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Westend61, fizkes, Tim Robberts, and Carlina Teteris/Getty Images

In November 2021, when we published an article about recovering from a toxic workplace, the response astounded us. More people read it than we’d ever expected. We always put out stories we hope will resonate with readers. But in this case, we had to acknowledge our disappointment over realizing just how relatable toxic workplaces seemed to be.

The deeper we delved into our coverage of toxic workplaces in 2022, the more obvious it became that people needed support as they faced toxic work situations. And it seemed like the toxicity was everywhere: toxic work environments, toxic bosses, toxic job descriptions, toxic habits.

This pattern reached beyond The Muse. Google saw record interest in the search term “toxic work environment” in 2022, more than any time since 2004. The term “toxic boss” showed a similar up-and-to-the-right trend. Toxic corporate culture was “by far the strongest predictor” of attrition helping drive the Great Resignation, according to an analysis of employee data published in the MIT Sloan Management Review last January, about 10.4 times as powerful as compensation. Similarly, McKinsey found last July that toxic workplace behavior was—again, by far—the biggest factor leading to negative outcomes including intent to leave and symptoms of burnout, depression, and anxiety.

The research came to life as we saw story after story resonate:

Meena Thiruvengadam noticed right away that something was off at her new job. It “started at a dirty desk with drawers that still held the previous occupant’s unused disposable razors, random bits of foreign currency, and a few candy wrappers,” she wrote. “The messy desk was the first sign that something was amiss.” By the time she left about a year later, she’d been cut out of key meetings and pressured to hire a serial sexual harasser.

For April Zimmerman, it wasn’t her desk but her body that first signaled—and then kept signaling—that it was time to leave a toxic job. “I began experiencing episodes of heart palpitations, lightheadedness, trembling, and shortness of breath,” she recalled. “My counselor later told me that these were anxiety attacks. My body was communicating, but I wasn’t listening.” Until finally, she did listen.

And Alisha Tillery explained that leaving a toxic job “doesn’t magically erase your previous experience.” Just because you made the difficult but healthy decision to pursue a new opportunity doesn’t mean you’re over the past harms. “Perhaps you’re anxious when it’s time to connect with a new manager because your last boss was a bully,” she wrote. “Or maybe you don’t feel confident enough to speak up in meetings because you were silenced at your old gig, and that made you feel unsafe to share.” But there are steps you can take to recover.

Based on these experiences, we polled our audience in December 2022. Out of 1,300 respondents, nearly two-thirds (64.2%) have faced toxic situations at work, whether they trace them to the company overall or a particular person within it. For respondents in the 25-to-40 and 41-to-56 age groups, that percentage was 74% and 79%, respectively. The survey also found:

  • Female respondents (68%) were more likely to report having toxic experiences than male respondents (64%) or nonbinary (59%) respondents.
  • Three quarters of respondents who’ve found themselves in toxic work situations have either left (53%) or are actively trying to (22%). White respondents were 10% more likely to have moved on from a toxic job than Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, and other respondents of color.
  • By far the most common way respondents described the nature of their toxic work experiences was disrespectful (55%), followed by abusive (34%), non-inclusive (30%), unethical (29%), and cutthroat (21%). More than half of all white respondents called out disrespect whereas Asian, Black, and Hispanic/Latinx respondents were all more likely than white respondents to call out non-inclusivity, though disrespect ranked highest for all races.
  • For the most part, employees who’ve been in toxic work situations blame their leaders (44%) and direct managers (41%), with coworkers (28%) and teams (16%) trailing behind.
  • To that end, respondents most often identified leadership and management training (43%) as a step that could’ve improved the situation, followed by accountability for team members (33%) and better working conditions (26%).

The stats above may seem bleak, but they actually make one thing very clear: We are now, as a workforce, toxic aware.

graphic showing the definition of the phrase “toxic aware”
Katie Farello

In the midst of the upheaval that has been the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen all kinds of professional awakenings. “We’ve all learned so much about our values, needs, and priorities these last few years. We’ve discovered more about what we want in a role, team, and work environment,” Muse founder and CEO Kathryn Minshew recently wrote in her New Year’s letter. On the flipside, she added, “We’ve realized there are some things we’re simply no longer willing to put up with. And so many of us have been emboldened to say goodbye to the jobs that no longer suit us and search for those that do.”

It is the era, after all, that produced the so-called “Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting.” And all the while that we’ve been resigning and quitting—or watching others resign or quit—we’ve all become a little more toxic aware. Our phrase of the year going into 2023, “toxic aware” means you recognize unhealthy patterns, believe you deserve better, and pursue change for yourself and even for others.

At both The Muse and our sister site Fairygodboss, we’re here to help you see what might be wrong with your job or career. But more importantly, we’re here to help you find a way forward—whether it’s through advice to lean on as you navigate your current job or job search; company profiles that give you a sense of what an organization is like before you apply or join; a marketplace of job listings where you can filter the results according to your values, needs, and priorities; or a community of members you know will support you.

So as we forge ahead in 2023, let’s focus on “toxic aware” more than “toxic.” The more distinctly we see what’s noxious and the more adamantly and collectively we refuse to accept it, the less room we leave for the people, structures, and organizations perpetuating toxicity to stick to the status quo. It’s time to reach for something better—and we’re here to help you do it.

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Updated 1/25/2023