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How to spot a toxic workplace: Results are rewarded, no matter how they were achieved

Everyone has a bit of work dread now and then, but if it’s your default setting, something is up

A toxic workplace can be hard to pin down. A culture of blame, unrealistic expectations, role confusion, poor communication, career stagnation – these are things you feel rather than see. Long-term employees can become inured hostages, doing whatever they have learned it takes to survive. New hires can spend months second guessing, “Is it just me?”

What does toxic look like?

Everyone has a bit of work dread now and then, but if it’s your default setting, something is up. “If there is no room for making mistakes at work, if people are afraid or on edge, the culture is probably very blame heavy and there is a fear of punishment,” says Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP) member Peter Ledden of Abate Counselling & EAP (Employee Assistance Programmes).

In a toxic workplace at its extreme, harmful or unethical behaviour like bullying, belittling or overworking is ignored. Results are rewarded, no matter how they were achieved.

Toxic by design

Organisations that aren’t structured properly or have poor people managers are ripe for toxicity. “You have a job, but there is no clarity on what is expected of you. There may be unrealistic expectations or you aren’t given the resources to achieve what is being asked of you, or maybe you are being micromanaged,” says Ledden. “The cumulative stress can lead to burnout.”


If you raise a flag and are met with anything other than constructive assistance, beware. “If you are struggling and support doesn’t come readily, or there is a sense that “you should know this, what’s wrong with you”, that might be a toxic workplace,” says Ledden.

Talk it out

A toxic workplace can be harmful to your mental and physical health. “Bit by bit, your thinking can accelerate into negativity, you can feel dread or have issues like anxiety, depression, stress, less productivity, sleep disturbance, low mood or morale, physical issues, difficulties with memory and concentration. Some people cope by eating or drinking more,” says Ledden.

A counsellor can provide perspective. “Anxiety thrives on a little bit of fact,” says Ledden. The little bit of fact however can grow arms and legs. “It can be followed with, ‘well, maybe I’m not up to it’. If everyone else seems to be getting on famously in their role, the fallacy of uniqueness comes in where you think, ‘well, I’m the only one who isn’t coping’, and you start to have self-doubt,” he says.

“Don’t hold on to it on your own, talk to friends and family outside the job,” says Ledden. If your employer has an employee assistance programme, use the free, confidential counselling.

Cultivate a life

Work is a big part of our lives. If things aren’t going well there, remember you are more than your job. Spending time with family, friends and hobbies is a reminder of your sense of your value and interests outside of work.

Stayin’ alive

If you plan on staying in the job or have no choice, plot a course that will take the least toll on you. “Focus on what you can change,” says Ledden. He recommends the “serenity” approach – accept the things you can’t change about the workplace, change the things you can, and know the difference between the two.

Get out

If things are totally toxic, cut and run. “If you are deeply unhappy and it’s very apparent that the job isn’t working out, look around for an alternative,” says Ledden. If you’ve got fuel in the tank, weigh up whether it’s worth flagging the problems before you go – with HR, a supervisor or a member of management. If there are more leaving dos than thank yous, it might be time to go.

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance