Work can be stressful, and the pandemic isn’t helping. After so many months of life being upside down, it’s natural to be at the end of the proverbial rope.
A significant number of people are reporting they are busier than they’ve ever been. Just when they feel like they can’t go any faster, something else is added to their plate. Or just when they have solved the biggest problem ever, they are faced with an even more difficult situation. But how can you tell if you’re just busy or if you’re experiencing a toxic workplace? What’s the difference between heavy pressure and toxic pressure, or the difference between intense burdens and toxic burdens?
When you’re differentiating between busy and toxic, here are 10 ways to tell the difference.
#1 Your work is appreciated ~or~ too much is never enough. In a healthy situation, your work is valued. You may not hear it every day, but you know your boss and colleagues appreciate what you do. They may communicate your work matters in small ways through a thumbs up or a quick “Thank you.” Their gratefulness doesn’t have to be communicated with fanfare or neon lights, but you know how they feel. In a toxic environment, your work never seems to be enough. You can climb a figurative Mount Everest and your boss will judge you for being winded, and direct you to the next peak. Or you can walk on water and your coworkers will fault you for not being able to swim and point you to the next ocean of responsibility.
#2 Your work is connected to the big picture ~or~ you’re in the dark about priorities. In a positive work experience, you can see how your work is tied to something beyond yourself. You know your tasks are necessary for a colleague’s project upstream or you see how your work links to your internal or external customer. In a less positive experience, your work is disconnected, and you struggle to see how it’s being used. In top-secret, high-security operations, each person is only able to see their own small slice of work. But if you’re not part of a highly-sensitive security effort, being kept in the dark can be a symptom of toxicity. One man tells a story of being a spokesperson for his company’s new marketing platform. He regularly recorded audio and video supporting the campaign but was never allowed to see the final spots that ran on local stations (unless he happened to catch them when and where they were broadcast).
#3 Your ideas matter ~or~ you are muted. In positive organizational cultures, you can speak up, share your ideas and feel like people are listening. Not all of your input will be brilliant and not all of your suggestions will be adopted, but your team will give everyone the opportunity for appropriate amounts of influence. In a toxic culture, you may be shut down or your ideas may be discounted. One woman shares how she would speak up with an idea in a meeting and be ignored. A few minutes later, a favored co-worker would put forward the same idea and receive positive feedback. This happened repeatedly, and others began to notice. Ultimately, she left the toxic environment and found another job.
#4 The meetings are about the work ~or~ there is always a hidden agenda. In healthy environments, you’ll collaborate with colleagues on the work itself. You’ll put your heads together to solve problems or develop new ideas. In a toxic environment, meetings will be packed with hidden agendas, and when people share ideas, there will be winners and losers. You’ll have a palpable sense of competition for airtime and favor, taking up a lot of emotional energy. No environment is totally without politics, but in a toxic environment, it takes front stage and distracts from the work.
#5 Feedback is open and constructive ~or~ things are handled through back channels. When companies are effective, they focus on improvement. You’ll receive feedback on your work and also on your impact, so you can learn, adjust and improve. In a toxic culture, you may not receive feedback at all. Unhealthy cultures are rife with behind-your-back conversations or efforts to undermine others. In addition, healthy cultures will provide feedback about your tasks or your approach. Toxic cultures tend to make things personal. A colleague at one company said when new people joined, it was like they received an invisible pile of chips (think: Vegas). Chips would be added or taken away without someone’s knowledge. When they were out of chips, they were fired.
#6 Work is distributed equitably ~or~ things never seem fair. There will always be ebbs and flows in the work and sometimes you’ll be busier than your colleagues and vice versa. This is natural. But in a toxic culture, work never seems to be distributed fairly. You may see some people breaking their backs while others coast. When this becomes a chronic never-ending trend, it may be a symptom of toxicity.
- #7 In a healthy culture, your colleagues will have plenty of imperfections (as do you). But in a toxic culture, there will be a lot of bad behavior (think: lying, cheating and the like).
- #8 When your work experience is positive, you’ll laugh with your colleagues—even if it’s gallows humor—while you’re all struggling through a tough project. In a toxic situation, you’ll only want to cry.
- #9 If you’re facing a heavy workload, you’ll crave a break, but when things are toxic, you’ll just want it to end.
#10 Small setbacks ~or~ unavoidable patterns. No company is perfect, and you may experience a few of these challenges. In a toxic culture however, you’ll experience a significant number of these dynamics over time. It’s a matter of degree and frequency. You can overlook mistakes and small struggles, but a long-standing pattern is cause for concern.
Being busy can be exhausting, but that isn’t necessarily bad if you know your work matters and experience respect and camaraderie. You’ll have busy periods, but you know those will give way to more reasonable workloads. On the other hand, toxic work experiences represent the extreme—places where you may wither and from which you’ll want (and need) to escape.
If you’re in a tough situation, give it your best, be optimistic and do all you can to make things work. Give your coworkers and your employer the benefit of the doubt. But then if things still seem toxic, face reality, gather your courage and harness your energy to make new choices and find brighter horizons.
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