How to identify a toxic work environment

If you’ve just survived your first week back at work but have a nagging feeling of emptiness, the time has come to examine why. Sure, returning to work mode after your vacation may be a bit of a physical and mental adjustment, but you shouldn’t feel nauseated at the mere thought of entering the building.

Unfortunately, some places of work are toxic environments and there is not much you as an individual can do to sustain lasting and meaningful change, particularly if you are constantly reminded that you are just a cog in the machine.  Sometimes our loved ones may not fully understand how we feel or may even think that we are overreacting. If you’ve heard everything from “It can’t possibly be that bad, maybe you have a bad attitude” to “Be grateful you have a job, there are so many people out there who are unemployed,” this post is for you.

Workplace toxicity is real (see Toxicity exists in small companies too… Here’s how to recognise it and Your time is precious – here’s how to use it wisely), and it is something we should all be striving to change. But how can you tell if your work environment is actually damaging, or whether you simply need a change of pace and / or career?

Before looking outward let’s take a look at our own thought processes and internal dialogue. Ask yourself the following questions and record your answers (your journal will come in handy here):


  • Why am I unhappy with what I do?
  • Is my sense of self-worth bound to what I do?
  • Do I feel like what I do brings meaning to my life, and to the lives of others?
  • What can I do on a practical level to change how I feel?


Whatever your answers, I’m in no way negating how you feel: I am, however, asking you to examine the causes of your unhappiness. If external forces beyond your control are making you miserable or anxious, and if most of them emanate from your work or working conditions, it’s time to check toxicity levels.

See if you can identify with any of these scenarios:


  • Scenario A: You have pitched a new idea to a client and it has gone badly. Your boss or manger calls you into their office and proceeds with blame and shame tactics – blatantly pointing the finger at you for this failure.
  • Scenario B: Your coworkers are generally quite glum, seem despondent and unenthusiastic, and are constantly complaining. The atmosphere is charged with tension, stress, and a generalised sense of anxious dread. Working there makes you physically tense and  uneasy.
  • Scenario C: Gossip – innocent or malicious – is a standard feature of your workplace. Sometimes people are at each other’s throats and / or partake in very public arguments and disagreements. There is a pervasive undercurrent of stress and nervousness, as well as the feeling that you have to watch your back.
  • Scenario D: The atmosphere is charged most (or all) of the time. Whether there is heated conflict, a culture of blame and seeing failure as failure, or just a general moroseness – no one is left unaffected.
  • Scenario E: You’ve plucked up the courage to confront your boss or manager about the workplace culture, people’s general unhappiness, and / or the emotionally charged atmosphere but they just don’t seem to get what you’re saying. Or they outright deny that what you are experiencing is a real concern. If you feel like they’re gaslighting you, they may well be.


If you can relate to one or more of these scenarios, your organisation is almost certainly a toxic workplace. Whether you have been there a month or a couple of years, no one should work under these type of conditions. If you are planning to leave soon you will have some big decisions ahead of you – so make sure you read the next post.

In the meanwhile, scroll through this slideshow which provides useful visual references you may immediately relate to!

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