Turns out the term “toxic workplace” wasn’t an exaggeration at all. Nope, it’s not just hyperbole from people whining instead of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps (which makes me cringe to write even sarcastically) or quiet quitting out of laziness. Jobs that cause employees unreasonable levels of stress are literally dangerous. So much so, that the U.S. surgeon general has entered the chat, and he’s telling employers they need to do better.
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has issued a warning that working in disrespectful, uninclusive, overly competitive, unethical, and/or abusive environments is hazardous to your health. According to his office’s guidance, the health effects of a toxic work environment include:
- Sleep disruption
- Muscle tension
- Impaired metabolic function
- Increased risk for infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal ideation
How can a bad job cause all these problems? Well, according to researchers, working at a toxic job leads to chronically elevated stress levels, which in turn can cause a whole host of mental and physical health issues—and the above list is far from exhaustive. For one employee who shared her story on The Muse, an increasingly unreasonable workload manifested physically as hair loss, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and severe, chronic stomach pain.
And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of employees feeling stress—and the effects of it—is higher than ever. The Gallup State of the Workplace 2022 report found that 44% of global workers reported feeling stressed daily in 2021—the second record in a row. Workers in the U.S. and Canada specifically reported some of the highest stress levels of any region, with 50% saying they felt stressed daily. In a 2021 survey of 1,500 U.S. employees, 76% reported at least one symptom of a mental illness—up from 59% two years earlier.
But, the surgeon general’s guidance cautions, while COVID-19 may have exacerbated them, “the pandemic did not create these work conditions.”
The report places the responsibility to fix toxic work environments on the employer—not on the worker. You didn’t cause your own toxic workplace, nor did you cause the resulting burnout or any other negative effects. But you can try to identify whether your company—or one you’re interviewing with—has the makings of a healthy workplace.
5 elements of a healthy workplace, according to the surgeon general
Here are the five components the surgeon general’s guidance calls “essential for workplace mental health and well-being.”
1. Protection from harm
“Protection from harm” encompasses both physical and psychological safety and financial and job security. If you’re constantly worried about money—whether because you struggle to make ends meet or your employer is always threatening to fire or lay off workers—that could contribute to a toxic work environment. For an example of physical security, look to the dedication "to all workers who lost their lives during the pandemic and to their families”—some of whom may have gotten sick due to unsafe working conditions.
Inadequate safety doesn’t need to be as egregious as failing to protect the physical health of employees during a deadly pandemic to constitute a toxic work environment. Flouting safety policies; exposing workers to hostility, discrimination, harassment, and bullying; or enforcing rules that can cause harm all contribute to dangerous work environments.
Ask yourself if your employer does the following:
- Prioritizes your physical and psychological safety
- Allows you to get adequate rest
- Normalizes conversations around and supports your mental health
- Creates and implements diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility policies, processes, and practices
2. Connection and community
Social support and belonging are two basic human needs. Is your employer allowing them to be met? Do you have coworkers you can turn to for help with your work? Do you have opportunities to interact with others (either in-person or remotely)? Do you feel like a welcome and respected part of the team?
An employer that supports employee connection and community will:
- Create inclusive cultures that emphasize belonging for all workers, regardless of background
- Cultivate trusted relationships between workers and ensure every employee is seen as a full person, not just the work they do
- Foster an environment that allows collaboration, teamwork, and communication for coworkers at all levels and in all departments
3. Work-life harmony
This is more than just work-life balance—it’s also the autonomy to make choices for yourself at work and the flexibility to do what’s best for you as both an employee and a person. A workplace that doesn’t value your autonomy might micromanage you or unnecessarily dictate what processes you use to do your work. Or your employers might expect you to be responsive outside work hours or frown upon taking any PTO. And a workplace that doesn’t value flexibility may not let you adjust your work hours for doctors appointments or allow you to attend to caregiving duties (which disproportionately affects women).
A company that promotes work-life harmony:
- Allows for some autonomy over how, when, and where work is done
- Makes work hours as flexible and predictable as it can
- Ensures access to adequate paid leave
- Respects boundaries between work time and non-work time regardless of whether an employee works in the office, remotely, or in a hybrid schedule
4. A sense of mattering at work
Mattering at work covers both dignity (being respected and valued) and meaning (finding purpose in your work). Basically, do you feel like what you do matters and do you feel like you matter to the company you work for?
Employers that uphold this component are:
- Paying employees a living wage—at minimum
- Including employees in workplace decisions
- Maintaining a culture of gratitude and recognition for workers
- Drawing and making explicit connections between employees’ day-to-day work and the company’s mission
5. Opportunities for growth
There’s more than one way to grow as a professional. The report splits growth opportunities into two main categories: learning and accomplishment. Learning means you’re gaining new skills and knowledge through your daily work, stretch assignments and projects, or other training and development opportunities. Accomplishment means you’re given clear goals and the ability to meet them—and you’re recognized when you do. Your employer makes you feel competent and confident when you meet goals and you see a path for moving up within the company.
Does your employer offer opportunities for growth through any of these actions?
- Offering training, education, and/or mentoring—possibly directly or through a tuition reimbursement or professional development allowance
- Laying out clear, equitable paths for advancement
- Ensuring relevant, reciprocal, and constructive feedback on your work