A Toxic Workplace Can Kill You (Really)

There’s a difference between a bad job and one that is truly toxic. A toxic workplace can seriously affect your physical and mental health, even to the point of shortening your life.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, recently linked workplace stress to 120,000 deaths a year in the United States.  You don’t have to work with heavy machinery, volatile chemicals, or in extreme weather conditions for your job to be dangerous to your health. Bad workplaces lead to bad health – and even death.

When you work in a toxic environment, you face a slew of discouraging and challenging situations on a daily — or even hourly — basis. If you only had to deal with one inappropriate coworker or a bad boss, your days might be easier to manage. But when you’re facing a soul-sucking, constantly stressful and degrading situation at work, it’s time to take action.

Is your workplace just bad, or is it potentially toxic?

From the research we’ve conducted, several core factors emerged that contribute to making a workplace not just bad, but “toxic” — a work environment that is poisonous, damaging, and even potentially dangerous to the mental and emotional health of those who work there.

1. Major problems in communication

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 departments, across departments, with suppliers, and even with customers.

Problems can be demonstrated by a lack of communication (often described as “no communication at all!”) where employees find out about decisions after they have been implemented. Indirect communication (sending messages through others), withholding information, and giving misleading information are other variations of dysfunctional communication patterns.

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.

2. Inconsistency in following policies & procedures

Have you ever been a customer in a business where 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 experience a company which 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 (often in smaller businesses). In other situations, they have a “policy manual” but employees ignore what is written because there is no monitoring or accountability. And in family-owned businesses, family members often go around the policies that “are for everyone else”.

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.

3. One or more toxic leaders in the system

It is not clear whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or toxic workplaces are a magnet for toxic leaders — in either case, the two go together. The hallmark characteristic (that becomes evident eventually) is their narcissism. They are “all about” themselves. They view themselves as being brighter and more talented than anyone else around. And, as a result, they deserve special treatment — they believe the rules for everyone else don’t apply to them.

Toxic leaders relate to others in a condescending manner, they take credit for others’ successes, and they manipulate others (and information) 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 area of influence, they have a high turnover rate in their department, and they will eventually destroy the health of the organization.

It is important to note 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.

4. Negative communication is the norm (and in many different ways)

“How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.” Just like rusty holes in the side of an old car that was driven where the streets are salted in the winter, a toxic work environment exudes negative communication across the organization and in multiple forms.

Grumbling and complaining by employees is common — they can find something to complain about almost anytime. Then sarcasm and cynicism show up, which demonstrates a growing lack of trust of management and turns into a low-level seething disgruntlement. Making excuses and blaming others is widespread (and often reflects the lack of accountability in place).

Eventually, team members either start to withdraw, not interact with others (except in a very defensive manner) or leave the organization.

5. Your work is affecting your health negatively— physically, emotionally, and relationally

When a workplace is toxic it is, by definition — unhealthy and damaging to those who work there. Individuals who work in toxic work environments (especially over a long period of time) 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, we become more discouraged which 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. These symptoms then can lead to increased use of alcohol, prescription drugs, and illegal substances.

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 our personal relationships are impacted, it is time to take a serious look at what is going on.

Sometimes it is hard to know how bad your workplace really is – is it normally stressful? Really bad? Toxic and dangerous? We’ve developed an assessment tool (The Ratings of Toxic Symptoms scale) to help you figure this out and refer you to helpful resources.

Regardless of how bad your workplace culture is, there are things that you can do to protect yourself and to not become a helpless victim. But first, you need to assess the situation and your workplace’s impact on your well-being. You don’t want to shorten your life-span – life is short enough as it is!

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Catherine Andrews

Wow, this is horrifying. We need to be taking much more action on creating workplaces that are healthy, both physically and mentally.