Working late at night

How to Recognize a Toxic Work Environment

By Errin Weisman

When I speak to other professionals, it sounds like we’ve all been hazed by the same frat. But instead of ice baths, it’s small expectations and behaviors that have permeated modern work culture.

“Oh yeah, who hasn’t worked overtime without pay?”

“My boss called me in the middle of Christmas.”

“I feel like if I slow down, I’ll get fired.”

These phrases get tossed around casually in conversation, but when put under a microscope, it reveals a lot to unpack. I myself am a physician, but I hear the same stories from lawyers, consultants, engineers—you name it. There is something about high-achieving people that draw us to intense careers. And that’s totally fine…until it’s not.

As a fellow physician once told me, “I didn’t realize the long-term implications of this institutionalized behavior until 20 years later.” He pointed out that as he climbed the ranks, he began to replicate the stress-inducing and often toxic behavior that he had experienced as a new employee.

Working hard is well and good, but how do we keep ourselves from falling into a toxic environment?

How to recognize a toxic environment

The word “toxic” has been popping up everywhere recently. This makes it difficult to distinguish which environments are detrimental versus those that are inconvenient. The desire to be seen as a hard worker cultivates an attitude to bury our feelings and “push through” for the sake of our jobs.

So let’s give it a definition. A toxic, or hostile work environment is “a workplace that feels psychologically unbearable, not because of the actual work that is completed but because the emotional dynamics of the place are so deeply dysfunctional.” (Bustle).

How you feel is important. If you’re devoting 40 hours a week or more to your career, it shouldn’t make you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, fearful, or hopeless. While it may seem like “no big deal” at first, these feelings tend to escalate into burnout when not addressed early.

To recognize burnout, look out for the D’s, E’s, and F’s

D: Disengagement, Dissatisfaction, Discouragement. If you’re starting to avoid or retreat from your work, this is a sign that you might not be receiving the support or encouragement that you need.

E: Exhaustion – including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. Lack of sleep is a huge red flag, but feeling exhausted even after a full 8+ hour night’s rest is also a warning sign. Non-physical exhaustion looks like not having the energy or attention span for activities you normally enjoy, both inside and outside of work.

F: Fear, Frustration, and Flight. We activate our Flight or Fight response when we feel threatened. If your job is regularly activating this response by you saying, ‘”I got to get out of this place” or “I’d love to leave but I’m afraid of change,” it’s time to take a closer look.

Unhealthy expectations at work

The signs of burnout can appear out of thin air. They are triggered by specific actions, attitudes, and behaviors or sets of actions, attitudes, and behaviors by the people around you. Oftentimes, a toxic company culture develops from an obsession with the bottom line, to the point where work and money are always put above employee wellbeing.

These are some toxic behaviors that can elicit feelings of burnout:

  • Bullying, belittling, or demeaning behaviors or conversations
  • Unclear policies or policies that are inconsistently executed
  • Little or no recognition (undervaluing work)
  • Inappropriate ways of expressing anger and/or disappointment
  • Weak communication (lack of communication, withholding or misleading information, tangled lines of communication)
  • Lack of responsibility/accountability
  • Gossip and disrespect

But this list is only a starting point. Your feelings will be the compass that guides you through what you find acceptable and what you will not tolerate. Being valued and respected is at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is not a frivolous desire, but an essential, core component to fulfillment.

Creating a healthy environment

The good news is that there is plenty of room for healthy work environments. More and more, companies are starting to value employee wellbeing. It’s about time, given that a burntout employee costs organizations 34% of their annual salary.

Valuing hard work and valuing wellbeing are not mutually exclusive. Employees can be valued for both their work ethic and their humanity.

Some signs of healthy workplaces include:

  • Empowering conversations that improve the lives of everyone involved (even when they are hard conversations)
  • Clearly outlined policies and procedures that are regularly updated based on employee feedback
  • Being asked how you feel value and then shown that you are valued for your work Openness/Acceptance to express feelings at work and the outlets to do this appropriately Adequate oversight with the flexibility for creativity
  • Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Respect

Again, this list is only a start. At the end of the day, what determines whether a workplace is healthy for you is how you feel being there. Note when you feel empowered, when you feel burnout, and how your employer responds to that information.

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