Every once in a while comes a bombshell report about “toxic” working conditions at a high-profile operation. Such claims that have been made about The Kelly Clarkson Show, The Ellen Degeneres Show, Lizzo, a slew of companies from Tesla to Nike and, most recently, at The Tonight Show under host Jimmy Fallon.
Recent results of the 2023 Work in America Survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), in fact, found that an average of 19% percent of employees overall describe their workplaces as toxic, with higher numbers in fields of manual labor (21%) and customer/client/patient services (26%) as compared to that of office workers (14%).
Further, those who described their workplaces as toxic were more than twice as likely to say their overall mental health was fair or poor (58%) than those who did not report a toxic workplace (21%). And of those who did report a toxic workplace, 76% also said that their work environment has had a negative impact on their mental health (as compared to 28% who did not report a toxic workplace).
But what, exactly, makes a workplace “toxic”? And how do you know if you’re in one? Here, experts explain.
One common element
“It’s important to note that there’s no single authoritative or scientific definition of ‘toxic workplace,’” Dennis Stolle, the APA’s senior director of applied psychology, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s a very common term, and people have a sense of what it means, but it’s somewhat subjective.”
That said, he adds, when you look at how people describe a workplace that’s toxic, there are some common themes. And No. 1, he says, is “a sense of fear.”
“People are not just in a situation where they don’t like their work, but they’re actually afraid for some reason,” Stolle explains. “It could stem from a lot of different things — as severe as hostility or abuse, even physical abuse or verbal abuse. Or it could be more along the lines of fear of arbitrary and unpredictable decision making, so people are in a workplace where they’re constantly on edge that they might lose their job for no reason, or maybe that they’ll get in trouble. But the common denominator is of people living in fear or anxiety at the workplace.”
Sara Baker, a leadership coach and author of the Toxic Workplace Survival Guide, agrees. “If it’s an environment where people don’t feel safe — and they could be afraid of a myriad of things, of being humiliated, of being fired, of a temper tantrum from someone in the organization — it does seem to be the primary issue.”
All it takes is one
When high-profile cases of toxic workplaces make headlines, as with Fallon, it’s often a single person who gets called out. And typically, that’s all it takes: one high-up person infusing the place, whether a team or entire (small) company, with fear and unpredictability, Stolle explains.
“There are certain toxic leadership styles, and people who engage in them can create a culture of fear within an organization,” he says, noting that it’s often “a power imbalance” that adds to the problematic dynamic — but that the toxic leader is not necessarily injecting fear consciously. “It could be a person who just has never been trained and has no idea what they’re doing, so might honestly think yelling at people is a good way to motivate them. They’re completely wrong, but might not know it.”
But the toxicity of a single leader can ripple out quickly, creating a swirling, unhealthy dynamic with many people involved. “Not everyone reacts [to the fear] in the same way, but everyone has some kind of a reaction,” Stolle notes. So while the strategy for some employees dealing with a toxic boss might be to keep to themselves and “collaborate as little as possible,” someone else’s strategy might be to say, “‘We need to come together and talk about how to deal with this.’ That’s when there are co-workers who seem to be opposed to one another, but really are just opposed in how they are dealing with the situation.”
Regarding the toxic boss, adds Baker, every example of one might be glaringly obvious. “It’s not like you have a toxic leader and they’re like that all the time and all day,” she says. “A lot of times they have a personable, enjoyable, very charming personality, and that might be what allows the toxicity to go on … so maybe 80% of the time they’re great to be around, but the other 20%” is terrible.
Other red flags
Baker says there’s a variety of situations to be wary of — including “seeing your peers being treated in a manner that would cause you to be embarrassed,” such as “if you’re in a meeting, and somebody presents their idea and the leader of the meeting says something really derogatory and shuts it down.”
Also worrisome would be evidence of “the team being on the lookout for how the boss feels that day,” with cues as simple as staffers telling each other something like, “‘Hey, watch out, he or she is having a bad day.’”
Another telling factor is the initial reaction of a staffer who’s called out for human error. “If it is to want to blame somebody else — in other words, fear-based, that’s a sure sign,” she says. Because in a healthy work environment, taking risks in the name of growth is something that will be supported, “and where we know that if something goes wrong, it’s like, ‘well, at least we tried.’”
Stolle says that a warning sign might be realizing that the problem appears to be with the team and unit, “as opposed to just you.” To get a sense of that, he suggests checking your own perceptions against those of your co-workers. “So, if you’re in an environment where you’re feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m kind of afraid of what’s going to happen next and it doesn’t feel right,’” talk to — or at least observe the reactions of — co-workers you can trust. If they also seem to be on eggshells, he says, “That’s a pretty good indication.”
Why it’s hard to speak out — and what else you can do
So often, employees who find themselves in a toxic situation don’t speak up — and that’s largely driven by a power imbalance between the workers and the leader, says Stolle. If the higher-up has the power to “fire you or report you to somebody else to fire you … then that alone creates a disincentive to any confrontation, or even to potentially reporting the person.”
Still, while there is no cure-all to dealing with a toxic workplace, Stolle has suggestions for making one more bearable:
Have social support outside of work. Talking to family or friends about what’s going on “is very helpful” because it helps you “calibrate” the situation. “So if you hear, ‘Oh my God, I never heard of such a thing,’” when you tell a friend how your boss chewed you out in front of your team, it can bring perspective. “It also informs family and friends about why you might be acting the way you are when you get home from work, which can lead to greater understanding.” Therapy may also be in order, he says, stressing, “People absolutely go to therapy because of their workplace situations.”
Have social support in the workplace. “It’s not always possible,” Stolle admits. “But to the extent that you have someone at work to rely on, and to have constructive conversations about how you might approach it can be really helpful.”
Consider more formal routes, from going to human resources to consulting with an attorney. “Everyone has to make their own judgment call” about whether going to HR will make things better or worse, but it is “something to at least think through carefully and make decision about,” he says. And if the situation is so severe that a person is truly fearing for their safety, talking to an attorney about what if any laws might be getting violated offers a “different set of power and resources.”
Also, in rare situations, he notes, “there’s always the possibility of speaking to the person who seems to be the cause of the trouble.”
Finally, for many in such difficult positions, the most effective — though admittedly painful and difficult — way to halt the toxicity, say both Baker and Stolle, is by quitting.
“Typically, in a toxic workplace,” says Baker, “the solution for the individual is just to go find another job.”