The Psychological Toll of a Toxic Workplace

Do you dread the start of your work week, knowing you have to go back to a toxic environment full of difficult personalities?

Research by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, published in Harvard Business Review, reveals that as many as 98% of employees have been treated rudely by their colleagues at work.  When employees are treated with a lack of respect, it leads to poor morale and lost profits. Aside from these detrimental effects on the organization, some workplaces are so toxic, employees may experience psychological trauma.

Psychological trauma can often be traced back to workplace bullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and work interference (sabotage) which prevents work from getting done.” Signs may include accusations of incompetence despite a documented stellar work history, micromanagement, ignoring, and being assigned tasks that are nearly impossible to successfully complete.

A 2014 national survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute reveals that over 49% of Americans have experienced or witnessed bullying at work.  The research shows that 72% of bullies are bosses and that targets are usually kind, principled, and even more skilled than their abusers. In most cases bullies view their targets as threats. Perhaps most devastating is that many employees that have been targeted by bullying are never believed.

Bullying in the workplace has been linked to severe anxiety. One type of anxiety is complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).  What differentiates C-PTSD from PTSD is the accumulation of effects triggered by repeated trauma. PTSD, in contrast to C-PTSD, is often conceptualized as trauma triggered by events of a shorter duration or a single event.  Symptoms of C-PTSD may include flashbacks, irritability, reckless behavior, avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, feeling numb, memory problems, guilt, difficulty trusting others, anger, substance abuse, and obsession with revenge. People who have experienced previous forms of trauma may be more likely to have a negative emotional response to workplace bullying.

Despite being in a toxic work environment, it’s not always easy for employees to leave. They may be fearful of financial obligations. Others may fall into a cycle of learned helplessness.  When this happens, employees can’t think clearly and have difficulty coming up with a way to get out of the harmful situation. Abusive personalities take advantage of your perceived weak spots and use them to keep you dependent. These types of people will also make you question if what you’re experiencing is really happening.

If you believe you are being bullied, there are some things you can do to protect yourself. The first step is being aware of the signs.  You can be assertive by describing their behavior, how it makes you feel, what your preferences are, and the positive consequences for you and the bully if he or she is willing to change.  However, be aware of workplace protocols for addressing these issues, especially if the bully isn’t receptive to your assertive approach.  It may be helpful to keep a log of the incidents that have occurred and who was present in case you decide to take legal action. Maintain your professional standards, but don’t try to prove yourself to a bully. Nothing you do will ever be good enough for many bullies. Develop an exit strategy which might include searching for a new job or creating a financial cushion. It’s also crucial to have social support.

Organizations also shoulder some of the responsibility for the psychological health of their employees. What can be done to promote healthier workplaces? Porath and Pearson suggest  leaders ask for feedback and serve as role models by incorporating good behavior into the company culture. If leaders want to be proactive, they may consider screening out potentially problematic employees by paying attention to their behavior during the interview. Other suggestions include teaching civility and rewarding good behavior, punishing bad behavior, and seeking feedback from former employers.

The psychological toll of a toxic workplace is real. It’s up to both employees and organizational leaders to cultivate healthier work environments.

Want more tips on how to defend yourself at work, in your personal relationships, or in everyday life? Buy my new book, Toxicity in the Workplace: Coping With Difficult People on the Job, available in Kindle and in paperback.  Also consider my other book Psychological Self-Defense: Strategies to Combat Rude, Inconsiderate, and Disappointing Behavior, available on Kindle and in paperback.