How to identify and heal from toxic workplacesFeatured

It’s 6 pm, and your heart rate speeds up frantically after hearing a Slack notification. You spend dinner talking about work problems, then lay in bed staring at the ceiling because you’re thinking about work.

"It's just stress," you tell yourself.

Or maybe, it's a sign of a toxic workplace.

Despite affecting 3 in 5 Americans, the signs can be hard to spot. It's important to realize what a toxic workplace looks like, the impact it can have, and how to step away and heal from it.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all model when it comes to toxic workplaces. It can be easy to look for the obvious signs, like casual racism and sexism, but team culture, work-life balance, and management styles can be just as problematic.

Terrible team culture is often related to social and conversational culture (such as lack of boundaries or inappropriate language/actions), but it’s important to look at employee turnover rate and what work-life balance looks like at the organization. A high employee turnover rate can be a huge indicator of people working out of fear and being unmotivated. Studies show that employees that are motivated produce better quality work than those that work out of fear and are highly unmotivated.

As many of us learned over the pandemic, it can be hard to maintain a work-life balance when you’re working from home. With your desk, laptop, and phone within reach at all hours, it can blur the lines between what’s online, and what’s offline. When working from home you’re letting work into your home. So, do consider if you’re also letting it take over your life. If you’re logging off, thinking about work, talking about it with your friends and family, or stressing about tasks the next day these can be clear signs of unhealthy work-life balance.

Micromanagement and bad leadership often go hand in hand. While micromanagement can come from colleagues and managers, bad leadership can encourage such toxic behaviors. Bad leadership can encourage employees and colleagues to have a lack of boundaries with each other. It’s important to step back and assess whether someone is checking on the status of work, or if they are constantly checking in to have power and ownership over you and your work.

Never underestimate the impact of a toxic work environment on individuals. Toxic workplaces aren’t just bad for teams and employers. They can have a real impact on an employee’s health, too. It can range from Slack pings triggering anxiety, all the way to burnout and a lack of self-esteem.

A recent survey by Forbes showed “over half (52%) of survey respondents are experiencing burnout in 2021—up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey.” Burnout comes from feeling like there’s a lack of control with one’s career or job making it hard to feel like the possibility of succeeding. Elements of a toxic workplace, like micromanagement and office politics, can make each day seem like a suffocating loop. They can make people feel stuck, and make it seem like there’s no point in moving on to a new job or company.

The first step is to walk away from a toxic workplace – either mentally or physically.

The next step is to realize your value. A lot of people struggle to realize they’re at a toxic workplace that’s affecting them. Realizing the value of your work and your capabilities can be a powerful shift in mindset that will allow you to reflect on what it is you want out of a job.

Once you realize you deserve more, write down some questions to get your inner dialogue/conversation to hype you up: Why are you a unique asset to the company? What do you believe you’re capable of? What have you accomplished during your time at the job?

Answering these questions can encourage an important reflection about how valuable you are. It’s important to remember you do add value wherever you go – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

There isn’t a formula or treatment for dealing with workplace PTSD but freelancing, taking a break, and taking interviews can be beneficial to finding your own worth and healing from a toxic environment.

1. Freelancing and Consulting: It may not sound like a lot, but 2-3 freelance clients could be just enough to leave your full-time job and become your own boss. Not only does this allow cash flow to come in during the healing process, but it also lets you set boundaries and encourage work-life balance for yourself. This also allows you to realize what you’re best at, the positive impact you bring to your clients and shows you where you can improve in terms of skillset.

2. Taking a Break: If you’re in a financial place to support yourself for a couple of months, take time off completely from work. Allow yourself to recenter and figure out what you want from your future employer. This also gives you the chance to recover and catch up on all the things you couldn’t because of work.

3. Take Interviews: After realizing you are working in a toxic environment, it’s important to start putting out feelers. This will help you discover what stands out about you to other employers. It also allows you to verbally express to others what you’ve accomplished, what you’re capable of, and what value you bring to the table while allowing you to tailor your resume to the hiring market.

During interviews make sure to ask about the culture, employee turnover rate, who were the past people that worked for the role they’re hiring for, and how many hours employees usually work. These questions and the company’s answers will help you understand the work environment and save you from accidentally walking into another toxic workplace.

Once you feel like you’ve healed from a toxic workplace there is a lot of learning and unlearning that will follow. Some people adopt toxic behaviors from their past toxic workplaces. When joining a new company, it’s important to unlearn these behaviors. It’s important to check in with yourself, check your actions from an outsider’s point of view, do your actions negatively affect those around you?

Unlearning isn’t a sign of failure or weakness – it’s a sign of growth and that you’re making sure to not encourage negative behaviors. Have a clear idea of what you expect from a workplace and how you want to be treated from day one. This clarity will help you spot the red flags that indicate a workplace isn’t for you and your career aspirations.

Taking action and healing from a toxic workplace is a process, but once you do, you’ll be better equipped to make a lasting impact.

You may have literally saved my life with this essay. You would not believe how uncanny it is that what you have written is my exact situation
Thank you for this. I am in a toxic workplace right now and it took me a while to realize it. My confidence has absolutely plummeted. This last year I've felt like I've regressed in my career, after having such great momentum the last several years. I am miserable.
you can turn that around. It's hard to see that you have potential and skills while spending 8 hours a day around people who make you feel like you don't. Speaking from experience, I would advise you to do the work to get out of that environment, so you can start to remember how great you are!
"...your heart rate speeds up frantically after hearing a Slack notification" wow, I felt this in my soul! Thanks for such a thoughtful article. So much of this rings true, as I see the impacts of toxic work environments still triggering me to today! These three takeaways are super helpful.
I think a big sign of a toxic work environment is when all your colleagues are stressed too, but say it's normal/just like this right now/just have to get through the busy period/it's a start-up.It's a sign that everyone is under too much pressure to step back and assess, or nobody wants to be the one to speak up. Both are very bad.
This was the mentality and attitude in a startup I worked for before. I remember leaving the house 6am and getting back home 10pm and thinking it was okay. And when I was taking a break, I felt awful because I wasn't working as hard as my other co-workers. I quit after 9 months and didn't go back to working for 10 months (height of the oandemic, too)I'm working at a startup again and seeing the same patterns (virtually, we're a remote team), only less intense. But the same, "it's supposed to be busy, it's a startup" narrative is repeating and I'm scared of what will happen. How do we heal from this?
Same here.I just left the company I worked at for 7 years. It was a start up and no matter how much we worked or grew, the startup mindset never left so I was so burned out I left. I joined another startup and I see the exact same patterns. They even told "good luck with that" to a new member who said his favorite hobby was sleeping.I really hope I can manage my time. They said I could, so that's what I want to do. Fingers-crossed I don't end up in the same cycle.
You definitely can break out of the cycle once you realize, "Hey success and my well being are not mutually exclusive - but integrated." I have worked startups a good portion of my career and realized that either I change the situation and go to a bigger or smaller company AND create better work life boundaries. Btw, your self-worth is not tied to the environment you work in- please remember that :)
How will you recognise if you are slipping into that pattern again?
The guilt thing is a big indicator too.'Everyone else is working 50 hours and you just swan off after your 40'It's a tactic to make it emotional and personal. At the end of the day, you have a contract with the company to provide X many hours, or X output, for X money. That's it. It's not a family and the pizza after work is not a good thing!
The example above sounds like a dream. My working hours are currently 8am-6pm, then 7:30pm-11:30 or even 1am. Too tired to dream and my husband refuses to let me verbally vent about work. So it all just piles up in my head and my heart.The good news is that most of my coworkers are not toxic! I’ve had a toxic manager in the past and the only way to heal from that is time and therapy.
Why do you feel the need to give them your evenings? Would you lose your job if you didn’t?
A toxic work environment can hang over you for years after. I worked at an elite company in my field, and it was terrible for my confidence and self-esteem. Management played people off each other and the competition was brutal. Last year, I went to work at another top company. The culture could not be more different: they are supportive and helpful. Criticism is never personal, it’s only about improving the work. But, I keep expecting someone to do/say something to rattle me. My defenses are still on alert given my previous experience.
Such a helpful essay thank you! Do you have recommendations on places to begin looking g for freelance positions? Specifically for engineering/web development?
Try browsing upwork for ideas and to help you decide if you'd like to look there. I'm not in web development so unsure but I used them in the past when I needed help with freelance projects
This is such a great topic and essay! The one thing I would add is that it can sometimes be hard to realize what value you bring when you're in a toxic workplace, since the effect is often to convince employees that they don't really add any value. So don't let the fact that you have trouble coming up with these answers faze you or hold you back. Once you are out from under the spell of a toxic workplace, everything will start to move more smoothly, you'll feel better, and you'll start to recognize and actualize your own strengths and skills.
I just started at a remote call center and after 4 days of training and feeling undervalued and talked down to, and noticing my hair wasn't turning white before the job, and it made me realize that I'm stressed when I wake up to go to work. I'm stressed when I'm not working and the very thought of keeping this job depends on how much more I can take. Which helped me to decide to look for other employment out there because it's not worth the amount of stress I endure.