You spend the majority of your waking hours at the office. Your co-workers may eve be the people you interact with most in your life, after family or a spouse.
But if you’re not happy with your work environment, that dissatisfaction can carry over into your personal life, damaging everything from your self-esteem to your friendships. Toxic workplaces also can have an impact on your health: the increased stress of working in a dysfunctional office can lead to job burnout, fatigue, listlessness, and depression.
If any of the above symptoms ring a bell with you, it’s time to take stock of the dysfunction in your workplace in order to evaluate if the situation is fixable — or decide if it’s time to move on with your career.
If you walk into work and everyone around you is miserable, a la “Office Space,” then you may be trapped in a hostile environment. In this type of office, there is no enthusiasm; no one coming in with smiles on their faces and no one ever says “I love working here.” A high turnover rate among employees is a good sign that people are fleeing very quickly, most likely because of their unhappiness and poor morale at the office.
Do meetings feel like a waste of time, inevitably blowing up into disorganized chaos where nothing is accomplished? Are the company’s operations disjointed and failing? Toxic workplaces are full of confusion, arbitrary deadlines, lack of focus, and a general malaise that “this is the way it’s always been done.” If new policies or regulations are constantly getting added, or if management is never around to help solve problems, these are symptoms of a larger problem stemming from poor leadership and low morale.
If you’ve ever heard this statement from your boss or HR, it’s a major red flag. This scare tactic is a means of threatening you into staying in a marginalized position, and is symptomatic of an organization that thrives on bullying behavior and control.
If cliques dominate your office, it can feel as if you’re back in high school all over again. You may be anxious and paranoid that your colleagues are talking about you. Toxic, cliquey co-workers are most likely to be found hovering around the water cooler whispering in each other’s ears. They make what should be friendly workplace competition seem hostile and dog-eat-dog. There’s always rumors or gossip floating around the office; misunderstanding, favoritism, and infighting are the norm.
When it comes to your instincts in this situation, trust them. If you feel like something is fishy at work, chances are you might be right. Does your boss seem a little shady? Are you asked to hide information from clients and customers? These are signs that something probably is not exactly what it seems. Pay attention to any physical symptoms you experience such as sleepless nights, feeling constantly vigilant, sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat — your body could be signaling a red flag of danger.
Do you feel like you’re left out of the loop regarding important information? A pervasive lack of communication characterizes most toxic workplaces. You may get little to no feedback about your performance, and when you do, it’s negative and harsh — not the constructive type.
You may be doing the work of two, three, or four people, yet it’s not unusual for your boss or colleagues to take credit for your accomplishments. If you’ve had a discussion with management or HR several times regarding a lack of recognition and a dearth of growth opportunities (such as promotions, raises, and challenging assignments), yet have seen no changes, it may be time to leave.
This type of boss is always trying to control your every move and you feel as if he or she is just waiting to pounce on you for messing up. Toxic bosses usually seem unwilling to listen to others and feel as if their way is always the right way. Your boss loves wielding his or her power and showing others that they’re in charge. He or she probably isn’t willing to lend a hand to help in tasks or give you credit for a job well done. If you feel as if your boss would expect you to come to work even if you were on your deathbed, you might be experiencing a tyrannical and toxic boss.
While none of these problems are acceptable, rest assured it’s possible to find healthy ways to manage difficulties with your boss and colleagues in order to overcome the stress and overwhelm working in a toxic environment brings. The first step to detoxifying is recognizing and becoming more aware of the dysfunctional patterns surrounding you. Remember, while you may not have control of the people and situations around you, you always have a choice about how you respond.
Melody Wilding helps ambitious women and female entrepreneurs master their inner psychology for success and happiness. She teaches human behavior at The City University of New York and is a nationally recognized Master Coach who distills psychological insights into actionable career advice. Learn more at melodywilding.com.
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