Work Life
A woman in the shirt leaning on a desk while holding a cup of coffee

How To Deal With A Toxic Work Environment

Turns out, communication is key.

Luis Herrera/Stocksy

Starting a new job is nerve-racking, especially if you’re right out of college or high school. But what happens if once you get settled, you realize it’s not the best situation for you? Or worse — what if it’s actually a toxic workplace?

It can be hard to pin down what qualifies as “toxic,” and it can be even harder to know what to do about it. According to Rebecca Ahmed, a certified professional coach and founder and CEO of Energetic Impact, there are plenty of ways a workplace can be toxic: “If it’s not an inclusive environment, if it’s energetically draining, if your voice isn’t heard … those are all toxic work environments,” she tells Elite Daily. But if you’re stuck in a toxic situation and can’t leave, you still have options. Elite Daily talked to two career experts who shared their best advice for improving your circumstances without quitting.

Signs Of A Toxic Work Environment:

Ahmed says to trust your gut feeling if something seems off, especially “if you aren’t able to feel completely yourself.” There can be physical signs, too. “If your energy is draining, something’s not clicking,” she adds.

Also, look at how your contributions to the workplace are received: “When employees feel they’re kept out of conversations, their opinion or input is minimized or belittled — that creates a toxic experience,” Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, a partner and chief research officer at Contemporary Leadership Advisors, tells Elite Daily. According to Baumgartner, you should resonate with each of these five pillars in the workplace: feeling welcome, known, included, supported, and connected.

Nontoxic work environments, she says, champion “psychological safety,” which the Harvard Business Review defines as “the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation.” It also includes opportunities for growth and development, and acceptance of who you are.

Julia Volk/Stocksy

If You’re Stuck In A Toxic Work Environment:

“The first step is acknowledging what’s not working,” according to Ahmed. She says that helps you focus on what your goal is, in terms of what can be fixed.

Baumgartner suggests you reach out to your company’s HR department if you’re in a toxic situation. “I always encourage people to go to HR,” she says. “I think it’s appropriate to do because [in] appropriate business practices, it will at least be noted then and recorded.”

However, if your HR department is your problem, you may want to change your approach. Baumgartner suggests making use of anonymous feedback tools, like surveys.

“Typically, senior leaders are reading through those comments as well,” she explains. Ahmed says your next move depends on how an organization is structured. “If you have an open-door environment to [upper management], I recommend reaching out to HR’s leadership,” she says. But, she warns, “if HR and leadership are [both] toxic, it’s probably best to find an organization that better aligns with your values and energy.”

But not everyone can do that (or at least, not right away). If you’re stuck navigating your workplace until you can get away, here’s some specific advice on how to handle it.

If Your Co-Worker Or Boss Is Toxic:

According to workplace consulting firm Emtrain, 29% of 40,000 employees polled in its 2021 Workplace Culture Report survey said they’ve left jobs due to “workplace conflict.” And while communication is a two-way street, there are things you can do to smooth your chats.

For example, initiate a conversation — virtual or in person — with your co-worker or boss to discuss your relationship and communication. In the meeting, Ahmed suggests you “lead with questions to better understand why you’re not getting along with this person.” Instead of being accusatory, a curious and empathetic approach will “[allow] you to be caring.”

“See their world from their perspective,” Ahmed advises.

Of course, it isn’t guaranteed to work. If they aren’t receptive, Baumgartner advises keeping your distance. “It’s better to maintain as much separation as you can while still maintaining a very minimal level of polite, distant interaction.”

If Your Co-Worker Is Taking Credit For Your Work:

You may be reluctant to mention if a co-worker is taking credit for your ideas, but there are ways to stop it from escalating. Ahmed recommends “the amplification effect,” also sometimes called “shine theory,” a workplace tactic that went viral during the Obama administration in 2016. The team-based approach relies on allied co-workers repeating and crediting you for your key points or concepts when they’re around your superiors. If a colleague tries to take credit for an idea of a project that was your own, co-workers can reiterate it was your idea in the first place.

If you don’t have a preventative strategy, Baumgartner advises being direct with the offending co-worker. “I would go to them and say, ‘I saw that happen, but I was surprised to see that because that was a project I delivered.’” But if the person repeatedly takes credit for your work, get your manager involved, she adds.

If You’re Underpaid:

Baumgartner emphasizes the importance of preparation before addressing your manager to ask for a raise. “The best approach is data-informed. Write it down or type it up,” she says. If approaching HR is more appropriate, do so, Baumgartner adds.

“Understand what your market data is,” Ahmed says. “Have a conversation with your leader and say, ‘I’ve done some research. I see I’m being under-compensated. Here’s my value.’”

And being prepared has its perks. “When you act in thoughtful ways, oriented around information and specific requests, it’s more likely to result in a great outcome,” Baumgartner shares.


If Your Co-Workers Are Gossiping About Others:

There are two paths, according to Baumgertner: Talk to the person who is gossiping or distance yourself. “If it’s unhealthy or hurtful to others, taking on the responsibility [to speak up] is the ideal course of action.” If that isn’t an option, try taking the high road by “excusing yourself” from the conversation and refusing to participate.

If Your Remote Workplace Is Toxic:

Toxicity can manifest differently in a remote work environment: Signs include burnout, avoidance of major issues, and a poor connection to your colleagues, per Ahmed.

“It’s much harder to differentiate between work and home,” she explains. “Many feel a need to be connected to their computer no matter the hour, which can quickly lead to burnout.”

To help prevent your work from draining you, set clear boundaries. “Start at a certain time, and turn off at a certain time,” Ahmed suggests. And always remember to add in breaks.

Addressing interpersonal problems is even trickier in a remote environment when you can’t go to someone’s office to talk face-to-face. If a co-worker or leader is avoiding you, Ahmed suggests you “send a heartfelt email or message outlin[ing] your desire to connect and address issues.” She adds that using bullet points to convey your issues will ensure they’re clearly outlined. Ahmed says if you get radio silence after three attempts, you should escalate the issue to a superior and follow their advice.

To counteract feeling disconnected, engage more where you can, Ahmed says. “Communicate via chat, verbally, or through whatever other channels your organization uses,” she recommends.

Staying Productive In A Toxic Work Environment:

Prioritize what makes you happy. If the projects you’re most passionate about give you strength to get through the workday, Baumgartner says you should ask for more responsibility in those areas.

Ahmed recommends taking a values assessment to determine what’s most important to you. If you can cut out extra projects, superfluous meetings, and harmful conversations with co-workers, you’ll start feeling a lot lighter. “Start taking out things that don’t support your goals, and that will start minimizing that toxic environment,” she says. Although you can’t take a boss or co-worker completely out of your equation, you can eliminate other workplace noise, such as “meetings that don’t serve or align with your goals.” Ahmed says, “Remove those from your calendar if [they’re] not needed.” Cutting out the unnecessary toxic moments in your day will help you “be more motivated [and] engaged,” she adds.

But most importantly, when you’re dealing with a toxic workplace, it’s essential to have compassion for yourself. “Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed is normal, and you’re not alone,” Baumgartner advises. “Remember, you deserve to feel empowered to act.”


Rebecca Ahmed, professional certified coach and founder and CEO of Energetic Impact

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, Ph.D. clinical psychology, chief workforce scientist at Achievers and partner at Contemporary Leadership Advisors