In the United States, 18% of people characterize their workplace as “somewhat or very toxic.” What’s more, toxic workplace culture is the number one reason people left their jobs during the pandemic, according to 2022 data.
A toxic workplace is any work environment where negative behaviors like bullying, manipulation, and gossip thrive. These problems often lead to stress, low productivity, and other harmful effects, according to Holly Keller, a licensed therapist in private practice.
Toxic workplaces don’t just take a toll on your overall physical and mental health — they can also begin to affect the quality of your home life, says Erica Hanlon, a licensed therapist and career coach who’s worked in corporate wellness.
All that said, knowing how to recognize the tell-tale red flags can help you take steps to protect your health, happiness, and well-being.
Below, mental health professionals share some common signs of a toxic workplace, plus tips on handling the situation when you can’t make a career change.
1. You’re afraid to share your thoughts, ideas, and opinions
“Toxic workplaces tend to have an authoritarian type of leadership where anyone who voices a different opinion may be labeled a ‘problem,'” says Olivia Wedel, a licensed professional counselor in private practice.
For instance, a manager or colleague may repeatedly:
- Shut down your ideas
- Criticize anything you propose
- Reprimand or humiliate you for expressing your opinion
As a result, you may feel reluctant to express your thoughts out of fear of the potential consequences — like losing your job.
2. People don’t communicate clearly
It’s difficult to do your job well when you don’t get necessary information about tasks — or worse, receive conflicting instructions.
Say your manager demands you rewrite a report without explaining why your first draft fell short. Or, maybe you have two managers who expect you to handle tasks in very different ways.
In either situation, you may feel confused and frustrated, which could negatively affect your motivation at your job.
“Communication helps build trust between people, and this is no different in the workplace,” says Kevin Hayden, a licensed independent clinical social worker and founder of Whole Mind Therapy and Counseling.
According to Keller, a lack of communication or siloed communication — where teams are kept entirely separate from each other — can also derail productivity and encourage harmful office politics.
3. Your boss doesn’t respect your boundaries
Research shows that poor work-life balance can negatively affect job satisfaction as well as relationship satisfaction.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to achieve and maintain a healthy work-life balance when your employer either ignores or disrespects your boundaries — or makes it difficult for you to voice or enforce them all together, Keller says.
It’s a strong sign your workplace is toxic if your boss regularly expects you to:
- Take calls and answer emails on holidays or days off
- Participate in meetings during your lunch break
- Work when you’re sick or off the clock
- Answer calls on your personal phone on weekends or late at night
4. Management plays favorites
Does management tend to ignore top performers and promote from the same pool of friends, previous colleagues, and alumni? Wedel says that signals favoritism — a common sign of a toxic environment.
Another sign of favoritism is inconsistent expectations for employees. For example, your boss might reprimand you for being 10 minutes late — even though they never say anything to a colleague who regularly comes in 10-15 minutes late.
Playing favorites fuels distrust and resentment between you and your coworkers, Wedel says, which can quickly destroy motivation and morale.
5. Your boss micromanages you
It’s one thing to have a boss who’s hands-on — for example, one who checks in frequently throughout a work project to make sure you have what you need to complete the task.
It’s quite another to have a boss who micromanages you.
A micromanager, according to Wedel, might force you to ask permission before completing anything or demand to be looped into every decision and email exchange.
Micromanagement doesn’t just slow down your productivity, Hanlon says. It can also stifle creativity and lower morale.
6. Your colleagues tend to shift the blame
Everyone occasionally makes mistakes at work. It’s part of being human.
But when your managers or colleagues refuse to take responsibility for mistakes, that can create a toxic environment.
For instance, maybe the higher-ups at your company frequently blame revenue losses on employees even when mismanagement of resources is the culprit.
These behaviors signal a lack of accountability, which can make you feel set up for failure and hurt your motivation, Keller says.
7. There’s lots of gossip
Negative gossip — whether it happens in person at the water cooler, over email, or via a team chat app — can contribute to low self-esteem and emotional distress.
According to a 2021 study, someone targeted by this kind of gossip may often save face or seek revenge by gossiping about someone else. In other words, gossip can become an ongoing and deeply hurtful cycle.
Hayden says negative office gossip can also fuel fear.
If a colleague starts a rumor that you’re having an affair with your boss, for instance, that doesn’t just damage your reputation at the company. It may potentially put your job at risk.
Or, if you hear your manager is about to fire a handful of people on your team, you may experience a surge in anxiety.
8. Your managers have unreasonable expectations
Keller says managers in a toxic work environment often have unrealistic expectations — for, say, the amount of work you can handle at one time, or the time you need to complete it.
Maybe your manager insists that work should always be your top priority, or they make you feel as if mistakes aren’t allowed. That kind of pressure may increase your stress levels and contribute to burnout.
Plus, when you’re frequently held to impossibly high standards, you may find it difficult to ever feel successful in your job. This can take a toll on your self-esteem along with your motivation.
Working in a toxic environment can have a far-reaching impact on your health.
Mental health effects
According to a 2021 study, toxic workplace behaviors like bullying and harassment can lead to:
According to Keller, these effects can spill over into your relationships outside of work. For instance, you may find your job-induced depression hinders your sex drive, or that you take your frustration from work out on a spouse.
Additionally, a review found that stress plays a major role in driving addiction. Hanlon says it’s not uncommon to use alcohol, drugs, stress eating, or other harmful behaviors to cope with negative emotions relating to your job. If your job becomes particularly stressful and overwhelming, you may find it difficult to manage these behaviors.
Evidence suggests severe or prolonged stress may increase your risk of:
What’s more, overworking — often encouraged in toxic work environments — can increase your risk of stroke.
What to do next
You have several options for handling a toxic work environment.
Address the issue head-on
Keller advises this approach if the toxic behavior comes from just one or two people and you feel comfortable confronting them. For example, you might let a problematic coworker know how their behaviors affect you and explain what you’d like them to do instead.
Talk to a trusted manager
If you don’t feel comfortable confronting your coworker, Hanlon recommends discussing the issues with a trusted manager or supervisor. They may be able to help by acting as a mediator in a meeting between you and your coworker.
Reach out to HR
Speaking with your human resources (HR) department can occasionally be helpful, Wedel says.
Yet, Keller says it’s important to remember that HR isn’t always immune to the toxic conditions — and they may be more interested in protecting the company than advocating for you.