3 Tips for Dealing with a Toxic Workplace

Dec 23, 2014 - Joe Matar
There’s a difference between a dead-end job and one that is purely toxic. A toxic work environment can seriously affect your physical and mental health, even becoming dangerous to your well-being. When you work in a toxic environment, you face a slew of discouraging and challenging situations on a daily -- or even hourly -- basis. If only you had to deal with one inappropriate coworker or a bad boss, your days might be easier to manage. But when you’re facing a soul-sucking, constantly stressful and degrading situation at work, it’s time to take action. Below are three signs of a toxic workplace and what you can do to improve your happiness and productivity to make the best of a bad situation. (Click here to tweet this list.)

1. Unclear policies and procedures

Unhealthy companies don’t prioritize policies and procedures. Either processes don’t exist, the ones that do are poorly documented or they simply aren’t followed. Does your workplace have one of the following symptoms?
  • Communication between departments is sporadic and incomplete (or non-existent)
  • You company lacks written, standardized procedures of how things are supposed to get done
  • The procedures you’re supposed to follow are so ancient, they’re no longer applicable
  • Your company has policies or procedures, but you’ve never seen anyone actually follow them
A toxic workplace with sick systems can feel like some combination of chaos, incompetence or anarchy. How anything ever gets done can seem to be a mystery. What to do: Remember that if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. The organization won’t, nor will its policies. When you work in a toxic environment, you put yourself at risk for physical problems (loss of sleep, weight gain, high blood pressure, medical problems), emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger), and relational difficulties (withdrawal, irritability, loss of friendships). So prioritize important activities that renew you such as exercise, sleep, friendships and hobbies. Take as much control of your life as you can to improve your health.

2. Dysfunctional coworkers

"Dys" means problem, and dysfunctional people have serious difficulties functioning in daily life. Dysfunctional colleagues wind up creating more work for you. They often need to be “rescued” because they didn’t get their work done, or the quality was so poor, their work had to be redone -- by you. Do you work alongside colleagues who do the following?
  • They blame others and make excuses, rarely accepting responsibility for their actions
  • They withhold or distort information and communicate indirectly through others
  • They have a sense of entitlement, believing they should receive raises and promotion in spite of their inconsistent performance
  • They’re masters of creating conflict and tension within the workplace
What to do: You can’t control who you work with, so surround yourself with supportive friends and family outside of work. They can also give you objective feedback on your work circumstances. We need others who can help us cope with the stress from work and who can honestly tell us when we need to consider looking for another job.

3. Toxic leaders

Toxic leaders have several common characteristics. Does this sound like your boss or management team?
  • While they may be totally competent (in a technical sense), their motives are impure
  • They’re totally focused on their interests and achievements and use others to get what they want
  • They manipulate others, often using shame or anger
  • They take credit for others’ work
  • They rarely, if ever, accept responsibility when something goes wrong
A toxic leader can occur at a department level or as a front-line supervisor -- not necessarily at the top tier of the organization. Regardless of their position, they make life hell for those who work for them. What to do: You can’t change who your manager is or how they manage. When you have a toxic leader, it might be time to determine how much longer you want to work in this setting and begin to explore other options. If a toxic workplace becomes too much to handle, it might be in your best interest to start looking for a new job and get out as quickly as possible. Or, this could be the perfect opportunity to switch careers or even become an entrepreneur and work for yourself. How have you coped with toxic colleagues or a toxic work environment? Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, speaker and consultant who makes work relationships work. He’s the co-author of “Rising Above a Toxic Workplace and The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.” Go to www.appreciationatwork.com for more information.