What Are the Signs of a Toxic Work Environment?

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Sep 29, 2020

Sep 29, 2020 • by Rebecca Smith

Recently, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was thrust into the media spotlight for reasons she probably didn’t want to be. There were allegations that working on the show was a toxic and even hostile work environment. 

It left many wondering if their employer could be considered toxic, and when that toxicity might border on illegal behavior. 

When you work in a toxic environment, it can impact your physical and mental health. 

Toxic work environments are less likely to be safe, and there may be a higher rate of accidents and injuries

There’s more turnover, less productivity, and it’s just generally not a pleasant experience. 

Identifying the signs of toxicity at work can help you either approach your company leaders about making a change or perhaps realize it’s time to move on. 

What Are the Implications of a Toxic Work Environment?

While the effects of toxicity can be broad, the following are some of the most common. 

  • Depression: When you work in an environment that makes you feel bad, or there’s inequality or behaviors that affect your self-esteem, that can carry over into all areas of your life and increase the likelihood of developing depression.
  • Sleep disturbances: If you have a toxic work environment, you might go over it in your head constantly and it can lead to anxiety, which can in turn cause you to have insomnia and sleepless nights. When you’re tired, it affects you mentally and physically, and it can put you at an increased risk of being in an accident. 
  • Digestive disorders: Chronic stress can lead to problems with your digestive system and symptoms like bloating and indigestion. 
  • Poor cardiovascular health: When you work in a toxic environment, it increases your risk of heart attack and cardiovascular problems. 
  • High blood pressure: Stress and especially chronic stress, can contribute to high blood pressure. 

With the severity of some of the effects of being in a toxic workplace, it can be highly motivating to identify the situation and perhaps make a change. 


If you’re in a workplace where there are often absent employees, it can be a sign of toxicity. 

This is for direct and indirect reasons. First, when you work somewhere that’s hostile or toxic, it can cause burnout, fatigue, and physical illness. It can diminish your immune system and that can mean you are legitimately sick more often. 

However, absenteeism can also occur because people dread coming to work, and they’ll do and say anything to get out of it.

It’s beneficial for people to be comfortable calling out when they really are sick, but if there are patterns of extreme absenteeism, it could reflect a larger problem. 

No Enthusiasm

No one will be 100% “on” and cheerful at all times, but for the most part, a positive work environment is one where people feel happy and engaged. There should be a sense of positivity at work, and if that’s not the case, the work environment as a whole may be problematic. 


People will leave a negative situation when push comes to shove, which is why toxic employers often see high turnover rates.

When employees are always looking for a better option, it’s also reflective of a problematic work environment. 

Employees should feel like they’re thriving in the workplace and like they want to stay on and advance their careers with the same employer. 

No Respect

When employees don’t feel respected by their bosses or one another, it’s a red flag. 

While there are structures of management, if that feels oppressive, it might be a bad sign. 

You should feel like that while there is a general hierarchical structure, there is also a sense of mutual respect among employees and managers. 

Fears of Retaliation

If a work environment is hostile or toxic, but no one is speaking out about it, could it be because of a fear of retaliation?

In a healthy work environment, employees should have channels for expressing concerns, whether those are anonymous or otherwise. They should feel comfortable raising their concerns without worrying that they’ll be fired or retaliated against in other ways. 

Lack of Communication

Transparency and open, honest communication are critical to a healthy work environment. A lack of communication can be an indicator of much bigger problems. 

For example, if you get a bad performance review and feel blindsided and like it came out of nowhere, this is a communication issue. Your manager should have spoken with you and provided you with constructive criticism well before a formalized performance review. 

If you’re struggling with performance or your coworkers are, it can also be because of a lack of clear standards and expectations. 

Power Imbalance

If you’ve ever been in a workplace where there seem to be cliques that shift the power balance, you know how toxic and destructive that can be. 

For example, there may be a “boys’ club” happening at your workplace, but the power imbalance doesn’t always have to be divided by gender. 

What Can You Do?

If you notice signs of toxicity at work, what can you do?

You need to talk with your manager or HR first and foremost about the problems that you see. You can do so anonymously if that’s what you feel comfortable with. 

Before you broach the conversation, document everything that you see. Save emails, find a safe crypto wallet to store potential flagged transactions, texts, or whatever you need to highlight the negative interactions happening at work. 

Be specific when you’re reporting problems, rather than just making blanket statements. 

If you go through the proper channels to deal with the issues you see and nothing is being done, it’s likely time to consider an exit. 

Also, be aware of when toxic workplaces might represent a legal issue. For example, if there’s discrimination or sexual harassment, your employer may be in violation of the law. If you bring up those kinds of issues to HR or your supervisor and they aren’t addressed, you might need to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for guidance.