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Signs of a toxic workplace

Have you ever experienced a toxic workplace culture? Your working environment may have more of an effect on you than you realise.

The Modern Career Romance

It's quite like the divide between an arranged marriage - versus a marriage based on love. There is a 21st century ideal that the most important things in life, like love and careers, should be built on passion.

Do ideals of a truly fulfilling career sell people short? When the career, the job, the workplace, don't measure up - is it more agonising because the expectations were just too high?

There is no simple black-and-white answer - the story of our livelihoods is a complex picture.

Alongside the question of whether a chosen career path is the best for one's personality (we'll save that for another day), the workplace itself can have far-reaching effects on both physical health and mental well-being.

It can be common for the pressures of work to spill over into the rest of life, but it can also be one of the signs of a toxic workplace. Struggling with a heavy workload with support and motivation is one thing - but unrelenting job demands combined with toxic workplace culture signify the need for some more serious help.

"Quiet quitting" - Disaster or Revolution?

A new phrase coined to capture the feeling of giving up at work - but not actually resigning, has swept the internet recently: quiet quitting.

When it comes to dealing with a toxic workplace, it describes a mental resignation of workers. They don't hand in their resignation per se, but just check out and stick to the bare minimum that's required.

According to those who love the idea, it makes sense for an employee who may have previously sacrificed a lot for their company - only to find themselves replaceable, passed over for pay rises, and treated poorly. According to its critics, it's unfair to not only employers but also one's colleagues.

Both sides of the argument may sometimes miss the nuance of vast differences between workplaces - and cultures. Organisational psychologist Adam Grant says "When people don't feel cared about, they eventually stop caring".

Work That Doesn't Stay at Work

The idea that when we leave a certain environment, we would also leave those stresses behind sounds great. Yet we know even if we're sitting on a tropical beach under a palm tree, we are unfortunately still likely to be mulling over the exact problems we thought we'd left at the office.

Do you feel obliged to reply to a midnight work message? Constant communication can easily become the norm, but it doesn't signify the best way to function.


So much ease and capability is added to our world from automated systems, worldwide connections, and every conceivable bit of knowledge at our fingertips. Yet we know it's not all positive.

Along with that increased connectivity comes the obvious, yet perhaps ominous, inability to disconnect. 24-7 connection appears to be great for efficiency and ever-increasing productivity, but the irony is in the poor outcomes for the human beings running it all.

A great example is sleep. We now know that the brain gets a wonderful deep clean every day. But the catch is that this restoration only really happens when we're getting deep and restful sleep.

Similarly, it's been found that staying glued to a problem reduces our solving abilities and creativity. Rather, stepping away allows for optimal cognitive functioning - ie, for better thinking to happen.

Dealing With Workplace Bullying

Unfortunately, bullies aren't just relegated to childhood. They can wear suits, have employees, and even run successful corporations. The power imbalance between managerial roles and workers who lack financial and workplace decision power can create a perfect storm for bullying to take place.

Toxic treatment, harassment or bullying may occur at any level, and they are a sure symptom of an unhealthy dynamic.

Top Signs of a Toxic Workplace

If you've felt that something is not quite right with your workplace and it's culture, it's helpful to be aware of how your own mental and emotional health bounce back after a tough situation at work.

If you find yourself dragged down and unable to function as usual, then seeing some of the key signs of a toxic workplace can represent seriously problematic environments - and is different to "normal" and even healthy stress.

Criticism becomes personal

Critiques of work performance should be part of a dialogue that allows for growth - and includes respect. When people are personally ridiculed, if name-calling is used (even in a 'joking tone'), then all involved should be evaluating the appropriateness of this person's behaviour.

Constructive criticism and humiliation may be confused by someone lacking in tact and experience, but it never excuses the ill-treatment of employees or colleagues.

Mistakes are not allowed

When failures are punished or ridiculed, they don't lessen. In reality, they may just be hidden in the future. 'Human error' is a phrase for a reason - we are not robots.

Mistakes and owning up to gaps in knowledge should be encouraged - they allow growth and are the sign of a healthy human atmosphere.

Your body is starting to show the signs

Chronic mental stress also leads to a breakdown in physical health. It can be a long time before you connect the dots between the niggling signs of nervous system dysregulation and the stress that was causing it.

Minuscule, yet cumulative changes like blood flow being diverted away from major organs because your body is in that 'fight or flight' mode, certainly doesn't help your body to function optimally.

Will the Problem Disappear if I Ignore it?

A chronically high workload, and an impossible-to-complete list of administrative tasks, result in a huge cognitive overload.

The individual components may not be unbearable, but when added up over time, these become unrelenting and unsustainable patterns.

The ability to function outside of work with the brain power you need for decisions (what to cook for dinner, should I buy a house?) is diminished when there's no fuel left in the tank. On top of that, what about having the energy for enough patience and affection for your family at the end of each day?

Dealing with a toxic workplace

The wave of 'quiet quitting may be a sign that all is not well within the culture of many organisations. From a top-down perspective, directors and managers should pay serious attention to nurturing healthy company culture.

From an individual perspective, it's essential to build consciousness of this large slice of your life. Being aware of how work affects you, and taking steps to protect your mental and physical health are not a luxury, they need to be a right and priority.

Taking care of yourself if you need extra support through difficult work situations is an important part of your career - and your career's longevity.

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1 Comment

maya luna
maya luna
Oct 07, 2023

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