Spotting the Signs: How to Identify a Toxic Workplace Structure

Throughout our lifetime, it’s said that most individuals will spend a third of their life at work with the current average retirement age in the UK sitting at 66 years old.

Over this time, everyone will experience periods of fatigue, difficult situations and projects that have felt never ending at some points, however, it’s important to remember that these things shouldn’t necessarily cause extremely high levels of stress, burnout and the dread of logging on the next day.

Toxic workplace cultures tend to develop slowly over time and often consist of lots of little things that can be easily brushed under the rug, put down to XYZ happening or simply disregarded due to a heavy workload.

However, for those who are recognising behaviours that make them uncomfortable, are extremely stressed in their workplace and feel their self-esteem is at an all-time low, this blog will help you identify the signs of a toxic workplace culture, as well as some tips on how to combat one.

1. Lack of enthusiasm and positivity 

The first sign of any toxic workplace culture is an extreme lack of enthusiasm, as well as reduced levels of energy and positivity overall.

While we're not saying that individuals must be happy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across all workplaces, however, if you are noticing signs of general negativity, cases of burnout, stressed and low team members, it may be a sign that there's something bigger going on and that toxic behaviours are occurring.

A bad attitude or lack of positive thinking can spread like wildfire throughout a working culture, contributing to a multitude of factors such as decreased productivity, low energy levels and an unwillingness to work collaboratively.

Emotional empaths really struggle in workplaces with a lack of enthusiasm and positivity, being individuals who are directly impacted by others emotions and feelings.

2. There’s an extensive fear of failure

Nobody actively tries to make mistakes at work, however as humans, errors and mistakes are completely normal and will occur across all workplaces. Although this can come with experience and confidence, no one, not even juniors should be made to feel terrified of mistakes happening in their workplace or genuinely fear the consequences of common human error.

A lack of psychological safety is a huge indicator of a toxic workplace culture and when employees are made to feel like they cannot safely step out of their comfort zones for fear of judgement or negative consequences, they are left feeling restricted, micromanaged and demotivated.

3. A general confusion and lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities

Though business vary in size, with some more developed than others in terms of their structure and hierarchy, there’s no excuse for lack of direction and responsibilities amongst staff members.

If you are always concerned about stepping on your colleagues’ toes, spending a lot of time just filling your day with random tasks or generally unsure of exactly what you should be doing in the workplace day in and day out, there’s a high chance that you’re working in a toxic culture that is providing little to no direction.

There shouldn’t be feelings of dysfunction or lack of clarity from your seniors, and everyone should be aware of their roles and responsibilities from the get-go.

These kinds of environments usually feed from a lack of trust, power struggles and poor communication – often saying one thing and then acting in a way that is completely different.

4. Unhealthy work boundaries and excessive stress levels

It’s common for those who are quite senior within a company to pull some overtime and perhaps work a few extra hours in the evening or at the weekend, however, there’s a big difference between this and having a general expectation that all staff are happy to complete work out with their core working hours.

To have this expectation of your staff with no prior discussion or reasons as to why they have to complete essentially what is, unpaid overtime, is a sign of a company that lacks healthy boundaries and has little respect for their employees need for a positive work/life balance.

5. Gaslighting, undermining and discouraging behaviour

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and unfortunately it doesn’t only occur within romantic relationships. It’s said that over 58% of individuals have experienced gaslighting at some point throughout their career and it’s lot more common than people think.

As well as gaslighting, undermining and discouraging behaviour is also just as common and can make individuals feel anxious, inadequate, and full of self-doubt in the workplace.

6. Lack of support or career progression options

It’s human nature to want to progress in both your work and in your personal life as we get older or become more experienced in our fields. Often, we start looking for opportunities where we can develop and grow professionally as this happens.

A toxic workplace culture often lacks opportunities for growth and doesn’t encourage their staff to learn new skills, attend training courses or shadow different members of staff.

How to combat a toxic workplace culture

If you have identified any of these things to be happening in your workplace, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the culture is 100% toxic, however if some of them are occurring, it’s best to act quickly and perhaps adopt a few of our suggestions below to make your working life that little bit easier.

  • Find a support system within your workplace: it doesn’t matter if this is one person or a few, creating and building new friendships will make you happier at work, providing the support and advice that you’re lacking from elsewhere.

  • Make sure that you take appropriate time out after work to de-stress: this is vital when you’re working in an intense environment and can include anything from an hour in the evening, to 10 minutes during the day. Making time for yourself, for hobbies or spending time with loved ones will help you remain balanced and boost those positive feelings!

  • Seek out a mentor or a professional coach: If you feel like there’s a few things that you would like to work through, or if you feel like you’re a particularly bad case, there’s always the option of spending time with a mentor or paying for a professional coach. Having someone help you heal through your issues and potential workplace trauma can be an extremely rewarding and beneficial experience. In turn, they’ll also help you create some healthy habits and boundaries to get you back on track.

  • Most importantly, you should consider your exit strategy. As much as you may enjoy your job, or finally may be working for your dream company… If the culture is toxic or has toxic tendencies, it’s highly unlikely that this is the right place for you!

Finding yourself in a toxic culture doesn’t necessarily mean that your career is over, or that you have done anything wrong. Instead, try to use this experience as an opportunity to create healthy coping strategies and take some time away to reflect on all your achievements and learnings from the job.

In turn, you’ll soon see that you did all you could to make the best of your surroundings, and that your takeaways from the role are only things that are going to help you in your future career endeavours.


If you’re ready to make a career switch, speak to one of our expert advisers and enrol on a 100% online course today.

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