3 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment
“Well, this job isn’t for everyone.”
I was about 6 months into my first post-graduate salaried job at a behavioral health clinic and feeling overwhelmed. I’d come to a supervisor with a few concerns. I felt a general lack of clinical support around the complex cases I was assigned. In addition, the number of patients on my caseload was making it difficult to make any strides in treatment. Plus, the mixed messages about sticking to my union-assigned hours while also completing all paperwork before the end of each day left my head spinning; it was impossible to do both.
As a new graduate, I admit I was naive to the business modality and the political nature of the work I’d gotten into. My pure, unscathed social work soul was sure my supervisor would validate and fix all my concerns.
Since then, I’m happy to report I’ve grown more realistic and become wary of idealizing anyone in my work environment. After all, we’re all human. But the manager’s comment — along with a myriad of other experiences — taught me a lot about what is healthy and unhealthy in a work environment. If any of the following dynamics sound familiar to you, you might want to consider whether remaining in your current position is harming you more than it’s helping.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which a person or group, often in a position of power, continually denies or invalidates your feelings or lived experience. In severe cases, they may manipulate you into questioning whether your reality actually exists. They might say things like:
“That’s not what happened.”
“You’ve had a stressful week; this is your exhaustion talking.”
“What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don’t think that’s what you really meant to say in there.”
“Are you sure that’s what you saw?”
Sometimes, the unfortunate first sign of gaslighting is beginning to wonder if, in fact, you are going crazy. You’re not. That’s precisely how the technique works.
It’s natural for some lines to blur between professional and personal when you’re spending most of your waking hours in a week with the same people. Friendships and intimate partnerships develop — this is natural. What’s unnatural is when these personal relationships dictate privileges or exemption from punishment or consequences.
Another example of boundary-crossing might be a colleague or boss sharing excessive intimate personal details about their lives without your permission, or taking an interest in your personal life that makes you uncomfortable.
Use of shame as a learning tool
Workplaces are rife with learning experiences; they are a crucial part of what helps us grow and change and adapt to better versions of our current role or perhaps leaders in our field. Mistakes and challenges are inevitable, and it’s okay to feel guilt over situations we could have handled better or remorse for interactions that didn’t go as planned.
However, there is a difference between “I made a mistake” and “I am a mistake.” And some work cultures can’t distinguish between the two. Tactics like call-outs in group meetings, name-calling, or anything else that resembles character assassination are manifestations of shaming.
True respectable leaders won’t make you feel like a bad person because you made an error — or even a few errors. They will help you look critically at your performance, teach you how to recognize and use your areas of resilience, and develop a plan to combat areas where you aren’t as strong.
It took me a couple of years and all of the aforementioned red flags being flown in my face, but eventually, I learned that, yeah, that job wasn’t for everyone — and that was okay.
I know that no workplace is perfect. We all have flaws, and sometimes when we get into groups, those flaws procreate and multiply, creating flawed norms. Even so, leaving didn’t make me bad, weak, immoral, or stupid; it meant I knew I deserved better.
Every red flag is an opportunity to learn something, even if we can’t make all of them go away. But don’t internalize the toxicity of your environment — you’re worth way more.