Many of us have been there, at one point or another. There was that terrible summer job that left you too exhausted to do anything for yourself during your down time. Or that part-time position you took as a cashier during your post-secondary years, which earned you just enough not to get evicted from your apartment or dorm, and sometimes even afforded you food. And then, there are those kinks in the chain that always pop up along the way after the fact, navigating the unwritten rules of adult employment, and finding out what works and what doesn’t the hard way. The circumstances might be different, but what all of these examples have in common: making you miserable.
I’ve been there, more than once, with some situations being worse than others. Despite what we like to believe, they are more common than you think, and often all it takes is one bad apple to disrupt what might otherwise be a very content environment. But if anything positive comes of these experiences, it is all the learning that accompanies it. Much like realizing when a relationship is unhealthy, when you move on with everything in mind that made it unhealthy, you are not only less likely to make the same mistakes again, but are better prepared to deal with these issues when they do pop up. Someone once told me, “Whatever is not a blessing, is a lesson.” For the sake of optimism, I’m choosing to make the best of my own bad experiences, and impart what I’ve discovered which others might also find helpful.
7 Signs your Work Environment might be Toxic
1. You never know what to expect when you walk into work. Everyone has their bad days; it’s happens, and we’re only human. Sometimes, your boss or a colleague just happens to be in a bad mood, and there isn’t much that you can do about that beyond riding the wave and waiting for it to pass. But if you are never sure of what sort of moods and attitudes you’ll be encountering every day you set foot in work, and if you find yourself constantly preparing your mental state for the very worst, then it is highly likely that something unhealthy is at play. No one should be wondering, “What now? What next?” whenever they start a new day, afraid of being blindsided by someone’s foul mood, or something that occurred, some catalyst that incited a shit show, to which you are not privy. Every given day is not without uncertainty to some extent; life happens, shit happens, and you can’t predict everything. Except when there’s a pattern, or things just seem to ‘go wrong’ often enough that it can’t be chalked up to bad luck.
2. Nothing you do is ever deemed good enough. I’m not merely referring to the fact that all of your hard work goes unrecognized, but that you always seem to be at fault for something, whether or not it is within your control. Self-improvement is important, and whatever your occupation, you should strive to exhibit the best performance possible. But… how is that at all possible, when your performance is constantly being put down in one way or another? I once had a professor in university that declared, on the very first day of their class, that they “Absolutely never gave out A+s”. The result? People were hesitant to give their best efforts because they didn’t think that it mattered. The same goes for your work environment, because if what you’re doing right is seldom acknowledged, while even the smallest mistakes are amplified, you’re going to wonder if giving it your best is worth the time and energy.
3. There is a huge discrepancy in the way different people are treated. This is a huge red flag, one that might even impede your confidence in taking risks, despite that those risks might be to the benefit of your job. If you feel that some of the ‘rules’ are applying to you and only you, while others can get away with murder, and find yourself wondering why someone is being praised for something for which you were reprimanded, then it’s very clear you are not in the in crowd. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in the work place, but it can lead to some employees feeling grossly undervalued, or even targeted as a scapegoat for when something goes wrong. This factor also ties in rather intimately with numbers 1 and 2 of this list of factors.
4. Gossip. Again, this is difficult to avoid. I doubt that there is a single workplace in the world is completely void of gossip, but you can bet that if someone is gossiping about one person, chances are they also have a few things to say about you. This can make it difficult to decide who you can trust, as well as paranoid, when you wonder at the rumours that might be circulating. The biggest red flag is perhaps when you find your boss participating (or worse, instigating) the gossip, as it speaks volumes to their trustworthiness, and their ability as a leader. I once walked into the office at a previous job, to find my boss and some of my colleagues looking up the Facebook profiles of some clients, and passing some snide judgments that led to laughing at the expense of someone else. Not only is it distinctly unprofessional, but it creates an uneasy, sickening atmosphere for those who choose to stay out of that verbal means of poison. Take heed, that if you ever experience this, get out while you can.
5. You’re experiencing gaslighting. Gaslighting occurs when someone either denies something happened, or suggests something occurred when it did not, leading the recipient to question their own sanity and memory. Are you all too familiar with hearing the phrases, “I told you to do X. Why didn’t you do it?” or “I never said anything of the sort.”? Chances are, if you find the desperate need to write down everything that is said to you, verbatim, you’re likely a victim of this mental manipulation. In light with number 3 of this list, this will sometimes occur in order for someone to cover up their own mistake in an attempt to save face, pegging you as a scapegoat by either denying that they had or had not provided certain instructions. If it is a colleague engaging in this tactic, then all you can do is keep your distance from them, and ascertain that interactions, when required, are short and to the point. However, if it is your boss, then unless there is someone higher on the foodchain than they are, there is little you can do. Take this as a sign that you need to leave this work situation (I know, easier said than done) before it takes its toll on you, because it is highly unlikely that things will change.
6. You don’t feel as though your voice is heard. If you find that you are trivialized every time you try to bring up a concern, while others are taken more seriously (again, in line with number 3), then that is a sign that your employer has little (if any) respect for you. If time and again you attempt to address an issue, but that issue is only resolved as soon as someone else brings it up as a concern, or if your suggestion is ignored, only to be acknowledged and praised when someone else suggests the same, this is a not-so-subtle passive-aggressive hint that your thoughts mean little to your employer. This is dangerous, for if you know you won’t be taken seriously, then it might discourage you from speaking up at all (which might also be a factor that plays against you, in the long run). Don’t let yourself diminish because your workplace won’t give your voice the time of day; be assertive. But if your attempts at assertiveness do not yield positive change, then you can be sure things aren’t likely to change at all.
7. You’re constantly exhausted. All work can be tiring. Few people look forward to getting up before sunrise, and working until sunset. But what I’m referring to goes beyond the typical grogginess that you endure from putting in an early morning. When the work day comes to an end, if you catch yourself looking forward to just lying down, debating whether or not it’s worth it to expend the energy on showering or cooking supper, then your job has depleted your energy to an unhealthy extent. Not all exhausting jobs are toxic; some, such as that of a paramedic, involve such crucial, stressful situations that demand making life or death decisions under great pressure, there’s little wonder it yields such burn-out. But unless your field of work involves such mentally and emotionally-draining work, it is not normal come home, feeling depleted and defeated. If the gossip, the gaslighting, the inconsistency in rules and never quite knowing what you will be walking into have sapped your energy to the point where self-care is neglected, it is a sure sign to get out, before you lose a sense of yourself completely.
Leaving a toxic job can be as difficult as leaving an abusive partner, particularly if you are fairly new to your field or the workforce. This is, in part, because you might not have any experiences to which to compare it, and therefore your sense of a healthy work environment is not quite in tact, leading you to believe that what you are experiencing is normal. But, that aside, in this day and age where jobs are growing sparse and debt is increasing, it can be difficult to give up the financial security, even if your job is making you miserable. If you’re a millennial like I am, then you’ve likely been told at some point in your life that ‘any job is a good job’, or to ‘be happy with what you have, at least you’re not homeless’. The idea that being employed at a job exhibiting toxic factors is better than not being employed makes about as much sense as stating that being in an abusive relationship is better than being single. It isn’t easy, and sometimes it means taking a huge pay cut, if you move from a position where you were making a decent salary to some entry level job, just to escape a toxic workplace. And in a world where the price of life is continually increasing, financial concerns are certainly legitimate. Ultimately, it comes down to finding a balance without settling for less than what will afford you a life worth living. It takes time, it takes strength, and it takes a hell of a lot of courage. And for anyone who feels ‘stuck’ in a work environment that’s slowly siphoning their livelihood, who have not yet found a way out, my advice is just to keep trying. It isn’t permanent, and it isn’t forever.
And, you are certainly not alone.