If you’re a great employee and these signs are sounding alarm bells, get out now.
Long hours, an insurmountable workload, constantly moving goal-posts, insecure leadership, bullying co-workers. Does any or all of this sound familiar? If it does, then you’re in good company.
Despite this, many will say that being mistreated at work is just part of the real world. People can be difficult—so learning to deal with them is just a part of life. Your nearest and dearest will have every good intention when reminding you that everyone has challenging co-workers.
They’ll tell you to put on your big-person pants and deal with it.
Now while I agree in part, anyone who has worked in a toxic environment can tell you that the experience had in a challenging work environment compared to a toxic one is light years apart. Having a never-to-be-pleased boss, or a few grumpy, unhelpful, or competitive people within your organization is one thing. Systematic attempts to derail your career and reputation (be it your work ethic or your personal life) is something else all together.
If you’ve ever dealt with intentional interference in completing work tasks, been the subject of ridiculous rumors or personal attacks, consistent hostile treatment by either a boss or colleagues (or both), consistently being asked to take on far more work than fellow colleagues with the same job description on the same pay grade, then you my friend, are likely to be in a toxic work place.
But what if the signs aren’t so clear cut? How then do you know whether you’re just over-reacting and need to toughen up, or if there’s something more to it? Here’s five signs to keep an eye out for.
1. Work vs. life
This is the big one. If there’s one sign to pay attention to, this is it. Is your work life impacting on the rest of your life? Not sleeping, or wanting to do nothing other than sleep? Over or under-eating? No interest in your hobbies or social life? Short-attention span, poor memory, or unusually irritable? Are your relationships suffering? Do you second-guess or feel bad about yourself in a way that you never did before starting that job?
If these things describe the type of life that you’re living now, and this has been the case for a consistent period of time despite efforts to fix or work around the situation, I urge you to leave. Right away. If it’s not financially possible to quit straight away, make a plan to get out of there as soon as you can. No career path, dream job, amount of money, self-imposed identity, social stature, or familial expectations is worth sacrificing your mental and physical health. Or any other aspect of life for that matter. You have an entire life to live — don’t give it up over miserable people and a work-place that has no control over it’s culture.
Even if the absolute worst comes to worst and you have to start again in a new field, earning very little, and those you thought supported you unconditionally end up judging and abandoning you, you can and will get back to where you were. Most likely you’ll surpass it. This time, you’ll be a whole lot wiser, happier, and healthier. And you’ll likely see along the way that you never wanted to be somewhere that would allow that kind of behavior anyway.
2. We all need a helping hand
Is there at least one respectful and honest person at your work-place that you can hand-on-heart trust? Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the depth of trust that comes alongside an intimate long-standing friendship. What I am talking about is an ability to trust that this person who you spend regular time with and share mutual goals (in this case shared projects or tasks) will work alongside you in an honest and collaborative way. That they’re someone who you can talk to in a work-appropriate but open and sincere way. If you’re asking yourself this question and not even one person comes to mind, you should get out.
We as humans need healthy community and interaction. It’s just the way we are built. Sure, you can make by for awhile without any trustworthy and meaningful connection, but long term it isn’t going to be good for anyone. Without mutual trust and respect, projects will suffer and you’ll begin to dread turning up to the office every day.
I mean who wants to spend 40+ hours of their week cooped up somewhere they can’t even have a pleasant conversation with the people they’re surrounded by? Let’s not forget those off days we have every once and awhile. It’s comforting and helpful to have a sounding board or a safe place to vent. And your colleagues are likely to be the only people who understand your work environment and the pressures that come with it. Because of this, it isn’t hard to imagine that spending around a third of your week without good company in tow could be a pretty lonely experience.
In more severe situations, a lack of trust in the people that you’re surrounded by could be a symptom of something much greater. It’s possible that the organization’s culture is toxic, and unhealthy behaviors such as tattle-tailing, shifting the blame, or making fun of fellow-colleagues is rewarded. So unless you’re someone who is willing to partake in that kind of behavior, you won’t be able to trust anyone for fear that you could be next, and you’re definitely not going to thrive.
3. The organization’s values do not align with yours
Now, hear me out. I’m not saying that you need to find a workplace that shares each and every one of your core values to the T. That’s unrealistic so good luck in finding an organization which can offer you that. What I’m talking about here are the fundamentals. Does the overarching goal of what that organization does align with your core values? And do they go about doing that work in a way that aligns with your values?
It can get tricky here when you believe in the work — or at least what they profess the work to be about—but notice idiosyncrasies start to appear here and there. This could take the form of cut-corners, poor or dishonest leadership, or red-flag decisions or actions which are justified as a means to an end. If these little warning clues start to stack up, it could be a good time assess whether the fruit the organization is baring resembles the mission statement you signed up to. From there you can determine whether its the kind of work-place where you belong.
4. It’s affecting your health
Are you noticing newly persistent physical symptoms like being constantly nauseous, having an upset stomach, re-occurring headaches, shaky hands, or heart palpitations and shortness of breath?
While to some these may seem like obvious clues that something is amiss, those who have been taught to tough things out may let these warning signs slip. But don’t. They’re important indicators that something is seriously wrong. Not with you or your ability to push through difficult situations but with the environment you’re in.
If I’m the only one to tell you this, please take heed and listen: you and your health and wellbeing is worth so much more than any job, organization, or cause. And it’s definitely worth more than the opinions of anyone who is asking you to sacrifice yourself long-term.
5. You’re not going anywhere
This one is a little more nuanced. While a long-term lack of progress within an organization could be attributed to any number of different things, one possibility is that the organization you are working for is taking advantage of you.
If this is the case for you, no matter how many hours you put in, extra projects you take on, or the level of support and leadership you provide within the team, your employer has no intention of ever fairly compensating you for your skills and expertise, or the extra time and effort that you put in. They will continue to ask more of you than is reasonable, and more than what they ask of your colleagues who are paid the same or sometimes better. This kind of employer will want all of this without ever intending to promote you or give you the pay raise that you have worked for. It’s likely that they know you’ll eventually get fed up and leave, but they’re willing to make the most out of what you can offer the team in the meantime.
If your boss regularly praises you for your excellent work ethic and high standard of work, you are asked to take the lead on projects, are given others’ work to complete, and have a much bigger workload than your colleagues then you likely fall into this category.
But pay attention when the praise is only given privately. If, in contrast, you’re often criticized, or made-fun of in front of team-members or other parts of the organization, the private praise could be a tool to manipulate you into taking on extra work that you’re not acknowledged or compensated for.
It is possible however that your lack progress within an organization could be for some other reason entirely. This means that it will take some time and effort to work alongside your boss to get to where you want to go. You need to be realistic about how long you need to show consistent excellence before expecting any opportunities to progress, or raise in salary. You should also be proactive and ask for opportunities to upskill and put yourself forward for promotions, or a pay rise if you feel that it’s warranted. Expecting busy bosses to know exactly how hard you’re working and what value you’re adding to the organization isn’t going to get you anywhere.
But if you have shown up consistently, have been open and transparent about what you want out of the employer-employee transaction, and colleagues are consistently moving on past you, you may need to re-evaluate whether this organization is a good fit for you. Don’t let years pass by where you feel increasingly frustrated and taken advantage of. Quality employees are hard to come by so know your worth and move on. It’s their loss and another employers gain.
So where to next?
Since you’ve decided to read this story and you’ve got this far, it shows that there’s at least some part of you that is questioning either whether your work-place is toxic, or if it’s somewhere you no longer belong. Or both.
So let’s re-cap. If your job is impacting you and your health, and this is creeping into other areas of your life; if you are unable to identify even one work-place confidant; if its values are too different from your own; or you’ve been stagnant for a long time despite compelling evidence of consistent excellence in your job — at the very least take a good hard look at your reality. And if possible, talk about your concerns and your options with your significant other, and, or other trusted allies and mentors.
Jobs are a dime a dozen, but you are not. If you take an honest look at your job or career path and decide that you need to redirect, some people won’t get it. And they probably don’t need to. It’s your journey and when it comes down to it you need to be confident and comfortable in the decisions that you make, regardless of whether others understand it or not. Be honest about where you find yourself, take care of yourself, and the rest will follow.