Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness Column

How to recognize a toxic workplace and what to do about it: Jennifer Moss

Happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss looks at the definition of a toxic workplace and offers advice about what people can do if they feel like they're in one.

Office gossip, bullying and not feeling like you're being heard all impact well-being

If your workplace is rampant with conversations going on that are persistently negative or gossipy in nature, it can lead us to become untrusting, writes happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss. (Diego Cervo / Shutterstock)

Many of us know what it feels like to be stressed at work.

But when a workplace is toxic, it's a different feeling. It can feel like work is in a constant state of conflict, where no one is getting along, and people are actively trying to ruin your day. 

It's called a toxic workplace environment and it can be extremely harmful to mental health. 

Research shows that a toxic workplace environment — which shows up from harassment, bullying, exclusion and other factors — is detrimental to well-being. And yet, most people don't know how to recognize when they are in the middle of it. 

Defining a toxic workplace environment

A "toxic workplace" is a term used to describe a place of work, usually an office environment, that is marked by significant personal conflicts between those who work there.

Researchers at Lund University in Sweden found that over the past 20 years, toxic work environments have contributed to increased depression, substance abuse and other significant health issues.

Some specific signs that you may be in a toxic workplace include: 

  • Speaking up and not being heard. If you feel like you're sharing input and no one really cares or wants to action it, you may feel like there is no point and can become disengaged.
  • Gossip and rumours. If your workplace is rampant with conversations going on that are persistently negative or gossipy in nature, it can lead us to become untrusting. You may wonder if your words will be twisted, or if your personal life will be shared with others. This makes us shut down and feel unsafe. It can make it extremely challenging to share discussions around mental health and mental illness. 
  • Bullying. We often think of bullying as overt verbal or physical abuse, but it can also take covert forms such as nonverbal or psychological abuse which is just as dangerous. 
  • Favouritism. Where it feels like rules only apply to some and not all employees.
  • Narcissistic leadership. Leaders that are only self-interested, lack empathy, lack self-awareness — they are nearly impossible to work with.
  • Overwork. Having unsustainable workloads that are so overwhelming that they give you no room for a personal life and other interests.

Employees who really hate their jobs will actively try to convince you that you hate yours, too. Some of the ways we can identify a toxic worker are: 

  • They're not typically loyal to the company or their co-workers.
  • Don't follow basic ethical or professional conduct standards.
  • Toxic workers define relationships with co-workers by favour or if they help them in advance.
A woman holds a pen and slouches over a planner in a meeting while looking bored.
A toxic workplace environment can include harassment, bullying, exclusion and other factors and it's detrimental to well-being, Moss writes. (Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Strategies that help

The "Great Resignation" is happening right now because, after going through what we all went through in the pandemic, we have different expectations of our work and lives.

We can't continue to stay in environments that are dangerous to our mental health. We have already taken on too much emotionally these last 20 months. 

If we don't see quitting as an option, here are some ways we can try to deal with an unhealthy workplace: 

Focus more on collaborating versus commiserating. We all need safe places to vent some of our frustration from time to time, but if you're always complaining, or bringing your negative stress to work, it may be making the problem worse.

Instead, try talking about lighter topics for a while and see how that changes your dynamic with coworkers. If people know you're not going to commiserate they'll go elsewhere, or even better, stop as well.  

Increase your mindfulness. If we can take a subconscious breath between our irrational brain and our executive functioning part of the brain, then we can moderate conflict better. That means when someone is coming to us angry and irrational, we don't have to meet them where they're at. Instead, we can take down the heat and be more effective communicators. 

Dealing with a micromanager. Micromanagers can be incredibly toxic, so if you're dealing with one, here are some suggestions for trying to make it more tolerable:

  • Try to anticipate your manager's needs. The more you learn about their expectations, the more you can proactively address issues. 
  • Communicate clearly and keep them overly informed. This means providing regular updates before your boss asks for them. Maybe it's even as simple as a brief email that shows status on projects or giving them more visibility into your work. 
  • Stay aligned. Know what your boss expects by asking what are their standards and preferences and if they are reasonable, then try to match them. 

Additional resources

However, if the toxicity is overwhelming, it may be necessary to access outside help. Look for mental health supports found through your employee assistance program (EAP) or even via local resources.

If you can afford it, private therapy or teletherapy is a good option. Company health insurance often subsidizes a portion, so check that out first. 

At the same time, you may also need to consider leaving the job or, if the toxicity is siloed in one department, move out of that department. 

Work is an important part of our lives that, when it's enjoyable and inspiring and healthy, it can be a contributor to our happiness.

It's OK for there to be acute situations where work is more stressful than normal, but work should never make us sick. No job is ever worth more than our life.


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.