Have you ever wondered if you are in a toxic workplace – and how it might be affecting your mental health?
A study by Beyond Blue into the “State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia” found that “one in five Australians have taken time off work in the past 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy”.
What is a Toxic Workplace?
A toxic workplace is generally characterised by a damaging atmosphere, which has negative impacts on an employee’s work performance and also causes disruption in their personal life – however, this can vary from person to person.
A toxic workplace can be influenced from the “top-down” and this culture can be very hard to shift.
Given 20% of Australians will experience a mental health issue in a 12-month period, employers who don’t consider the mental health of employees can also constitute a toxic work environment. Research has shown that in order to preserve productivity and retention rates, employers must consider mental health a priority. Factors that could indicate a workplace doesn’t prioritise mental health can include high levels of absenteeism, sick leave and turnover, and conflicts in the workplace, such as bullying.
How a Toxic Workplace affects Mental Health
On average, employees spend between 33%-50% of their day at their place of work – physically or virtually.
Potentially the worst impact of a toxic workplace on mental health is that it can lead to negative rumination. This basically means that employees are mentally replaying negative experiences in the office throughout the day, even when at home. If rumination continues over a prolonged period of time it can lead to depression, anxiety, substance use and sleep disorders, such as insomnia.
Signs of a Toxic Workplace
Here are some signs that may indicate you are working in a toxic environment:
- bullying is tolerated and no action is taken when bullying is reported;
- conflict between staff is not managed or dealt with effectively;
- high absenteeism; low morale of staff;
- there’s a general consensus that work takes priority above all else;
- harassment is tolerated or not addressed when reported;
- you are expected to complete work tasks outside of work hours;
- ongoing “out of hours” communication;
- passive aggressive or aggressive communication;
- lack of clarity between staff;
- cliques, exclusion or ‘gossipy’ behaviour
- high levels of staff burnout;
- poor leadership.
Burnout can be a sure-fire sign of a toxic work environment—or at least a work environment that doesn’t “work” for you. Here are three types of burnout – do any of these sound familiar to you?
Frenetic Burnout: Employees who put a ton of energy into their work in the hopes that the output will be rewarding, may experience frenetic burnout. After a continuous period of committed work, the frenetic worker does not find positive outcomes.
Underchallenged Burnout: Employees who feel bored due to being underchallenged at work typically experience this form of burnout. When underchallenged, employees find it difficult to find satisfaction in their role and will often experience low moods secondary to this.
Worn-out Burnout: The worn-out employee is someone who is resigned about his or her work after experiencing constant work stress over an extended period of time. Given the rewards experienced are generally negligible, the worn-out employee feels uninspired and disillusioned by the job at hand.
Surviving a Toxic Workplace
While you may recognise that you work in a toxic workplace, changing jobs is not always a possibility. Here are a couple of ideas to help you with surviving a toxic workplace:
1. Psychological detachment – avoidance of work related thoughts, emotions or behaviours. This can be fostered through practising mindfulness or ‘staying present’, as well as activities such as exercise. Planning upcoming events, such as weekend trips, holidays or weekend outings with friends and family are examples of positive distractions outside of the workplace.
2. Relaxation – prioritising work-life balance has been shown to be an effective buffer against the detrimental impacts of toxic workplaces. Relaxation between work hours has been shown to moderate the relationship between rumination and sleep related issues, like insomnia. It further protects against the need for recovery from work and moderates time demands and exhaustion. Relaxation has been shown to be effective in returning to pre-stressor states as a result of providing the critical opportunity to halt work-related demands.
Of course if you are wanting professional help to better cope with your toxic workplace, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Tara Pisano, BA (Psych) (Hons), M Psych.
Tara Pisano is a Brisbane psychologist with a special interest in early intervention in adolescents and young adults, as this is when three quarters of mental health conditions emerge. In her practice, she draws on a range of evidence-based therapies such as CBT, DBT, IPT, ACT and Motivational Interviewing, to promote recovery and positive outcomes.
To make an appointment with Tara Pisano, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
- Beyondblue (2014). A new system for better employment and social outcomes. Available at: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/docs/default-source/policy-submissions/bw0260-beyondblue_submission_a-new-system-for-better-employment-and-social-outcomes.pdf?sfvrsn=a1c79be9_2
- Demsky, C. A, Fritz, C., Hammer, L. B., Black, A. E. (2019). Workplace incivility and employee sleep: The role of rumination and recovery experiences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 2, 24(2):228-240. doi:10.1037/ocp0000116
- Medina, K. (2020). Working from home to avoid a toxic workplace? You may not be alone — but you can manage it.
- Porath, C. (2016). The hidden toll of workplace incivility. McKinsey & Company
- Torkelson, E., Holm, K., Bäckström, M., Schad, E. (2016). Factors contributing to the perpetration of workplace incivility: the importance of organizational aspects and experiencing incivility from others. Work Stress. 30, 2, 115-131. doi:10.1080/02678373.2016.1175524