6 ways to know the difference between normal work stress and actual workplace toxicity

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How normal is it to be stressed at work? With looming deadlines, daily responsibilities, dealing with coworkers and lackluster office snacks, every job comes with obligations that can often leave you feeling frazzled by the day’s end. But how do you know when your worn-out feelings are just what you have to deal with because you’re an adult with a job and what might be more extreme — and justifiably intolerable — workplace toxicity? Because honestly, there’s a huge difference between normal job stress and a toxic workplace.

Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard defines a toxic work environment as “one where people at the bottom are experiencing corrosive pressures, and these corrosive pressures are draining them and making them want to leave.”

Depending on how you cope with work-related stress, you could easily mistake your response to professional experiences as a personal issue and wrongly place the blame on yourself.

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But before you shoulder all the responsibility for how you feel about the job, make sure you know the differences between normal (albeit annoying) effects of adulting and something way worse.

1Workplace toxicity has a huge impact on your health.

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Whereas routine work-related stress may annoy you on the clock, workplace toxicity continues to affect you long after you’ve left the office. The negative impact of a toxic work environment can cause your health, personal relationships, and home life to suffer.

According to WebMD, a toxic workplace can cause a number of health issues including high blood pressure, increased blood glucose levels (which make diabetes harder to control), higher cholesterol levels, depression, and increased risk of heart disease.

2Problem-solving techniques differ.

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If you find yourself feeling stressed over a workplace situation — say your boss paired you with an annoying co-worker on a project — a quick way to tell whether you’re experiencing normal work stress or dealing with a toxic environment is to take note of how problems are solved on the job.

If your concerns about your pesky project partner are dismissed without explanation or met with hostility, your boss more than likely has poor management skills, which is a major contribution to toxic workplaces.

According to Entrepreneur,

“Managers who instill fear tend to assign blame, withhold information and answer questions in vague, noncommittal ways. They refrain from showing compassion and creating a persona that appears unapproachable. They also thrive on being unpredictable; and that has an effect, because when employees are uncertain, they are fearful.”

3Negativity thrives in a toxic workplace.


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Even in healthy work environments, it’s unrealistic to expect every employee to be excited and enthusiastic all the time. However, in a toxic workplace, basically no one is happy.

In some cases, employees grow accustomed to the toxicity. Many of them learn how to survive in an unhappy workplace, so a company’s low turnover rate may give the impression that its workers are satisfied when they’re actually just good at coping with a tough situation.  

If you find yourself surrounded by other disgruntled employees who are constantly expressing their dissatisfaction with the job or appear to just be hanging in because they feel trapped, understand that this isn’t normal workplace stress, and the issues are very likely far bigger than you.

4Your successes are never rewarded.


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Employees work to earn a living, but as Forbes reports, money isn’t always the best employee motivation. Workers need to feel empowered and like their bosses have a vested interest in helping them meet career goals. They also need to be rewarded for their contributions.

In toxic work environments, there are very few incentives (outside of your paycheck) to fulfill your job duties. For instance, you may have a boss who doesn’t show appreciation for hard-working employees or a manager who only focuses on numbers and forgets to treat subordinates like people.

5Idea-sharing isn’t encouraged.


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When you work in a healthy environment, you’re encouraged to share your ideas with team members, but a toxic workplace will leave you feeling stifled. Management won’t take an interest in your ideas and may even steal credit for them.

6There’s intentional miscommunication.

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When your boss forgot to copy you on the email that informed everyone (else) about mandatory overtime, it could’ve been a fluke, but if communication mix-ups like this happen more often than not, it could be a sign of workplace toxicity.

Other examples of dysfunctional communication at work include higher-ups implementing rule changes without sharing them with staff members, providing info that intentionally misleads workers or having someone else deliver a message, reports Entrepreneur.

No one goes to work expecting an entirely stress-free experience, but it’s crucial to your overall well-being to know the difference between normal stress and workplace toxicity. Understanding the distinctions could make a huge difference in the direction of your career path.

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