Have you recently left a job that was the biggest threat to your mental health (or are you leaving soon)?
You are definitely not alone — bullying, favoritism, verbal abuse, and malicious gossiping are still very common; I’ve been there myself.
To recover from a toxic workplace, you first need to identify and acknowledge that your work environment was toxic to your wellbeing, and that it wasn’t your fault.
Then, you want to prioritize your mental health (for example, with therapy), find a job you do love, and never let your previous workplace interfere with your plans for the future.
Keep reading to find out what are the warning signs of a toxic workplace, and what you can do to recover.
Signs of a toxic workplace
Sometimes it’s obvious your work environment is unhealthy; other times, not so much.
The very first step is to acknowledge that you are (or have been) in a job that isn’t right for you. It’s not always easy, so you must pay attention to these warning signs.
This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but it will give you a general idea. If you have been in a toxic workplace, you’ll probably recognize some of these warning signs.
- High staff turnover. Although in some jobs and career staff turnover would be high regardless, this isn’t the case for most jobs. Somehow people have accepted this idea that work sucks and there’s nothing we can do about it, but the truth is that it is possible to have a job you love. If the company struggles to keep their employees, that may indicate that the workplace easily leads to extreme stress or burnout, and that’s not normal.
- Gossiping. Gossip is bad for mental health — your own, and everybody else’s — and I encourage you to avoid it as much as you can, and avoid those who gossip non-stop. It’s true that people can gossip anywhere, however in a toxic environment (such as a toxic workplace) that seems to be much more likely, or even “the norm”. This is because a toxic job creates a lot of anxiety, which makes people stressed and insecure, which makes them gossip.
- Poor communication. Usually, working in a smaller team is better. It doesn’t just increase productivity — it also increases the chances of job satisfaction, motivation, and happiness at the workplace. This is also my experience, and the experience of many people I’ve met. And if you look at the main reason why, it’s the fact that communication is so much easier in smaller teams. Conversely, a workplace that feels impersonal, one in which you can’t communicate, be heard, or express your thoughts, can make you feel frustrated and alienated.
- Unrealistic expectations. Striving for excellence is one thing. Having to deal with a boss or colleagues whose expectations are simply absurd is another. And in the worst case scenario, this translates to a toxic work culture in which you have to become some sort of caffeinated workaholic (or control freak) to survive. Again, this is not normal, despite what you may have been told.
- Favoritism. This is another potential warning sign you shouldn’t ignore. Obviously some of your colleagues will have unique skills or more experience, and that can lead to promotions, higher roles, or more responsibilities, and that’s okay. But favoritism itself is toxic and will almost always lead to tensions, animosity, and unhealthy rivalry in the workplace.
- Bullying/abuse. I’ve already mentioned it’s not always easy to recognize a toxic workplace; and that some signs are subtle, and could be mistaken for something else (for instance, malicious gossip could be interpreted as “friendly jokes”). But with bullying and abuse, it’s usually pretty obvious, and if it does happen, even once, that’s a no-no and it clearly tells you that you are in a toxic work environment.
Your own warning signs
Each person reacts to a toxic environment differently, but here are some of the most common warning signs. If you have been in a toxic workplace for a while, you may…
- Have trouble falling or staying asleep. Provided you have a good sleep routine, your sleep quality will usually tell you if there’s something you need to fix. This could be your health, for example, but in this case I’m referring to a job that interferes with your ability to relax and turn off your brain.
- Experience anxiety, mood swings, or depression. Again, if your mood isn’t optimal, the list of possible causes is endless. But if you find that the longer you work somewhere, the worse your overall mental health, it can’t be a coincidence, right? And interestingly enough, some people find that when they have a toxic job, they tend to experience anxiety even on their days off, sometimes with greater intensity (as their body has accumulated stress during the workweek).
- Constantly think about your job or colleagues. In my article about the signs someone is draining your energy I have mentioned that it is unhealthy to think about someone all the time (unless you’re in love, I guess). The same applies to your job, and if you find that you tend to overthink or dwell on it, especially when you’re not working, it could be a warning sign.
- Notice your self-esteem has decreased. Whether we like it or not, our job affects our self-image (though obviously we need to be aware that what we do for a living is not our identity). A workplace that’s not for you, or one where people tend to undermine or undervalue you can drastically affect the way you see yourself and lead you to toxic thoughts such as the idea that you’re not enough.
- Experience physical symptoms. When reacting to an environment we dislike, our subconscious mind will give us signs and hints. More often than not, these will actually be physical symptoms: stomach pains, dizziness, headaches, or, as we saw earlier, insomnia. So if you think you are or have been in a toxic workplace, listen to your body as well as your gut feelings.
- Feel drained or have brain fog. When there is a potential threat or problem in your life, that’s going to drain a lot of your mental energy — whether you are aware of it or not, and most of the time you’re not. As a result, it will be harder to concentrate on anything and you may even have brain fog. If it’s happened to you, see if it’s related to your previous or current job.
- Constantly think about quitting. Again, it is possible to have a job you love (or at least like). If you feel your life has been reduced to the weekend, or your next days off, or your next ten-day vacation — something needs to be fixed. Similarly, if your intuition tells you you should quit, and you have recurring thoughts about that, it can be a sign of a toxic workplace.
How to recover from a toxic workplace
1. Acknowledge you have been in a toxic environment
As mentioned earlier, this is the very first step.
Nobody likes to admit they have been abused in any way.
Nobody likes to accept the fact they have made a mistake, or the wrong decision, even if it wasn’t their fault.
But when we acknowledge we are (or have been) in the wrong environment, that gives us the power to reflect over what happened and decide we will never go through the same experience.
If you have been in a toxic workplace, you must be willing to be 100 percent honest with yourself and acknowledge that, and that’s going to make it a lot easier to take action and move on.
2. Love yourself and know it was not your fault
If you have been in a toxic workplace, you’ve probably seen and experienced gossiping, favoritism, unfair policies, poor management, or even abuse.
You probably thought your skills and efforts were not valued, and that no matter what you did, nobody would appreciate or recognize you.
Over time, this can literally crush your self-esteem.
It can also make you believe it was your fault. After all, why didn’t you leave immediately if you knew it was a toxic workplace?
But the truth is that when it comes to work, things are a lot more complicated than that.
Most of us have only one source of income, and quitting isn’t always easy. Plus, as we’ve seen earlier, it’s not always clear whether you are in a toxic environment or “it’s just you”, and it takes time to fully acknowledge your situation.
So remind yourself that whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault — just bad luck.
3. Know it will take time to recover
If you have experienced a truly toxic work environment, is it possible to instantly forget everything and go back to your previous level of happiness and relaxation, as soon as you leave?
No, no such thing. Sorry.
And if you’ve been through actual abuse, such as bullying, shouting, unfair criticism, or exclusion, it will definitely take time to fully recover — mentally, and even physically.
A week or even a month after you’ve left your job, you may still experience mood swings, tiredness, or self-esteem issues.
This is nothing to worry about; it’s just your body and mind slowly going back to normal after all that stress and anxiety.
Know it will take some time — and know you’ll eventually forget and move on, too.
4. Make your mental health a priority; be kind to yourself
You’ve been through a difficult time. You’ve accumulated a lot of stress. You’ve had to deal with people you don’t want to see ever again.
Now it’s time to put yourself first and achieve the level of wellbeing you deserve.
Yes, it takes time to recover, but if you make your mental health a priority, that’s going to happen a lot faster.
So be kind to yourself. Do the things you enjoy doing. Spend enough time with the people you love. Treat yourself to a nice restaurant, a relaxing massage, or some shopping.
Spend more time in nature, exercise, eat right, and develop a nighttime routine.
But most importantly…
5. Try therapy (it can help you recover faster)
If you feel you have experienced an unhealthy amount of stress, anxiety, or even depression throughout your past work experience (and you probably did), therapy can help.
An experienced therapist can guide you and make you reflect on what you have been through, and understand whether your past experience has affected your current level of happiness and self-esteem.
He or she will also give you the right tools to recover faster and improve your overall mental health, and that’s going to benefit not just your career but your life in general.
Keep in mind, you don’t need a hundred sessions — it could be as quick as three or four sessions, and you may be surprised by the results.
6. Embrace and be aware of new opportunities
Whether you’ve already found a new job or you’re looking for one, be confident and ambitious.
Meaning, know that you deserve a job that’s right for you.
Turn the thought of “I need a job I don’t hate” into the mindset of “I want/deserve a job I love”.
Don’t be afraid to network and talk to people around you, because that can lead to new opportunities and possibilities.
Yes, you had a bad experience, but that doesn’t preclude good ones in the future.
So far you may have learned that work equals burnout, or that somehow all careers lead to stress and unfulfillment, but that couldn’t be further than the truth.
Be open to new opportunities and life will reward you.
7. Know that the toxic job had nothing to do with you
Lastly, you want to make sure the toxic workplace did not affect your identity, your self-image, and your idea of what you can and can’t do, and who you can and can’t be.
I don’t care if you felt undervalued, belittled, ignored, or even abused — that has nothing to do with you; it doesn’t define who you are.
You simply had to deal with a difficult situation, either because of bad luck or poor choices (which is irrelevant and probably not your fault, as explained earlier).
Don’t let a poor work experience define the rest of your career and simply move on.
You already had the courage to quit and start a new chapter in your life — now it’s time to live the new chapter.
Recovering from a toxic workplace: summary
- Be honest with yourself and acknowledge you have been in a toxic workplace
- Know that it wasn’t your fault; don’t beat yourself up; be kind to yourself
- Don’t expect to recover instantly — the longer you’ve been there, the longer it’ll take
- Make your mental and physical health a priority; schedule some me-time
- Talk to a therapist, ideally one who specializes in the field: it can help you recover faster
- Know that it’s possible to get a job you love and deserve; keep looking for new career opportunities
- Don’t let your previous job interfere with your dreams, hopes, and plans for the future