Understanding How A Toxic Work Environment Can Potentially Impact Your Mental Health

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

In a toxic work environment, employees may find it challenging to work and progress in their careers, often due to a hostile atmosphere created by a combination of company culture, supervisors, and coworkers. There are many signs of a toxic work environment, and understanding them can help you find a way to care for your mental health during and after your workday.

Two coworkers are sitting together and talking about their work environment; they both have serious expressions.
Getty/AnnaStills
It can be tough to cope in a toxic work environment

Signs of a toxic work environment

There are a few signs you might be experiencing a toxic work environment, including the following: 

  • A feeling of chronic stress that leads you to dread going to work every day
  • Feeling overworked 
  • Bullying from coworkers or management 
  • Being impacted by or a contributor to office gossip
  • Supervisors that take out their stress on their employees 
  • Unclear workplace goals and vague company values
  • Poor organization and communication between co workers
  • A lack of transparency in the workplace
  • A high turnover of workers
  • Unclear roles within the company and job insecurity
  • One-way communication and passive listening
  • Top-down decision making
  • Conflict that is negative and unproductive
  • A lack of feedback
  • Too much focus on company output
  • Any harassment, discrimination, or abuse
  • Micromanagement
  • Low employee morale or employee engagement
  • A lack of appreciation and acknowledgment
  • An inability to move upward

For many, a toxic work environment is one in which communication is unclear or negative, relationships between coworkers and supervisors are unhealthy, and getting your work done or growing in your career is not encouraged, enjoyable, or possible. According to Forbes, a toxic work environment is the primary motivation behind resignation in all career fields. Employees hunting for opportunities with a healthier work environment were a contributor to the Great Resignation.

How can a toxic work setting impact mental health?

The effects of toxic work environment on physical and mental health can be long-lasting and damaging. Feeling disengaged in a workplace culture where you don’t have control over your day-to-day responsibilities or feeling like your career is not progressing can have a negative impact on your psychological safety and well being. Being subjected to toxic behaviors from another employee or supervisor may lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety.

If you work in an environment that constantly leaves you stressed, you might be experiencing chronic stress, which is a heightened fight or flight response lasting more than a day. When stressed in this way, your brain produces large amounts of cortisol (also known as the stress hormone), testosterone, and norepinephrine. This fight or flight response causes high stress levels, substantially affecting mental and physical health.

Studies show that internal and external workplace factors, like your company’s culture, can contribute to depression and impede productivity, judgment, and career prospects. Other effects of a toxic work environment or toxic work culture on mental health may include the following:

  1. Rumination
  2. Insomnia
  3. Physical pain and discomfort
  4. A change in appetite 
  5. A sense of dread
  6. Feeling drained or exhausted
  7. Problems with memory, intolerance, and agitation 

As with many mental health challenges, counseling may be beneficial if you’re experiencing work-related stress from a toxic workplace. A counselor can help you evaluate and recognize whether it’s worth staying at your current workplace or moving forward to a healthy workplace. They can also help you learn new coping mechanisms to use at your job to deal with the toxic culture. Work-related stress can lead to severe mental burnout, so speaking with a professional may help you avoid worsening symptoms.

A woman wearing glasses is sitting at a desk and working on a laptop; she has a worried expression.
Getty/AnnaStills

How can you cope with a toxic work setting?

One method of coping with a toxic work environment is participating in counseling sessions. However, there are a few steps you can take independently as well. If you’re not ready to speak to a therapist, consider the following steps to defend yourself against the toxic workplace culture and cope with the treatment you’re experiencing at work.
Seek support within the company 

Many companies have a Human Resources department where you can speak about any negative experiences you’re having at work. They may include a secluded reporting line, workplace counseling, or a reporting system to inform the company when an environment is not conducive to work. 

If you’re nervous about confronting someone in your workplace, ask your hr professional or supervisors for assistance to talk about the toxic environments. In addition, document any instances of harassment, abuse, discrimination, or other inappropriate conduct so that you can back up your statements if needed. Instead of confronting the person or people contributing to the toxic environment, ensure you can report it without repercussions.

Separate work and home life

When you leave work for the day, try to leave your work stress behind. Enjoy your life at home, and don’t check your work email or messages unless there is an emergency. In addition, try not to converse about your workplace with your partner or family. Long conversations about work may keep you stuck in your work stress when you’re at work and home, giving you no time to relax from the hostile work environments in the office.

Establish boundaries and stick to them 

If you’re being mistreated at work, establish healthy boundaries. Instead of mistreating others or getting “revenge,” conduct yourself with integrity. Boundaries are rules you set for your time, body, and belongings. A mental health professional can encourage and help you learn to create and honor boundaries if you struggle to do so. A few examples of boundaries at work for toxic work cultures are as follows:

  • Saying “no” when asked to complete another overtime shift you don’t want to do 
  • Asking someone not to raise their voice while talking to you 
  • Leaving at the end of your shift and saying “no” if someone tries to stop you 
  • Refusing to be threatened with a job change you don’t consent to 
Confide in trusted individuals 

If you’re not sure whether your workplace is toxic, speak with trusted friends and family and ask them for their objective opinions. Your friends and family may be able to help you decide whether you’re being mistreated, and speaking about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences can be cathartic and help you reduce stress.

Shift your mindset 

A change in mindset does not necessarily change other people’s actions. However, if you look at your workplace’s situation as an opportunity for growth, you may value it differently. If you have a work area or desk, you can consider decorating it with inspiring quotes and photos that make you happy. 

These uplifting items in your workplace can take the edge off the toxicity and remind you of what’s important to you. In addition, practicing mindfulness (focusing on the present moment) can help you get through the workday, even in a toxic work environment. Studies have found that many mindfulness practices can be done on the go.
Regularly engage in self-care

Balance the difficult parts of work with the positives by scheduling enjoyable activities that decrease your stress levels. For example, you could schedule a 10-minute walk during your lunch break to clear your mind, make a fruit smoothie, and enjoy a chapter of a book after coming home from work. Self-care looks different for everyone but try to integrate healthy coping methods into your routine to maintain your mental health. 

Plan your exit

If you’ve tried everything you can think of, but nothing is changing in your workplace, you might choose to leave. There are thousands of jobs on the market, and you may be able to find another opportunity that suits you better. Consider applying for other jobs while you stay in your current job, and leave once you get hired somewhere better. 

iStock
It can be tough to cope in a toxic work environment

How can counseling help you cope with a toxic work situation? 

Speaking with a mental health professional may be valuable if you feel you’ve reached a breaking point with your toxic work environment. A licensed therapist can teach you effective communication and conflict-resolution methods that you can use in the workplace. In addition, they may be able to introduce you to various healthy ways of managing stress and anxiety. 

If you’re too busy with work or don’t want to add another lengthy appointment to your schedule, you can also consider online counseling through a platform like BetterHelp. With online counseling, you can meet with a provider from home and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. You can also schedule your session any time, potentially allowing you more flexibility. 

If you’re unsure about the effectiveness and credibility of online counseling, know that studies also back up the efficiency of these platforms. One study found that 71% of clients preferred online therapy, stating it was more effective for them and helped them cope with their symptoms. 

Takeaway

Being employed in a toxic work environment can cause stress and mental health concerns. If you’re struggling with any aspect of your work environment, consider contacting a therapist for guidance. You’re not alone, and there are ways to find support.
Learn how to cope with challenging events
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started