10 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment (and What to Do)

From ineffective leadership to poor communication, these are the things you need to look out for.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Signs of a toxic work environment

According to an MIT Sloan study, toxic work environments are the number one reason for people deciding to quit their jobs. And we can’t blame them. Working in a negative or hostile environment with low trust, antagonism and constant stressors does not only impact your work performance but could also lead to some serious health issues.

So, to help you determine if you’re in a toxic work environment, we’ve compiled a list of 10 signs to look out for — and how to act.

1. People are quitting in droves

One of the most obvious signs of a toxic workplace is when a high number of employees are jumping ship. People often don’t leave organizations they’re happy with, so if employees are quitting in droves, it’s typically because something is amiss with the work environment.

However, high turnover could also be a sign that employees are being laid off or fired. So, if it’s the case that you notice high turnover, try to figure out why. Reach out to coworkers who have left in order to gain a better understanding of the situation and whether your job may be at risk.

2. There’s no work–life balance

Everyone has the right to a personal life outside of work. So, if you’re frequently having to work during non-working hours, this is a red flag. After all, leaders in healthy work cultures want their employees to rest and recharge. They don’t expect employees to be on 24/7.

So, if you’re in a working environment that requires you to frequently answer calls and emails over the weekend, then it’s a good idea to first try setting boundaries. But if those boundaries aren’t met, then you may want to dust off your résumé and find a job that respects your work–life balance.

3. Communication is strained or absent

Without effective communication, workplaces cannot function properly — which can lead to serious issues. Poor listening skills, overly bossy coworkers, unclear expectations or passive-aggressive communication styles are all signs of a workplace communication problem — and a toxic environment.

While you may not have the power to change communication at all levels of the organization, you most likely do have influence over the communication in your team and with your boss. Try letting your boss and coworkers know how you prefer to communicate. And if there are still issues after, then this could be a sign you aren’t being heard.

4. You’re afraid to speak out

One of the most concerning signs of a toxic workplace is fear of retribution for speaking out about issues. And because employees are fearful about speaking out, the problems are not acknowledged or solved.

Fear of speaking out also means that employees are discouraged from questioning the status quo or taking creative risks. So, if open communication and honesty is not encouraged at all levels of the organization, then you may need to speak to HR. And if your concerns fall on deaf ears with HR, then it’s likely that employee opinions aren’t valued.

5. Effective leadership is missing

Leadership frequently sets the behavior norms in an organization. This means that if leadership is incompetent, it can poison the entire well. Some examples of poor leadership qualities are micromanaging, a lack of transparency, unethical behavior, conflict avoidance and poor communication skills.

Bad bosses can be so destructive because they cause employees to doubt their capabilities and feel mistrusted. Since poor leadership also stems from incompetence, try talking to your boss about how you prefer to be led. If your boss is not interested in changing, then you have the choice to accept it or move on.

6. Employee morale is low

Do employees smile and seem happy to be at work? Are they polite and kind towards each other? If you answered “no” to one or both of those questions, then your organization may have an issue with low employee morale.

Considering we spend so much time at our jobs, it’s natural to want to work in an inclusive, upbeat and positive environment. So, if employees feel stressed and unhappy at work, try to figure out the reason and whether leadership is taking steps to solve the issues. If not, you may want to start looking for a more positive work environment.

7. There’s no support for employee growth

Companies with healthy cultures invest in their employees and encourage them to grow with the organization. Therefore, if you feel stagnated and that there’s no support for growth, this may be a sign of a toxic work environment.

If an organization doesn’t invest in their employees’ growth, then they likely don’t value them. So, try first talking to your boss or HR about opportunities to develop. And if they don’t seem interested in your development, then you may be better off with a company that is.

8. There’s no organization

If you feel like employees are spending more time putting out fires than doing actual work, this could be a sign of a lack of workplace organization — and a toxic workplace environment. Some indicators of a lack of organization are frequent meetings that have no agenda, inefficient processes, or poorly distributed workloads.

Workplaces that lack organization are often rife with conflict, since it leads employees to feel confused, resentful or overly stressed. If your workplace has organization issues, the first step is to bring this to the attention of leadership and suggest solutions.

9. Gossip is rampant

Although gossip is a common feature in many workplaces, this doesn’t mean that it’s always positive. In healthy workplaces, gossip involves speaking about others in a neutral or positive manner. However, in toxic work cultures, gossip is often used as a way to air out grievances that have not been addressed.

For example, if an employee is fearful of retaliation for bringing up issues with their boss, they may vent to a colleague instead. So, if you’re in a workplace where gossip is rampant, you do have the choice to not take part or encourage it.

10. Your intuition knows

Our bodies often have a way of alerting us to danger before our mind does. And if you work in a toxic culture, or you’re being outcasted, your intuition may know. So, make sure to not ignore the signs of chronic stress, and listen to your gut feeling when it comes to determining if your workplace is toxic.

Prolonged physical symptoms of stress, such as trouble sleeping, exhaustion or changes in appetite can all indicate your workplace may be harming your mental and physical health. And these are signs that shouldn’t be ignored.

Watch out for these top 5 signs of a toxic work environment:

Top signs of a toxic work environment

Key takeaways

A toxic workplace environment is not something that should be taken lightly. So, if you suspect you may be in one, it’s important to look out for the signs. Some of the most prevalent signs in toxic workplace are:

  • High turnover: This often indicates that employees are being driven away.
  • Fear of speaking out: A clear sign of dysfunction is when fear permeates your workplace.
  • Ineffective leadership: Micromanaging, conflict avoidance, and playing favorites can be signs of a toxic workplace.

If you work in a toxic work culture, it’s important to prioritize your health until you’re able to give your notice. And remember that while a toxic environment can be an incredibly stressful experience, no job is permanent and there are positive working environments out there.

Can you think of any other signs of a toxic workplace to look out for? Let us know in the comments section below.