How to Handle a Toxic Work Environment

You’re out for a happy hour drink with friends when one of them groans that they “hate” their job. A comical office anecdote ensues, but while everyone else is laughing, your chest starts to tighten. In your heart, you know you can’t laugh your job struggles off as a bad Monday, tough week, or single tiresome coworker. You’re in a toxic work environment.

Many people feel slightly stressed out (or even occasionally, very stressed out) from their job. It’s more or less normal. However, when a narcissistic boss or office cliques cause you to feel continually uninspired and sad about your current situation, you must find a way to handle your toxic work environment.

If left unmanaged, a toxic work environment can impact your personal life, mental health, and finances. It could even derail your career path entirely. Instead of letting a toxic work environment run your life, you can adopt strategies that will make it manageable. Equally important is learning how to recognize when it’s time to cut ties and leave your toxic work environment behind.

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment & How It Impacts You

From a lack of communication and unmotivated coworkers to rapid employee turnover and an unstable work-life balance, a toxic work environment can take on many forms. Other signs of a toxic work environment include gossipy behavior, exclusion among colleagues, poor leadership, and insufficient opportunities for growth. It’s no surprise that toxic work environments fail to keep employees engaged and happy

Often, the easiest way to identify a toxic work environment is how it makes you feel. Experiencing burnout is common. A toxic work environment can also cause anxiety which frequently manifests as sleepless nights, feeling constantly on edge, sweaty palms, and a racing heartbeat. Given its power to precipitate a physical reaction, it’s no wonder that a toxic work environment can cause serious disruptions to your everyday life.

Working in a negative environment can damage your self-esteem and overall health. If left unmanaged, it could even make you depressed. With so much at stake, it’s paramount that you read the signs and listen to your gut when it’s telling you that you’re in a toxic work environment. Regardless of how impressive you think a company or job title will look on your resume, don’t ignore your instinct and, instead, make a plan for how to handle your situation.

Tips to Manage a Toxic Work Environment

Fortunately, there are a variety of strategies to help you handle a toxic work environment. If devising and implementing a plan of action seems like just another task to add to your seemingly never-ending to-do list, remember that the ability to manage a toxic work environment is one of the most valuable career skills you can have and, in the long run, it will make all the difference. Your career trajectory and mental health hang in the balance.

Before you do anything else, locate the closest mirror, stand squarely in front of it, and remind your reflection (aka you) that your job doesn’t define you as a person. The longer you are in a toxic work environment the easier it is to lose your identity. Put effort into your life outside of work by spending time with friends who aren’t colleagues and participating in hobbies that bring you joy.

When you’re at work, make a point of staying positive. You don’t need to CC the whole office, but let it calmly be known that you want to avoid negativity and perform your job in peace. Do your best to avoid gossip and associate with positive coworkers. This is especially important in demanding industries such as field service. To maintain a positive outlook, it’s essential that you seek out community and/or mentorship to help you cope with a toxic work environment.

Despite the power of mindset, good thoughts alone won’t protect you in a toxic work environment. It’s important to document the toxicity in case the situation progresses to a point where you need to file a complaint. Keep your own record of meetings, phone calls, emails, and office interactions so you can have them as evidence to support your claim if necessary.

As part of building a life outside of work, make a date to grab coffee with a friend from outside the office as a chance to swap stories. Learn to laugh about certain situations and take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. But, be careful to not let these coffee chats turn into all-out venting sessions about your negative emotions. Research shows that constantly talking about a toxic work environment can exacerbate the issues

Lastly, just like your job doesn’t define you as a person, keep in mind that your work environment doesn’t define you as a worker. Fight the temptation to shut down and lose motivation to be a good employee. Focus your energy on doing good work and improving yourself for your possible new future job.

When to Leave a Toxic Work Environment

Hopefully, you can find a way to handle your toxic work environment so it doesn’t reach this point, but if your current position gets to be too much for you to manage, you’ll have to muster the courage to walk away. It’s time to cut ties and leave a toxic work environment when the impact on your personal life becomes too much to manage. If, after bringing your concerns to your boss or human resources manager, there’s little or no improvement, then you need to pull the plug on your current situation.

Before you leave your current position, devise an exit strategy. If you need to leave your toxic work environment immediately, consider a bridge job that will hold you over until you’re able to find something in line with your career. 

When you’re looking for a new job, search for work that will inspire you and make you into a better person. Furthermore, do your homework and research the office culture of your new company. You don’t want to trade one toxic work environment for another.

From negatively impacting your mental health to potentially derailing your career, working in a toxic environment can have serious consequences for both your personal and professional life. If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, it’s critical that you implement strategies to handle the situation. Often, there are opportunities to detoxify a work environment, but if your best efforts come up short, you must do what’s best for you and walk away.