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Toxic Work Environments and How to Cope

May 21, 2018

Have you seen the movie “Horrible Bosses”?  The movie is a comedy on this side of raunchy but a hilarious depiction of, you guessed it, horrible bosses!  The three bosses depicted in the movie each portray an aspect of an employee’s worst nightmare work environment:  sexual harassment, narcissism, and incompetence.Although the movie is a spoof of toxic work environments to the extreme, most people can probably relate to some aspect of the antagonists.  Dreadful workplace atmospheres aren’t just created by our superiors – a workplace we would rather not be a part of can also be created by having co-workers of a certain demeanor.

What makes the work environment a toxic one?

A toxic work environment can be described as one that has significant workplace drama and discord – does this sound familiar?The following workplace characteristics have also been cited as signs of being in a toxic workspace:

  • A demanding job combined with low control over decision making
  • Much effort with little recognition (in the form of monetary compensation, benefits or simple verbal recognition)
  • Lack of support from not only managers but also colleagues
  • Feelings of job insecurity
  • Workplace bullying

The first four of these characteristics are pretty self-explanatory.  Let’s take a closer look at workplace bullying, which happens more often than you might think.  In one article, it is estimated that 49% of adult Americans have been bullied or witnessed it.

What kind of behaviors are included in the realm of workplace bullying?

Some examples of bullying behaviors include:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Threatening Behaviors
  •  Intimidating or humiliating behaviors (including nonverbal)
  • Work interference that prevents the completion of tasks
  • Any combination of these actions

Then there is just plain ‘ole negativity. Have you ever been stuck working alongside a co-worker who is simply unhappy with everything – both work and personal related?

Someone who never has anything positive to say about a singular thing all day long?

It’s enough to suck your soul out each time you walk through the door to work.

Even office gossip can contribute to a negative work environment.  Gossip serves no purpose except to spread rumors which could likely cause hard feelings among co-workers.

Now that we’ve defined what constitutes a toxic work environment, let’s examine what health risks are associated with working in such situations, particularly the effect on our mental well-being.

How does working in a toxic workplace affect your health?

There have been numerous health risks associated with working in a stressful environment.

These include, but are not limited to the following:

Of course, it is important to be concerned with minimizing the physiologic effects.   Frequently, when we are in a stressful situation, such as a toxic work environment, the effect that stress has on our bodies can play a role in causing physical symptoms.

It is equally important to address anxiety and depression as significant health issues.  Too often when we are in a situation that involves a harmful effect on our mental health, we minimize it.  We tell ourselves to have thicker skin, that we’re being too sensitive, or to just suck it up.  However, it is important that we acknowledge how these situations make us feel so that we can overcome them.

How should you deal with a toxic work environment?

Of course, the best solution would likely be to remove yourself from the negativity – in other words, leave the job.  But this is not a realistic option for everyone.  So what can be done to cope with a situation such as this?

There are several actions you can take to protect yourself from further harm to your well-being.

If you can’t leave a bad situation right now, make plans for your escape.  Start a savings fund to have a safety net should you leave this workplace before finding another job.  Or start looking for another job.  In your search for a new, happier work environment, however, be sure you are not trading one bad work culture for another.  Research companies that you are considering working for – what is their turnover rate?  What types of wellness programs does the company support (if any)?  Talk to others about the culture in that workspace – do the employees seem satisfied?

If you are the victim of bullying or outright harassment, be sure you document it – all of it.  Keeping a log of what has happened, with the date, makes your claims more valid if you ever need to defend yourself to your manager or to your human resources department.  This can be a tedious process – but necessary to make your side of the story well-founded.

Avoid office gossip.  This should be a no-brainer.  If the office drama is the source of your stress, anxiety, and depression, don’t participate in it.  As stated earlier, it serves no purpose but to cause hard feelings among co-workers.

Stand up for yourself and be assertive when necessary, but do so without being aggressive.  It can be a challenge to do this successfully, and it takes practice. Don’t go looking for trouble or confrontation.  However, if someone hassles you, don’t be afraid to stand up to them (without using expletives or catty comments).  When a co-worker (or even your manager) realizes they can’t take advantage of you, they will be more likely to leave you alone.

Continue to do your job until you can leave.  This means you should continue to be engaged at work and be productive.  You are, after all, being paid to perform a task to the best of your ability. Spending time on your phone or work computer, looking for other jobs while on the clock, is not acceptable.

Don’t burn your bridges.  You never know when you might need a reference from an employer or even return to a company in the future.

Learn from the micromanaging bosses, difficult co-workers, and negative Nelly’s.  Take your experiences from working with these hard to deal with people and use them as an example of how not to be.  One of my favorite quotes is from author Chuck Swindoll who said: “life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”.  Life will present us with difficult situations – the best thing we can do for ourselves is to turn them into learning experiences and use them to make us a better person.

Lastly, be sure to seek help from a healthcare professional if you feel overwhelmed with stress, anxiety or depression.  Your biggest asset is your health – both physical and mental.  Too often we minimize the importance of our mental health.  Recognition of a problem is the first step.  Don’t hesitate to get the help you need – you are worth it!

By: Christine Wheary

Chris is a health and wellness freelance writer for hire.  She has almost 30 years experience in healthcare.  You can view more of Chris’s blog posts and contact her via her website at  https://cmwheary.com/.

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