Someone Call Poison Control: The Truth About A Toxic Work Environment

career coaching company culture work life balance May 07, 2024

Ever navigated through the treacherous waters of a toxic workplace? 

You know - that gross feeling when your office vibes are more draining than energizing?

There are many ways for a workplace to suck, but I defined a toxic work environment as a workplace where negative behaviors are so ingrained in the culture that a lack of productivity, trust, and high-stress levels become the norm.

A toxic work environment makes you feel psychologically unsafe and can be a drain on both your professional effectiveness and your health.

And to top it all off, you might even feel like you'll be punished or rejected for speaking up.

No one is immune to such work environments and their toxic workplace effects. 

It's time to learn more about how toxicity can show up at work and learn what to do about it.


Recognize The Red Flags That Haunt Work Culture

The 15th century philosopher Paracelsus, who is known as the father of toxicology, is credited with a clever saying:

"The dose makes the poison."

The general idea behind this statement is that virtually anything can be a toxic or poisonous in the right amounts. 

Something like botulinum toxin, which is considered one of most toxic substances in the world, is going to be highly toxic to pretty much anyone. 

But water, which we normally think of as necessary to life rather than poisonous, can actually be poisonous or lethal to humans who drink too much of it and ruin the electrolyte imbalance in the body.

In the realm of workplace toxicity, a few things that the equivalent of botulinum toxin are:

Sexual Harassment: Perhaps the most widely acknowledged form of toxicity in the workplace, sexual harassment can create a hostile environment, undermining trust and dignity. 

Discrimination based on Race and Sexual Orientation: Systemic racism can permeate corporate cultures, resulting in biased hiring practices, unequal opportunities, and microaggressions that marginalize minority employees. Also, LGBTQ+ individuals may face discrimination, exclusion, or subtle biases that hinder their professional growth and personal well-being. 

Exploitation of Wages: Unfair compensation practices, such as wage theft or unequal pay based on gender or ethnicity, breed resentment and diminish morale. 

Bullying and Intimidation: Aggressive behaviors, whether overt or covert, create an atmosphere of fear and undermine psychological safety within teams. 

Those four things are destructive to virtually any individual that experiences them, and can bring down a whole organization if the dose is large enough. 

There are a lot of other workplace toxins that are a little less lethal but still problematic.  

Like the famed Iocane Powder in The Princess Bride, some people can develop a high tolerance to them, like The Man In Black, while others find them as lethal as Vizzini.

A few examples include:

Micromanagement: Constant surveillance and control stifle autonomy, creativity, and innovation, leading to frustration and disengagement among employees. 

Toxic Leadership: Authoritarian, selfish, or manipulative leaders can instigate a culture of fear, favoritism, and mistrust, poisoning the organizational climate. 

Workplace Politics: In a professional setting, it's downright damaging when personal relationships and familial connections take precedence over genuine skill in deciding promotions - trust is undermined, teamwork stumbles, and instead of pooling their talents to achieve common goals, individuals end up in a cutthroat race against each other.

Work-Life Imbalance: Unrealistic expectations, stay late to work long hours, and a lack of boundaries between work and personal life contribute to burnout and deteriorating mental health. 

Cult-like Culture: When workplaces encourage employees to prioritize work above all else and foster a sense of belonging akin to a family, individuals with negative family experiences may find themselves trapped in unhealthy dynamics.



Effects of Toxic Workplaces

A toxic workplace doesn't just make for unhappy employees.  It can have far-reaching effects on the company's bottom line.

Let's take a closer look at some of the ways toxic cultures can impact a business:

Impact on Mental & Overall Health

A toxic workplace is one where you feel psychologically unsafe. 

There's often a general feeling of negativity, unhealthy competition, and aggression. 

When constantly on edge, your body is in a "fight or flight." This leads to physical symptoms like digestive issues, sleepless nights, fatigue, aches, and even panic attacks.

If you stick around in a bad work environment for too long, it can start messing with your head, leading to feelings of anxiety or even depression. 

Employees might find themselves crying before work because they feel trapped. They don't want to face another day of stress and rejection, but they really need the job.

Increased workplace turnover

Almost one-third of workers are thinking of leaving their jobs due to toxic workplace cultures.

Swapping out staff like there's no tomorrow can really put a dent in a business's wallet.

Such toxicity causes employee disengagement, decreases productivity, stifles creativity and innovation, and results in high turnover, but also undermines the company's productivity and corrodes its effectiveness. 

It doesn't stop there. Businesses also experience increased recruitment and training costs, damaging a company's brand and reputation and making it harder to attract top talent. 

Reduced trust and communication effectiveness

In a toxic environment, people start to do whatever it takes to avoid being in the line of blame and to get ahead of their colleagues.

This might mean not sharing work-related information with teammates or throwing coworkers under the bus when something goes wrong. 

Communication breaks down, and trust erodes.

Interestingly, some perceive a toxic work environment differently based on personal experiences. 

For instance, the notion of a workplace "family" might evoke warmth and camaraderie for some, but for others who have endured dysfunctional family dynamics, it could trigger feelings of unease and discomfort. 

Strategies for Dealing with a Toxic Work Environment

Toxic work environments are the worst. 

They can make you dread going to work, drain your energy, and even affect your mental health. 

But you don't have to just suffer through it. 

There are things you can do to make the situation more bearable and protect yourself from the negativity.

Find a support system

One of the most important things you can do in a toxic work environment is to find people who will support you. 

This could be coworkers who are also struggling, friends outside of work, or a therapist. 

Having people to talk to who understand what you're going through can make a huge difference.

Don't try to tough it out alone. When things get tough, lean on your support system. 

They're there to lend an ear, offer advice, and remind you that you’re definitely not in this alone.

And in many cases - they can be the catalyst to getting the heck out.

Establish healthy boundaries

In a destructive workplace, it's easy for work to take over your life. 

You might feel pressure to work long hours, answer emails on weekends, or put up with mistreatment. However, drawing the line between what's okay and what isn't is crucial for keeping your peace of mind intact.

Decide what you will and won't tolerate, and communicate those boundaries clearly. 

For example, you might say no to working on weekends or refuse to engage with a coworker who is constantly negative. 

Setting boundaries can be scary, but it's necessary for your mental health. After all, it's not your boss's job to hold boundaries; it's YOURS.

Stay focused, rise above the negativity

Amidst a chaotic office vibe, remembering your big dreams and sticking to them is more important than ever. 

Even when negativity tries to cloud your path, zeroing in on your goals and cherishing the small wins every day can lead to big changes. 

It's worth acknowledging that even positivity can become toxic when it blinds us to the realities of our environment. 

Finding the sweet spot between hope and hard facts makes tackling tough challenges a whole lot smoother. 

Avoid engaging in office gossip

Gossip is a common problem in harmful workplaces. 

Jumping into the fray can be tempting, especially when you're wrestling with frustration or anger. 

But engaging in gossip will only make the situation worse.

Instead, try to rise above it. 

Don't participate in spreading rumors or talking badly about others. 

When coworkers start gossiping, express your thoughts of now wanting to engage in gossip. 

Simply saying, "I don't want to be involved in gossiping about colleagues," may be enough to make your point. 

If that doesn't work, try changing the subject or walking away. 

Refusing to engage will help by not contributing to more negativity.

Take breaks for self-care

Dealing with a toxic workplace can genuinely drain your energy. 

It's essential to take breaks and prioritize self-care to avoid burnout. 

Take your lunch break away from your desk, walk outside, or do deep breathing exercises.

Make time for activities that help you relax and recharge, like exercise, meditation, or spending time in nature. 

The better you take care of yourself, the better you'll be able to handle the stress of a poisonous workplace.

But also remember that while strategies like meditation, walking, and indulging in bubble baths offer temporary relief, sometimes the best solution is to consider moving on from your job altogether. 

Recognize your own worth and value

In a toxic work environment, it's easy to start doubting yourself and your abilities. 

But remember that the toxicity does not reflect your worth as a person or an employee.

Remind yourself of your strengths, accomplishments, and the value you bring to your job. 

Surround yourself with people who appreciate and support you. 

Recognizing your worth can help you maintain your confidence and motivation, even in difficult work situations. Remember that you always have the choice to walk away. 



Addressing Intractable Toxicity in the Workplace

As a coach who works with high-achieving professionals in tech, I have a lot of clients who ask me, "What can I do about my toxic workplace?"  It can be difficult to navigate this, but here are some things to try.

Focus on Your Sphere of Influence

It's unrealistic for individual contributors or mid-level employees to transform an entire company culture single-handedly. 

Instead, focus on the areas where you have more direct influence - your immediate team or department. 

Start shaping a friendlier, more cooperative vibe right in your circle. 

Lead by example, encourage open communication, and address any toxic behaviors you witness directly but constructively.

Raise Concerns Strategically

While you may not be able to overhaul the entire organization, you can still play an important role by bringing concerns to the attention of those in a position to enact meaningful change. 

If you really, REALLY don't want to leave your company, you can try to improve things from the inside by working with less-toxic but influential leaders in the org.

Hunt down the best paths and people who make decisions; show them what you've noticed, and share ideas for solutions in a considerate way. 

Start small, focusing on what you can control, and slowly raise the important issues. 

It's like dropping a pebble in water - small but meaningful improvements can create waves that lead to significant changes in our culture over time.

Know When to Say When

As noble as it is to try and change a toxic environment internally, sometimes it's just not doable.

Maybe the poison comes straight from the top - the C-Suite or Board of Directors. 

Maybe you're not sure how high up the food chain the problems are, but you know that the problems are so pervasive they reach every corner of the company.

Or maybe, just maybe, you're tired and not up for fighting anymore. 

Remember - if you're in a situation so toxic that it is impacting your mental and physical health, there is NOTHING wrong with saying "I'm out!" and finding another job. 




In our deep dive through murky waters, we’ve unpacked what it means to exist within—and rise above—toxic behaviors in a toxic work environment. 

This isn’t about battles won or lost but about identifying the problem environments, trying to effect change from within (if you are up for it), and ultimately, when needed, loving yourself enough to GTFO.

 If you're in the midst of a toxic environment and need help navigating it or exiting it, let's talk.  You can reach the poison control center - I mean to learn more about coaching options - by booking a free intro call right here.