5 Signs That Your Workplace May Be Toxic

From negative communication patterns to low morale, five indicators that your workplace is sapping your energy and mental health.

5 Signs That Your Workplace May Be Toxic
[Photo: Flickr user Martin Howard]

All workplaces have some challenges and negative characteristics, so it can be difficult to determine if your workplace has a normal amount of challenges, is seriously dysfunctional, or possibly really toxic. Here are five signs that will help you determine the degree to which your work environment may be dangerous to your mental health.


1. Unhealthy Communication Patterns

An initial sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is that there are significant problems in communication, and often across multiple areas–between employees and their supervisors, from management to supervisors, across departments, with suppliers, and even with customers.

Problems can be demonstrated by a:

  • Lack of communication: where employees actually find out about decisions made after they have been implemented.
  • Indirect communication: sending messages through others.
  • Withholding information
  • Giving misleading information

Why is communication so key to a healthy organization? Because without effective communication, working together to accomplish the tasks of the organization is virtually impossible, and without getting accurate feedback from the marketplace, leaders don’t know how their products and services are being received.

2. Policies And Procedures Are Non-Existent Or Poorly Implemented

Have you ever been a customer in a business where no one really seems to know what they are doing, or you get different answers to questions depending on who you ask, and eventually the employee just seems to say “whatever” and does what they want? Then you’ve experienced a company that has major problems with their policies and procedures being implemented.

In some companies, this is due to the fact that the policies are not written down and exist primarily in the memories of employees. In other situations, the company has a policy manual but employees ignore what is written because there is no monitoring or accountability.


When a company’s policies and procedures are not followed, chaos, inconsistency, and poor quality follow. Customers, vendors, and employees wind up hating having to deal with the company and its staff because of the frustration experienced.

3. The Organization Is Led By One (Or More) Toxic Leaders

Whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or toxic workplaces are a magnet for toxic leaders is not completely clear–in either case, the two usually go together. The hallmark characteristic of a toxic leader is their narcissism. They are “all about” themselves. They view themselves as categorically brighter and more talented than anyone else around. As a result, they believe they are deserving of special treatment–the rules that apply to everyone else really are beneath them.

Toxic leaders consistently relate to others in a condescending manner, they take credit for others’ successes, and they manipulate others to ensure that they look good.

While they may appear successful for a while, over the long term, their attitudes and actions catch up with them. Trust and teamwork deteriorate in their areas; they have a high turnover rate in their department, and they will eventually destroy the health of the organization.

An important pattern to note is that toxic leaders do not have to be at the top of the organization; they often occur in mid-level management and even in front-line supervisory roles, creating pain for those who report to them.


4. Negative Communication Patterns

A toxic work environment exudes negative communication across the organization and in multiple forms; in fact, negativity becomes a defining characteristic of the organization.

Grumbling and complaining by employees are ubiquitous–staff can find something to complain about almost anytime. Next, sarcasm and cynicism show up, demonstrating an increasing lack of trust of the management and leadership, and turns into a low-level seething disgruntlement. Finally, making excuses and blaming others becomes widespread and commonplace; no one seems to be willing to accept responsibility for their decisions or actions.

Eventually, team members either start to withdraw, stop interacting with others, or leave the organization.

5. Your Personal Life Is Affected Negatively On Many Fronts

When a workplace is toxic, by definition, it is unhealthy and damaging to those who work there. Individuals who work in toxic work environments begin to see problems with their own personal health. This can include physical symptoms such as not being able to sleep, gaining weight, and having increased medical problems.

Emotionally, they become more discouraged, which eventually can lead to depression. For some, they are more irritable, “touchy”, and demonstrate problems managing their anger. Others experience anxiety and a general sense of dread when they think about work.


Finally, you know your work is affecting you negatively when your friends and family start to make comments on “how you’ve changed”, or “you seem stressed” and “maybe you need to talk to someone.” When your personal relationships are impacted, it is time to take a serious look at what is going on.

Work is demanding. But some workplaces move beyond the stress that accompanies normal jobs and workloads to being so negative, demanding, and unhealthy, employees eventually begin to ask themselves, “How much longer can I stand this?” For your own good, take a close look and answer the question.

Dr Paul White, is a psychologist, consultant and speaker who co-authored Rising Above A Toxic Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman and Harold Myra. He also has written a companion pamphlet, [i]How To Know When It Is Time To Quit Your Job and developed the Ratings Of Toxic Symptoms scale. For more information, go to[/i]