Reframing What We Think of As “Toxic Work Environments”

Aug 19

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Anyone who’s had a long career or held multiple jobs has likely experienced a toxic work environment at some point, and it can often lead to lasting emotional hurt. But even after leaving, we sometimes start to interpret each frustration that arises during future work opportunities as harmful. But what if it’s not? What if it’s just a challenging situation that can resolve itself with some adjustments? Today we hope to shed some light on the subtle differences between promising workplaces and detrimental ones. 

Our purpose isn’t to minimize negative experiences or persuade anyone to “stick it out” in damaging situations. It’s simply to provide tools to help you assess your circumstances objectively and make the best teamwide or personal decision. 

Why Rethinking the Label “Toxic” Matters

Sadly, unhealthy environments are pretty common. While they’re not always easy to define, you can usually sense their impact after some time. Such places breed hostility, distrust, division, productivity challenges, and mental health struggles. 


Sometimes similar stressors can threaten even healthy work environments because of a particular triggering event, misunderstanding, or other factors. These specific situations are often like any other relationship; each goes through rough patches, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re toxic.

Why does this distinction matter?

Learning the subtle differences between a snag versus an unsalvagable situation at work can help us address specific issues, build healthy team dynamics, and create rewarding careers with great companies.

5 Signs of A Promising Workplace

Leadership Owns Up to Mistakes & Takes Accountability

Mistakes happen, but the difference between a temporary roadblock and a toxic work environment comes down to how leaders handle them. Strong ones will own up to their part and avoid passing the buck. If your managers and executive leaders demonstrate genuine remorse, apologize, and make rectifying gestures, that’s a fantastic sign!

People Aren’t Leaving in Truckloads

If people are sticking around, there’s a good chance that decent structures are in place to smoothen out difficult circumstances that may arise from time to time. Note that a low turnover rate isn’t automatically a surefire sign of a healthy work environment. But it often indicates excellent growth opportunities, a sense of purpose and meaning among staff, and high engagement. 

There Are Noticeable Improvements Following Engagement & Retention Surveys 

Some companies issue feedback surveys as a purely performative gesture, another sign of a problematic work environment. But if leadership takes that information and uses it to improve and build a feedback culture, this shows a commitment to growing and changing. You might need to give it some time, though, as some changes can take a while to implement and weave into a company’s ecosystem! 

A Zero-Tolerance Policy Concerning Gossiping, Bullying and Harassment  

Toxic workplaces allow bullying, spreading rumours, and various forms of harassment to go unchecked. While these can sometimes pop up in a healthy work environment thanks to a few rare and bothersome characters, HR will have (or work toward developing) policies to firmly discourage these types of behaviours. 

Open, Honest and Calm Communication

Lastly, we all run into conflict and unpleasant team dynamics sometimes. But, again, it’s all about how it all pans out. A healthy environment allows people to air their grievances calmly and professionally without fear of penalization. Toxic work environments scare people into bottling up their stresses up and tiptoeing around issues.   

Trouble in Paradise? These Resources Might Help. 

To sum it up, it’s not that icky situations don’t ever rear their heads in healthy workplaces. But are they pervasive, never-ending problems or temporary snags in specific areas? Do people fear repercussions when speaking up or feel comfortable raising their concerns? Does leadership sweep them under the rug or take steps to address them?

These answers will make all the difference in the world when trying to figure out whether your company’s a keeper.

If you’ve noticed some communication or leadership challenges where you work, you can try suggesting these resources to your team:

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