Toxic Work Environments

If you work in a psychologically toxic workplace, your health is at risk.

It’s not just your physical well-being. While physical ailments can certainly stem from working in an unhealthy organization, including headaches, fatigue, heart problems and sleeplessness, so can emotional problems (depression, anxiety, stress). You may also suffer socially from interrupted family relationships, loss of interest in friends or extra-curricular activities and experience career-related problems such as reduced interest in work, lack of motivation and faltering attention to the job.

Some types of environments are more unhealthy than others. Seven elements have been shown to contribute greatly to worker suffering:

1. Unclear Jobs and Roles

If you lack a clear, up-to-date job description that defines your roles and responsibilities, you are at risk. Not knowing the objectives of your job and being placed in ambiguous roles or discovering that your job doesn’t use your talents effectively is a recipe for ill health.

2. Hazardous Conditions of Work

If you believe you are not paid fairly, your equipment is unreliable or breaks down frequently, you work shifts, have inflexible working hours or are required to work long hours, your health could be at risk and you could face stress. While your work may require shift work, long hours or dealing with risky equipment, these requirements can take their toll. The elements that create unhealthy workplaces combine to create situations in which workers are more susceptible to psychological and physical strain. So, working shifts does effect worker health, but when you add the other elements of an unhealthy workplace to the mix, stress results.

3. Lack of Work-Family-Life Balance

If the demands of work, home and personal life collide, you will compromise your ability to function well in any of these arenas. Worrying about how little time you have for family or yourself and working from home or when you’re off duty to finish projects, hurts in the long run. In the short term, it may work in your favour to compromise family or personal time to fulfill job expectations, but years of this rhythm will lead to feelings of burnout, along with unhappiness with the quality of your life.

4. Isolation

If you don’t get support at work or have no workplace friendships to draw on, your well-being is at risk. Being socially isolated and having no support to do your job are known hazards to your health. Sometimes staff are isolated on purpose—colleagues ignore them, their efforts go unacknowledged or they are excluded from important meetings and discussions. Feeling invisible is hard to take and over the long term it is easy to feel like you don’t matter.

5. Lack of Involvement

Is your career stalled? Knowing what you need to do to further your career (should you want to) is important to feeling a sense of meaning at work. Having a defined career path that delineates what steps to take to achieve your goals is key. If you lack autonomy on the job–you can’t make decisions without contacting your boss, you will feel thwarted and frustrated. And if you aren’t included in important decision-making, you’ll feel disengaged from work and this can eventually become an emotional or physical health problem. Being involved in the workplace in a significant way adds to staff morale and satisfaction with work. Anything less, is a recipe for strain, absenteeism and turn over.

6. Interpersonal Problems

Workplaces that tolerate chronic poor communication such as not making job expectations, priorities and tasks clear are courting disaster. If the workplace relationships are conflict-filled, antagonistic or uncooperative, staff suffer. So does the organization’s productivity and profitability. If violence erupts or harassment is rampant, companies and staff can face disability claims, grievances and legal difficulties. When people don’t get along for significant periods of time or disagreement is discouraged, workers bear the brunt. Many may leave, delivering a blow to the organization’s reputation and bottom line.

7. Characteristics of Work

Some workplaces don’t or can’t offer staff control over the pace of the work. Time pressures and too much work can create a frantic atmosphere. If the work itself seems unnecessary or redundant, staff feel their efforts are meaningless. This can lead to cynicism and a feeling of wasting one’s time. Environments in which there is a great deal of uncertainty also put people at risk. If staff are unsure about whether their job will continue to exist, if they are on tender hooks because the company is being bought or supervisors keep changing, this ambiguity can have harmful effects.

If your organization exhibits some of these characteristics, your health is at risk and working to change these conditions is important. While all organizations experience some of these hazardous factors at one time or another, it is the accumulation of these stressors and the chronic nature of these problems that pose the greatest risk.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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