A Toxic Work Environment and your Mental Health

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There has been quite a lot written on the correlation between workplace toxicity and mental health. One study even found that a negative workplace environment can increase your risk for clinical depression. And it makes sense - we spent most of our waking hours at work and some folks continue working once they get home. 

Are you wondering whether you work in a toxic work environment, and how that may be affecting your emotional health? Check out these 5 signs, courtesy of Emmelie Aries,  CEO of Bossed Up:

Narcissists On Top

Beware of the boss who thinks they can do no wrong. Narcissism runs rampant in our workplaces because too often it’s cloaked in the characteristics most often associated with leadership. It’s terrifying how many textbook narcissists can rise into the highest positions of power in today’s world (sound familiar?).

Narcissists tend to believe the rules don’t apply to them — and see no issue in demanding near-perfection from others, despite not meeting those high standards themselves. They love being reaffirmed and told they’re correct, but see disagreement as defection. You’re either with them, or you’re against them.

Commiserating Colleagues

When I first joined the other side of my office, I thought my colleagues were cold and stand-offish. Their silence was alarming. Despite working side-by-side together all day, most of them listened to music with their earbuds in and seldom exchanged a word.

Later, I realized there was a very active back-channel of communication happening on g-chat. Many of the staff members were talking smack about the boss on instant messenger, a refuge from the realities of working in such a tense environment.

Another exception to the silent workplace emerged after the partners left for the day. That’s when colleagues would gather in cliques to gossip, complain and commiserate about how many hours of work they had left before they could leave.

This kind of atmosphere is clearly no fun for employees and equally worse from the employer’s perspective. At least one Harvard study found toxic behaviors like engaging in negative gossip ends up hurting the business’s bottom line.

Lack of Transparency

When you aren’t clear on how your performance will be measured, you’re already set up to fail. When I transitioned over to this new side of the office, my role underwent significant changes, but that entirely-different job description was never fully laid out for me. Had it been, I wouldn’t have taken it to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong — I was proactive about seeking out feedback and aligning my priorities with my boss’s, but it felt like every time I’d arrived at the finish line, the goal post had moved. When there’s little transparency and communication about objectives up and down the hierarchy in an organization, it’s almost impossible for a mutually respectful, trusting relationship to flourish.

Inconsistent Rulebook

A lack of basic fairness is a good way to fuel a mutiny at work. When person A gets scolded for the same behavior that gets person B promoted, it feels like there’s no clear rubric for advancement, and it creates a sense of favoritism amongst employees.

The rule about being present at our desks from 8 am to 6 pm was not applied across the board to all staff, and it’s intent — presumably to ensure client responsiveness — was never made clear to us, fostering resentment at its seemingly arbitrary nature.

When the boss lays down rules like that and doesn’t bother adhering to them him/herself, it’s actually more about commanding obedience, exerting power, and maintaining a sense of control.

The Place Is Sick, Literally

Truly toxic workplaces lead to employee burnout, fatigue, and downright illness. Are your colleagues often calling in sick? Fighting colds at their desks? Those are warning signs to watch out for, and can indicate a culture of chronic overwork.

High levels of stress are demonstrably bad for your body, leading to digestive problems, immune deficiencies, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Over the long term, chronic stress can wreck havoc on your overall wellbeing, leading to serious illness.

The best way to escape a toxic workplace? Ensure you’re not entering into one to begin with. Do your due diligence to interview the company you’re considering joining, and watch out for these warning signs during the interview process.

If you’re already in a toxic workplace, there are steps you can take now to take back your agency and ownership over your life, too, beginning with establishing healthy boundaries to protect your time and create space for you to pursue your own priorities (namely, finding a better place to work).

This article originally appeared in Forbes on March 7, 2017.