxic, or even what makes it so. But you’ll know it when you see, and experience it.

Still, it helps to know what you’re looking for. Here are a few hallmarks:

  • Bad communication. A lack of communication between leadership and teams; line managers who say one thing and mean another; being undermined publicly or privately; colleagues who don’t brief properly; feedback that’s communicated poorly or only during 1-2-1s. These are big culprits.

  • Misaligned expectations. You may have an understanding of your role, and the objectives you need to achieve, but what if leadership has an entirely different one? Misaligned expectations (that aren’t rectified) can quickly make you lose faith in a business, and vice versa.

  • Inconsistency in values and behaviour. If a company says they’re one thing and behaves like another, that’s a big red flag. It can feel unpredictable and unsettling for a workforce, and lead to "walking on eggshells". The same goes for inconsistent communication and expectations.

  • Lack of support. During onboarding, challenging projects, development - failing to provide the proper tools and training can quickly make you feel lost and overwhelmed and cause wider issues within a business.

  • Skewed recognition. Not every achievement comes with a pat on the back, but if your workplace continually neglects to recognise hard work and commitment, you’ll feel resentful and undervalued. The same goes for recognising the wrong efforts. Positive recognition for harmful attitudes and behaviours (consistently working 60-hour weeks, or blame culture) actively reinforces toxicity.

When to let go

Resilience and determination are great traits to cultivate in your career and there’s a lot to be said for refusing to cut and run, particularly when it seems to be the norm.

Having said that, when you’ve presented a number of solutions and seen no improvement, you may have your answer.

Let go…

  • …when you’ve addressed the issue(s) quickly and upfront and seen no change. Give your employer a chance to resolve problems you and others are experiencing at work, and accept that change won’t happen overnight. But, if you’re having the same conversations time and time again and see no attempts for resolution, it may be time to bid adieu.

  • …when you’re bringing potential solutions, but your employer isn’t. A positive mindset can take you a long way. Bringing one or two ideas to improve things demonstrates leadership and team commitment. If your employer isn’t taking them seriously, or failing to find viable solutions of their own, it may mean they’re not invested.

  • …when you know your views or circumstances aren’t valued. Employers can’t always take everyone’s thoughts into consideration, but a good employer makes decisions for the good of the majority. Being consistently undermined or overlooked at work may mean leadership isn’t invested in their talent.

  • …when you’ve reached breaking point. The “Sunday scaries” dominate your weekends, and waking up on weekdays is unbearable. If you can no longer commit to your role, achieve objectives, and invest in a business, staying wastes your time and your employer’s. “Surviving” a workday, every day isn’t conducive to a healthy professional or personal life.

Thoughts on avoiding a toxic environment

Identifying a toxic work environment from the outside can be difficult. Exciting job descriptions, leadership use their best sales pitches during interviews - just as you do - and you’re not in direct contact with teams eight hours a day.

The best way to avoid falling into a toxic workplace is to know precisely what you want from a role and an employer. Pinpointing the key traits that make it the right fit for you will mean you can tailor your LinkedIn, CV and personal brand to attract the right roles, and know how to vocalise that to a recruiter.

Use interviews to not only communicate your background, experience, and values, but explore how an employer would define success and how they describe their culture to determine if you’re a compatible fit.

When you’re accepting a role, reflect your conversations back. Use your own words to describe the position, what objectives are expected from you, and how you’ll achieve them. It’s a final final word confirming you’re on the same page with your employer before you have to leave your current role, and it’ll give you something to refer back to if you need to.