Most of us can relate to feeling unhappy at work. We’ve all had experiences with stressful workdays, demanding bosses, and unfriendly co-workers. But how do you know when your workplace crosses the line into a toxic work environment?
According to a 2017 study, 61% of surveyed Americans say work is a “significant” stressor in their lives. It’s all too easy to chock a toxic workplace up to everyday stress or a series of bad days. Perhaps no one else seems to be complaining. Maybe no one has spoken up or quit. You may think it’s all in your head, or that you are overreacting. But if you have a gut feeling that your workplace is an unhealthy environment, it’s important for you to evaluate whether your situation is impeding your career potential.
So how can you be sure your workplace is toxic? Below are a few telltale signs.
1. Lack of independence
Teachers talk about “helicopter parents,” but “helicopter bosses” are just as much of a phenomenon. Some managers believe they are ensuring high-quality work by micromanaging, but in reality, feeling like you can’t work without someone breathing down your neck is the fastest way to stunt productivity. If your boss constantly checks in, criticizes the minutia, or doesn’t listen to feedback, it can lead to missed deadlines, bad office morale, or feeling like every little mistake is your fault.
2. Unclear (or unreasonable) expectations
Do you have trouble prioritizing certain tasks over others? Are you anxious about stepping on your co-workers’ toes? Do you find yourself wondering what your job even really is? These are all symptoms of unclear expectations from your manager. An effective boss should help their employees set and achieve goals and engage in making clear and concise workplace expectations. When this does not happen, it can lead to a lot of worry about whether you’re doing the best job you can do. Moreover, it can lead to animosity between co-workers.
3. Contradictory demands
Dealing with multiple managers can be challenging. How do you know who’s actually in charge? There’s hardly anything worse for productivity than trying to juggle conflicting orders. It’s enough pressure dealing with one boss, but dealing with many can feel unbearable. If they’re not communicating, too many cooks can ruin the broth. In this case, the broth is your sanity.
4. Splintered focus
Americans are no strangers to multi-tasking. It can feel like you are obligated to multitask constantly in the modern world. But this is not always the most constructive way to work. Multi-tasking may involve doing a variety of tasks, but it doesn’t mean that those tasks are getting done well. Plus, continuously working on many small things, rather than working through periods of intense focus with intermittent breaks, means your brain — and your stress — are always on high.
5. Lack of feedback
Going into a performance evaluation when you have no idea what’s going to be said is extremely stressful. There’s nothing worse than not knowing where you stand. Workplaces that provide regular and consistent feedback, be it constructive or critical, lead to less anxiety and higher productivity. On the other hand, the fear of receiving negative feedback seemingly out of the blue can distract from your work.
6. Systemic mistreatment or an unsafe environment
Although discrimination in the workplace is technically illegal, the news is bursting with horrifying tales of institutionalized discrimination in the workplace. From the #MeToo movement to implicit bias against historically marginalized groups, systematic mistreatment at work is a huge cause for poor mental wellness. But bigotry isn’t the only problem here. If you are in constant fear of being bullied, belittled, or personally attacked by your boss or co-workers, you are unable to work or live at your full potential.
7. Lack of meaningful work
Psychological studies show that happiness involves a deeper sense of purpose rather than just pleasure. This carries over into your work life as well. While it’s impossible to feel fulfilled in every moment of your career, it’s important to feel like you’re moving toward your ultimate goal, or at least making the world a better place, with every day in the office. Healthy workplaces maintain a connection to the greater good, the bigger picture, or the impact the company has on society. An unhealthy workplace makes you feel stuck, lost, and worthless.
8. No real vacation time
The average American worker will only use half their earned vacation time, and over 60% will work on “vacation.” Breaks are imperative for any type of work, and vacations should be time to rest and recharge, allowing you to return to work with lots of energy. If you do not take frequent breaks, creativity and productivity are diminished, and you run the risk of burning out quickly.
9. Distrust of management
Managers are only human, and humans respond to stress in many ways. For some, they go into “survival mode,” at the expense of their employees. This can result in distrust of your boss, which increases anxiety and prevents creative problem-solving.
10. The path to nowhere
The term “dead-end job” speaks for itself — it’s bleak, depressing, and hopeless, and that’s exactly how it can feel to be stuck in one. It’s completely reasonable to expect a gradual climb, even if the change is relatively minute. It can range from a change in title to a raise to a seat at the table, but regardless, these steps act as a reward system for a job well done. If they don’t exist, you may wonder why you bother to do a good job in the first place.