Identifying Toxic Work Environments 

Have you ever had an abusive boss that barks out orders and belittles their staff? Or a manager who is underqualified, overconfident, and refuses to communicate efficiently? I once worked for a fashion designer who degraded me, swore and yelled at me, and made me purchase drugs for her. She told me that working for her was my only way into a career as a Celebrity Fashion Stylist and 18-year-old-me believed her. Toxic work environments can take many shapes. Most Americans can relate to working at a job they spend every morning dreading and every night dreaming about never returning. 

Research by the CDC shows that workplace toxicity takes a deep toll on employee well-being, productivity, and business performance. The cost of productivity loss due to unplanned absences costs approximately $431 billion per year. $86 billion of this lost productivity can be attributed to employees calling in sick when they don’t feel like going to work. Proving that suffering mental distress at work should be as worrisome as a slip and fall. 

Toxic work environments often gauge success by sales and profit instead of customer retention and employee satisfaction. Two-thirds of working Americans say they have worked in a toxic workplace and Naomi Osaka is the current spokesperson. She recently decided to stand up against toxic work environments by pulling out of the 2021 French Open due to mental health issues. 

Before the tournament, the reigning champion of both the U.S. Open and the Australian Open made a statement that she would not be participating in contractual press conferences to protect her mental health. She was fined $15,000 by the French Open and other Grand Slam tournaments threatened her with future game suspensions if she continued to avoid the press. Naomi made the decision she thought was best and withdrew from the French Open which resulted in the 23 -year old second-best tennis player in the world being called an “arrogant spoiled brat” in the press while other outlets mocked her “diva behavior”.

4 Common Signs of a Toxic Work Environment 

  • Team No Breaks: You’re overworked, underpaid, and often expected to “push through” and/or devote as much time and attention to work as the owner or manager. Which results in your work coming home with you.  
  • No Recognition: You’re unappreciated, undervalued, and your boundaries are often ignored which decreases motivation.
  • No Accountability: You’re blamed for the mistakes of others and always expected to pick up the slack. 
  • Abuse: You’re verbally or emotionally abused or sexually harassed by toxic coworkers and scared to ask for help for fear of losing pay or benefits.

Women of color are not afforded the luxury of a range of emotions. We often carry the weight of the perceived bias of being difficult, spoiled, lazy, and/or emotional. Instead of falling into that societal trap, we’ve had to internalize the anger and resentment of not being allowed to show up whole and authentically. Not having concerns validated, having to bite our tongue or hold back for fear of being fired. Which encourages exploitation.

I recently worked for a company that tokenized me, especially during Black History Month. My voiced concerns were dismissed but when I quit the owner broke down crying when I explained my feelings of tokenization. Whether knowingly or not, his white tears were a violent effort to shift his responsibility of creating a safe workspace for his employees of color to him being a victim of me quitting. 

Women are often told and easily believe that we have to be the ones to make the emotional sacrifices. But there is a difference between selfishness and self-care. By making her self-care a priority, Naomi is changing the perception and expectations of professional athletes. She’s also setting an example of what all employees should expect from their employers. 

4 Ways to Navigate A Toxic Work Environment 

Currently, 25% of employees don’t feel safe voicing their opinions about work-related issues and 25% of employees don’t feel respected or valued on the job. As a result, the cost of turnover due to workplace culture is $223 billion in the past 5 years. In a perfect world, one could just quit working in a toxic environment, but it’s not always that easy. 

Often we’re depending on that income to pay for rent, food, and other essentials. Not to mention the job insecurities that the pandemic has brought on. Here are four ways to help navigate a toxic workplace if quitting isn’t an option. 

  1. Create Boundaries  – Leave your work at work and ALWAYS take your lunch break.
  2. Find A Support System  – Naomi had Serena Williams and Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps in her corner when she decided to put her mental health first. You need a friend, family member, or therapist outside of work that you can vent to.
  3. Speak Up  – Speak up if you feel mistreated at work, and advocate for your wellness, no matter the push-back from your employer. Don’t back down when your mental health is at risk.
  4. Stop The Shame Spiral  – Avoid self-shaming. You’re not weak or selfish if you refuse to subject yourself to unhealthy work conditions.

Road To Reform 

As we recover from the greatest global crisis in a generation work norms have been completely upended. Employee priorities have shifted to a healthy work-life balance; a recent survey shows that  39% of U.S. adults would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work.

We need work reform in all areas but the pandemic put a spotlight on those in essential positions. A February study from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that in the U.S. line cooks had the highest mortality rate during the height of the pandemic. Restaurant managers and owners blame their inability to retain or re-hire staff on unemployment benefits saying “no one wants to work” because they’d rather stay home and cash unemployment checks. The truth is, restaurant owners can’t ensure a Covid-safe work environment for their employees.

Estefanía told Eater that she quit her restaurant manager job as a result of being ignored by her boss and harassed by a coworker. After taking two weeks off to recover and quarantine from COVID-19 “I came back to be given the silent treatment from the owner. He said I abandoned him and that he couldn’t trust me [or] see me as a manager anymore.” She finally quit when a coworker threatened to call ICE on her.

People in powerful positions can empower employees or exploit their vulnerabilities. Due to the lack of proper training managers often unknowingly encourage toxic work environments because they are unaware of how to properly nurture a positive one. Healthy workplaces are committed to open communication and creating healthy boundaries. They prioritize self-care with the understanding that it goes hand-in-hand with productivity and attendance. 

Marketers and advertisers are responsible for investigating workplace culture and practices before partnering with a brand. Making sure that the brands you stand with are aligned with your company ethos. Do they have fair pay practices, employee benefits, and diversity and inclusivity training? Is there a training and development plan for leadership skills, communication, and emotional intelligence? These are the signs of long-term investments by a high-value company. Signs that they are on the road to workplace reform.