Most people have to deal with a crappy job at some point in their lives—as a person who once dressed as a banana to hand out Jamba Juice samples, I can attest to this. But how can you tell when a job goes from run-of-the-mill bad to a toxic influence on your life? To suss out the bad jobs from the truly detrimental, I interviewed mental health experts to get their advice on how to tell when a job is just too awful and what to do if you're stuck in a toxic position.
When I throw around the word "toxic," I really mean it. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology surveyed unemployed people and found that those in a hostile work environment had higher stress levels than people who remained unemployed. And this wasn't just "I'm-feeling-kind-of-stressed" symptoms: The bloodwork of people at crappy jobs was noticeably less healthy than their already-stressed, not currently employed friends. Being in a toxic job can genuinely do mental and physical damage. So it's important to know the signs so you can get yourself out of a bad situation.
When Work Doesn't Stay at Work
"You can tell a workplace simply sucks when the problems are contained around the work itself but do not permeate beyond that. A workplace crosses the line into 'toxic' when it impacts you internally and personally," says Julie Gurner, Psy.D. It's one thing to have a lot to do or some people in the company that annoy you. But when you can't shake the negativity of the day or when your self-esteem and worth are diminished by your job, that's when you slide into toxic territory.
Licensed social worker Laura MacLeod recommends you really examine how you feel when you think about going to work the next day. "If you feel kind of lethargic, not particularly motivated, or that it would be nice to call in sick—this is a job you're not crazy about," MacLeod says. "If you feel anxious, irritable, deeply depressed, panicked, get cold sweats—this is toxic." And if those anxious, negative thoughts keep popping up long after 5 p.m., it's likely that your workplace is having an adverse effect on your life.
When You Can't See the Positive
If you have a job that's just kind of crappy, you might be able to pick out one or two positive aspects. Yes, the cubicle mate who shows you a different unfunny Youtube video every five minutes might make it hard to look on the bright side. But usually, when a job is merely sucky, you can find one good thing about it. "See if you can spend more time on that aspect of the work and remember to hang onto it when things get ugly," McLeod says. "Find and connect with coworkers you trust and brainstorm to make things more tolerable. Having someone to listen and empathize goes a long way."
Sometimes, you really can't think of a single good thing about your job—or the minimal positives don't outweigh the many negatives. A study from Michigan State University found that negativity in the workplace spreads like wildfire. Meaning that one toxic person or ongoing toxic comments make other workers act poorly toward one another, and, in the end, you have a bunch of unhappy people being crappy to one another. This leads to lowered productivity, poor morale, and an increase in mental fatigue, according to the study. So, if you can't think of a single nice thing, you're likely stuck in a "cycle of incivility," which is very hard to stop.
When You're Not Appreciated
To me, few things are as grating as putting in tons of work and getting zero credit. Though everyone will probably get overlooked from time to time at the office, a toxic job will undermine or undervalue your efforts at every turn.
If you're working insane hours without the possibility of a promotion or compensation, or if your superiors never positively acknowledge your work, your mental health will start to suffer, according to therapist Katie Krimer, MA, LCSW. "Without an appropriate amount of validation and praise—and even sometimes just an influx of criticism—your morale can really be damaged. This invites you to eventually hate your job," Krimer says.
It's so important to feel like your work matters. Though no one expects to get a trophy and a gift card to Sephora every time they do something good, it's perfectly understandable to be unhappy when there's no positive feedback. "If you don't feel valued, it's time to find ways to advocate for yourself and make sure that you get the acknowledgment you deserve," Krimer says.
Sometimes, communicating your feelings can make the workplace better. Perhaps a boss didn't realize they were being so negative, and now that they're aware, they have a chance to change their behavior. But if you feel unsafe sharing your feelings, have a boss who has ignored your previous requests, or know the whole office is full of unchanging negativity, you're probably in a toxic place that you'll eventually need to leave.
Toxic Workplace Checklist
If you're still not sure if your job has crossed over into the territory of my all-time-favorite Britney Spears song, Chrissy Macken, a career coach with a specialization in toxic workplaces, asks her clients these questions:
- Have you excused yourself from a meeting because you were so angry or frustrated?
- Do you dread the idea of staying in your job for another year?
- Do you feel like your manager doubts your ability to make smart decisions about your work?
- Are you assigned tasks from multiple supervisors with little or no regard for the work already given to you?
- Is your role constantly changing?
- Are you interrupted so often when you sit down to focus on a task that it's almost impossible to get work done?
- Do performance reviews feel like an ambush of negative feedback that you've never been clued into?
- Are you belittled or yelled at by your manager or colleagues?
- Have you cried at work?
If you said yes to three or more of those questions, you're probably in a toxic place, Macken says.
Sometimes, we get so used to a poor workplace that we don't even notice the signs of toxicity all around us. But if you're regularly crying, belittled, or so stressed that you can't focus on anything other than work, then things are officially toxic. Luckily, the experts have many ways to help you deal with and remove yourself from that horrible job.
What to Do About a Toxic Job
Remember It's Not Your Fault
"The most important way to handle a toxic job is to understand you're not the problem—it's a culture issue in which higher-ups enable abusers," says Deb Falzoi, founder of Dignity Together, a group that strives to end workplace bullying. Often, bosses get short-term results from being abusive, so superiors look the other way. Even if you made a mistake at work or had a bad day, you never deserve to be yelled at or abused. Their overreaction is not your fault.
Reminding yourself that you aren't the problem can help get you through the day, Falzoi says. Saying "it's not about me" to yourself may not stop a boss from yelling, but it does help you detach from that potential abuse. Falzoi asserts that this is not a good long-term solution (you can only compartmentalize your feelings for so long before they pop up elsewhere), but it might help for now.
Stop Checking Your Email
Avoiding your inbox may not seem like much of a solution, but it's a good step toward setting up boundaries and leaving work at the office. "Protect your time," Macken says. "Sometimes easier said than done, but do everything you can to limit the hours." She suggests taking a chunk of time in the morning (or whenever you're most productive) to focus on work without checking emails or taking meetings. "Communicate your strategy so others know you're setting healthy boundaries in the spirit of advancing the organization's work."
When you make yourself available at all hours for work, people will sometimes take advantage of that. When you politely, but firmly, let folks at the office know that you won't be catering to their every whim after 5 p.m., your coworkers might respect that, making work much more tolerable. Or, your boss will be a jerk about it and expect you to jump whenever they call. But trying to set boundaries at least gives you a chance at a better workplace.
Create a Going-Home Ritual
"One of the hardest aspects of being in a toxic work environment is that the negatives seep into all aspects of your life and also hurt the ones you love. For this reason, I recommend finding ways to be intentional about the transition from work to home," Macken says. She suggests creating a ritual that ends your work day and gets you into personal time mode.
"Perhaps it includes taking five minutes to write a list of open questions and to-do's for the following day that you can leave at the office," Macken says. You could also listen to a special happy playlist on the ride home or take a walk around the block before you step into your house. Just do something soothing for five minutes or more every day before you go home. This way, you get in the habit of relaxing your mind and letting work go, so you can actually enjoy your personal time.
Keep It Out of the Bedroom
If you can't get into the going-home ritual groove, at the very least, keep your work in the living room. "The bedroom is for bedroom things!" Krimer says. "Many of us bring so many things into our bed that hinder our ability to relax and even to sleep." By taking work to bed, you reduce your ability to rest, which makes you tired and more susceptible to all the negativity and stress of the office.
"Commit to never bringing your work into your space of peace—keep your work to one section of your home and don't let it leave that area!" Krimer says. If your job is so overwhelming you can't even keep your bed work-free, then perhaps it's time to make a bigger move.
Make an Escape Plan
"Toxicity is a symptom of a larger cultural problem that you are unlikely to fix on your own," Gurner says. "Your best bet in toxic environments is to bide your time and form an 'escape plan.'" Usually, you can't just up and quit a job, no matter how many times you've fantasized about pulling a Half-Baked and bailing. But you can make the decision to leave and start the process of finding something better.
"Start applying to other jobs now and plan to make a transition," Gurner says. Knowing the job isn't permanent can help you get through bad days while you do what you can to find something new. Yes, it's very hard to leave a job, and it takes work to find a new one. But if you're in a truly toxic place, it's worth it. It's scary, but you can find something better where your days aren't filled with dread.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. Take singing lessons from her via Sing A Different Tune and follow her on Instagram @Ambernpetty.