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Toxic workplaces can harm your physical and mental health

Toxic workplaces can harm your physical and mental health

By Laura | 20.12.2022

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be employed in a toxic workplace, you’ll know exactly what it’s like.

A nasty boss. Lack of respect. Unfair wages. Maybe even covert discrimination or harassment.

No workplace is ever perfect, some may even be considered “bad”. But when a workplace is toxic, this can lead to serious problems for your physical and mental health. That’s why it is critical to learn what workplace toxicity looks like, and what to do if you find yourself stuck in a workplace that hurts workers.

Toxic Workplaces Could Hurt Mental Health

A toxic workplace is one in which employees are in an almost constant state of anxiety or distress. This can be due to physical conditions, such as unsafe equipment, long work hours, or low pay. Or it can be a result of the workplace atmosphere or culture. An office that allows sexism, or promotes individuals based on favoritism rather than performance, or sets impossible deadlines and then blames workers for not meeting them, are all examples of a toxic workplace culture.

Aside from the moral and ethical implications, a toxic workplace is simply dangerous for the health and wellbeing of employees. According to the US surgeon general, the things that make a workplace toxic, such as overwork, unfair pay, harassment and discrimination, are linked to a host of chronic physical and mental conditions, such as heart disease, depression, poor diet, substance abuse, and relationship problems.

Being in a toxic workplace leads to elevated stress levels. Over time, this can have a profoundly negative impact on the body, mind, and spirit – a direct road to poor mental health.

Why Is Mental Health at Work So Important?

One-third of our lives, or the equivalent of 90,000 hours, is spent at work. Separating work-life from home-life is an impossible task. When people are stressed at work, this spills over to family life and overall mental health – and vice versa.

For many people, work is where they achieve their life’s purpose, where they develop and express their creativity. That this occurs in a healthy and supportive environment is key to mental health.

Of course, people work to earn a living, support their families and meet their essential material needs, as well as the non-essential luxuries. The weekly or monthly salary is a hugely important part of life, practically and symbolically. Mental health at work is tied in a most basic way to a person’s self esteem and sense of worth.

Because so much time and meaning is wrapped up in our work lives, it is vital that the workplace be positive and enjoyable, to support better mental health. The business benefits of mental health at work are also clear: increased job satisfaction, less absenteeism, lower turnover, increased innovation and productivity.

What Are the Signs of a Toxic Workplace?

So you might just be going through a busy time at work, or perhaps there’s a particular issue that is niggling at you, like a difficult boss. On the other hand, maybe you are suffering from a toxic workplace. Sometimes it can be hard to tell.

However, if you feel very stressed at the office most of the time, you dread going there every morning, or your gut simply tells you something is not right, then it might be time to do a ‘health check’ of your place of work.

Here are some of the tell-tale signs of a toxic workplace: 

Excessive stress

It’s normal to have some stress at work. A big presentation, an important meeting or a tight deadline can all be stressful, and that’s ok. The problem is when the stress is extreme or chronic, rather than just periodic or tied to a particular event. If you find that your stress levels are constantly high, your colleagues are always stressed, or that the stress level around the office is often elevated, this might mean that the workplace does not have a healthy way of functioning, and has moved into ‘toxic’ territory.

Relational tension

Employees must often work together, however, toxic patterns can arise which make it difficult or impossible. If there is a clash of personalities within a team, this can cause tension and anxiety. Sometimes, there is one toxic individual who engages in backstabbing or favoritism, ruining the team effort and poisoning the sense of goodwill. Keep an eye out for difficult people or relationships that run the risk of becoming toxic.

The toxic boss

In a recent study, 82% of workers said that they would leave their jobs if their boss exhibited poor behavior. A toxic boss can have many faces: it may be the boss who micromanages your every move, making you feel a lack of agency and control. A toxic boss is one who is passive-aggressive, so it is difficult to know where you stand or what is expected of you. A boss who withholds praise or promotions can also be toxic. Because the boss is such an important figure – both professionally and interpersonally – it is really important to take note of any red flags before they get out of control.

Heavy workloads

Every job has its busy times and quieter times too. But if the workload is excessively heavy all of the time, or if management is delegating more work than is reasonable, this may be a sign of a toxic workplace. In a healthy work environment, people can be expected to fulfill reasonable duties. They may even be expected to work harder every now and again if circumstances arise. That is completely acceptable. However, if employees are overburdened and management doesn’t care or is unwilling to address the situation, this is toxic workplace behavior.

Unpredictable schedules

If management changes the schedule at the last minute, adds extra shifts without consulting the employees, constantly cancels meetings or doesn’t show up, this may be a sign of toxic behavior. Of course, it’s ok to ask for flexibility from staff, and sometimes a situation arises and the schedule has to be changed at short notice. However, if this happens often or is a chronic pattern, you are probably in a toxic workplace.

Low salaries

Companies that pay the lowest possible wages or don’t give raises commensurate with the market are probably toxic. If management is not willing to pay employees what they are worth, then it may be best to move on and look for employment where you will be appreciated and compensated accordingly.

Discrimination & harassment

Discrimination and workplace harassment are illegal in many countries. Even so, there are covert ways that employers can discriminate that may not be clearly punishable, yet leave employees feeling unvalued and victimized. In some cases, discrimination and harassment are not necessarily systemic across the company; perhaps it is one toxic individual causing the problem. However, if you have brought the issue to the attention of management, and they don’t take immediate steps to root it out, then this is a sign of a toxic workplace.

Hostile working conditions

If a workplace won’t ever give permission to leave early, asks you to come in even if you are not feeling well, is frequently late in paying wages, or doesn’t maintain a clean office, these are all examples of hostile working conditions. If you get signals of hostility on a regular basis, and if your employer doesn’t seem bothered by complaints or requests, this is a strong indicator of a toxic workplace.

What Are Some Signs of a Healthy Workplace?

On the flip side, a healthy workplace is a place that is welcoming, authentic, attentive and supportive. A healthy workplace focuses on the mental health of employees, enabling them to express their needs and access tools to help overcome stressors and challenges. Here are four signs of a healthy workplace – if your workplace has them, you are in the right place!

Encourages community

There is nothing more important to mental health than strong social connections. A healthy workplace encourages a sense of community and togetherness. It provides opportunities for coworkers to get to know one another beyond just work demands, such as work events or communal lunches. It also supports openness and honesty, so that employees feel comfortable to discuss issues and work on problems together,

Balance between work and personal life

A healthy workplace understands that every employee is an individual with a life, family, commitments, and interests outside of work. To this end, things like hybrid working, leaving early when necessary, taking mental health days, and providing wellness programs at work are all ways that employers can promote work-life balance and create a healthier workplace.

Damage protection

A workplace that has robust health and safety protocols is a very important part of being a healthy workplace overall. The employer invests in protecting staff and mitigating risk, and is attentive to physical and mental health issues before they become serious. In workplaces that do this, it is less common to see problems like burnout, absenteeism and quiet quitting.

Growth opportunities

In a healthy workplace, employees are valued not just for the role they play today, but for their potential to grow and contribute in other ways. Employers who provide opportunities for learning and growth will go a long way to creating mental health in the workplace.

What Can I Do If I’m in a Toxic Work Culture?

If you find yourself in a toxic work culture, the best thing you can do is remove yourself from the situation. In other words, quit and find another job. Unfortunately, once a workplace has become toxic, it is probably irreparable. The problems are too deep and ingrained, and – barring something drastic, like completely replacing the management staff – it is unlikely to ever change.

However, leaving a job is sometimes easier said than done. You may not be able to leave right away, whether for financial or career reasons. If that is the case, then you shouldn’t just grin and bear it; rather take action to minimize the impact on your mental health.

What do you do when your job is affecting your mental health?

If you are working in a toxic environment, and your mental health is being affected, here are several tips to help you:

  • Take every opportunity to work from home (if possible) to minimize your exposure to the workplace toxicity.
  • If there is a particular individual who is behaving in a toxic manner, avoid them as much as possible. If they are part of your team, or you must work on projects together, see if there are ways to change coworkers or move to another team.
  • If you have a toxic boss, keep your communication as short and direct as possible. Don’t get drawn into unnecessary conflict; simply hand over your work without extraneous discussion or elaboration. Toxic people flourish when they can bait you – don’t get caught.
  • Seek outside support. Talk to a therapist or a friend to unpack your feelings and process them in a healthy way. Write in a journal to remove the negative energy from your body.
  • Eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. This won’t fix the toxicity at work, but it will make you much better equipped physically and emotionally to deal with it.
  • Practice meditation or other relaxation techniques. These not only help you to regulate your emotions in the moment; they also help you build new neural pathways so you are in a more relaxed state of mind overall. This is incredibly helpful when dealing with chronic stress, such as toxic workplace culture.

Control your stress level with a Reflect biofeedback device

Information is power. Information about your body’s particular response to workplace stress empowers you to deal with it in the most effective way. If you are struggling with a toxic work environment and coping with the stress that it brings, try biofeedback with the Reflect device. Place your hands on the orb while you practice meditation or relaxation exercises, and see how your body responds in real-time. Once you learn how to calm down your heart rate, breathing and other physiological reactions, you can take this knowledge and use it during your workday to control stress as it happens.

If workplace toxicity is a part of your life, use the tips above and the Reflect biofeedback to take control back in your own hands and put mental health and well-being as your top priority.