The Toxic Workplace: How to Survive It

toxic workplace
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Do you work in a toxic workplace?

If you leave work feeling sick, and come in every morning feeling the same way, you probably do.

A toxic workplace has a funny way of leaving workers feeling trapped, as if it’s your fault that something went wrong, as if you are the toxic one.

Eventually, as you get closer to realizing it’s the place – not you- that’s the problem, you can begin to disentangle yourself from the poisonous roots that have wrapped themselves around your body, your life, and your very psyche.

5 Signs of a Toxic Workplace

There are likely more signs of a toxic workplace, but these are 5 signs you will recognize if you are in a toxic environment.

1. Your Boss Is An Evil Ruler

There may be rules, but, like some sort of twisted game, you get to guess what they are, and they don’t apply to everyone equally. Your boss plays favorites. The rules don’t stem from the workplace culture, but rather, from the narcissist that runs the place.

People are afraid to give honest feedback, and if someone is brave enough to step up and offer something, the suggestion is most often discarded, and the person who spoke out, punished.

Unquestioning obedience is the expectation. If someone dares to disobey, punishment is swift and brutal. If someone thinks they might be in trouble, they might be quick to find a scapegoat, lest they lose their head.

The core values of the organization aren’t what really happens day-to-day. They say one thing on the “label” of the company, but what happens in the office is something else all together.

2. Lack of Transparency

The objectives of what you’re trying to accomplish, or how your performance will be measured are often unclear, even after you ask for feedback. Goal posts are moved, and rules seem inconsistent. It leaves you feeling weak and without control.

You may not even get much time to communicate with your boss, or have a strange reporting structure that creates conflicts. The interaction between you and your boss is little and/or strained.

3. Lack of Communication

A toxic work environment is like The Bermuda Triangle. Words go in, but they may never come out. Or, if they do come out, they are never quite the same as before. They end up a jumbled, twisted mess.

The communication that does happen in this kind of environment is gossiping and sometimes bullying. This unhealthy behavior makes it very difficult to function as a team.

4. My Way or . . .

There’s only one way to do things – the company way. You don’t get a say, because you don’t think you can afford to quit right now.

You’re micromanaged to within an inch of your life, even though you have some great ideas.

Overworking is the way things are done. Emails at home, lots of phone calls after hours, and a stack of work is expected. If you’re lucky, doing extra can get you a gold star, but usually in a toxic work environment, it will just help you avoid a kick in the pants.

5. The Place Is Sick

People are sick, literally. Burnout and fatigue are real, and people call out a lot. If they’re not actually sick, they call out anyway, just to escape the toxic environment. There may be no other way to get a break.

There’s high turn over, and employees think of those who got away as “The Lucky Ones,” either that, or they’re extremely jealous, wondering how they, too, can escape. They commiserate with each other about how bad the place is.

How to Survive a Toxic Workplace

There’s a difference between surviving a toxic workplace and trying to change it.

It would be wonderful if you could fix the environment and make it healthier. However, it’s very difficult to do from within the organization. For now, the goal is to survive until you can make a move to a healthier organization, one that runs on respect, trust, appreciation, integrity and authenticity.


Self-care is an essential part of your survival plan. It involves figuring out how to say no to extra work, when to take mental health days off, what is most taxing on you right now and how to limit or eliminate that, and more. Improving your self-care will go a long way in helping you survive a toxic workplace.


Saying no is part of self-care, but it deserves its own category. While it might be hard (though not impossible) to say no to your boss, there may be things, people, and projects you can say no to, inside or outside of work. Think about where you can say no in the near term while you’re surviving this toxic situation, so that you can say yes to the things you really want in your life in the future.

Make a Plan

This toxic workplace isn’t going to be part of your life forever, I hope. If not, you need a plan to get out of there. Start creating a plan to think about what else you can do besides what you’re doing now. It may be a new job doing exactly what you do already, or it may be a totally different career. Whatever it is, there will be some steps to get you there, from brushing up your resume to getting your personal brand to shine. If you need help with any of this, just contact me for your first steps.

Focus on the Future

As bad as now is, if you focus on the fact that it’s temporary, it won’t be as bad. Promise. I know it sounds trite, but try it. It’s true.

Control What You Can

The theme of a toxic workplace is that you don’t have control. Your boss is unpredictable, you don’t know how you’re going to be evaluated, you don’t have control over your hours, you can’t see the layoff coming, etc. You name it, the theme is usually lack of control. And lack of control is actually a set-up for PTSD. They’ve proven it in experiments with mice, and I promise you and I are no different.

While I’m not suggesting you become a control-freak for the sake of it, I am suggesting that you do the best you can at your work because you have control over that. You can out-put a good product (whether they see it was good or not), you can show up, you can mentor others. There are things you have control over, and if you do those things it will help.

Leaving a Toxic Workplace

No matter how great the temptation, when you leave a toxic workplace, you don’t want to burn any bridges. You may need to use references in the future, or, as some of my clients have experienced, when some of your evil colleagues leave, you may find they’re not so evil after all.

Seek out a better environment before you’re hired using these tips, and spend the rest of your career happy to go in to work. You deserve it!

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