Mental health at work: why you need to start looking for the signs of toxic work relationships03/30/2022
Written by Meg Walters
Toxic relationships don’t just happen between romantic partners or friends — they can happen in the office, too. Here are the tell-tale signs that you’re in a dangerous toxic relationship with someone at work.
Looking for an example of a toxic work relationship? The Devil Wears Prada is a good place to start. Miranda Priestly was the boss from hell. She was a boss who asked her assistant for the unpublished Harry Potter manuscript. She was a boss who teased another assistant with a Paris trip for years before giving it to someone else on a whim. She was a boss who minimised, criticised, even threatened her employees. Simultaneously, she drew them into her web by promising a life of style and wealth – if only they did anything and everything she demanded of them.
While most of us probably don’t have a boss that’s quite as problematic as Miranda Priestly, a surprising number of us get caught in toxic relationships at work.
Toxic work relationships should not be ignored
Of course, we’ve all encountered annoying coworkers or difficult bosses – but what happens when our work relationships cross the line from annoying to toxic?
“We spend a lot of time at work and those relationships in the office environment become very important in our lives,” says Penny Weston, wellness specialist and founder of MADE wellness centre. “We need to be aware of whether our work relationships are supporting us or not. Toxic relationships can be extremely stressful and cause damage to your mental health and self-esteem.”
For Hollie, a 26-year-old marketing assistant in London, a toxic relationship with an old boss eventually made her work life almost impossible.
“I knew it would be a high-pressure environment when I started. I was excited to dive in and give it my all. I’ve always been very career-focused – my job means everything to me,” she explains.
But soon, her boss began to threaten to fire her if she didn’t do extra work. “I was literally working for like three hours a night after I got home from the office,” Hollie says. “My phone was going off all the time – and he’d ask for help with things that weren’t even really related to work saying, ‘You’re such a good friend.’ When I realised I was texting my boss more than my boyfriend, I knew I had a problem.”
In Hollie’s case, a demanding boss crossed the line from professional into personal, leading a messy, complicated relationship that made both work and home life highly stressful. “In the end, I knew I had to quit. But I weirdly felt guilty and couldn’t pluck up the courage for months,” she says.
Signs of a toxic work relationship
Demanding bosses aren’t the only form of toxic work relationships. “A toxic relationship is any connection that makes you feel unsupported, misunderstood, undermined or attacked,” says Weston. Coworkers can make you feel bullied or unsupported. Romantic relationships can end badly and turn into a power abuse situation.
Wondering whether one of your working relationships is becoming toxic? Here are some of the tell-tale signs to look out for.
Gaslighting is a toxic manipulation tactic. If you think your coworker or boss is feeding you a false narrative then making you feel like you are in the wrong, this is usually a clear sign of toxicity.
“Gaslighting is often thought of in terms of personal relationships but at work this can be when a colleague, or even your boss, manipulates you so that you question your own sanity and perceptions,” Weston says. “They will put the blame on you. It can be much more subtle than outright bullying.”
A manager demands too much of your time
Do you find yourself always checking your phone, working overtime, or doing things for your boss or coworker outside of the office? Your coworker is demanding too much of your free time.
“If a colleague is too demanding of your time, this could also be a sign of a toxic relationship, especially if they also take credit for work you have done,” suggests Weston.
A romantic relationship turns sour
Office romances are widely known to be dangerous things. When they go well, they can complicate professional dynamics in the office. When they go badly, they can lead to even more problems – especially if the other person is more senior to you.
If things got romantic between you and a colleague and you now feel that they are avoiding you, belittling your work, or assigning your work to others, you could be dealing with a toxic workplace relationship.
“Gossiping is a clear sign of a toxic relationship, along with snide remarks about you,” says Weston.
Whether a coworker is gossiping to you or about you, it’s bound to make you feel uncomfortable and put you in a difficult position at work. Over time, it can easily affect your mental health outside of the office, too.
Abuse of power
Power dynamics in the office can often lead to imbalances and longterm toxicity. Your boss uses their power to get you to do things you are uncomfortable with. A senior manager might siphon off their work to you. Power abuse in the office comes in many shapes and sizes – so watch out for senior staff members who treat you unfairly, make you uneasy, or affect your mental health.
It gets too personal
There’s a reason why many people strive to keep their personal and professional lives separate. When a work relationship becomes too personal, it can also become toxic.
“Another sign of a toxic relationship is it getting too personal, especially with a boss,” Weston says. “If your boss gossips a lot, especially about other colleagues, it puts you in a difficult position.”
Relationships that become personal can also make work complicated. Colleagues and managers might pull “the friendship card” as a tactic to make you do extra work or take the blame for something at work.
How to stop the toxicity
Once you’ve realised a work relationship has become toxic, it can be tricky to find the right course of action. After all, accusing your boss or a senior colleague of toxic behaviour might lead to a difficult full-scale HR investigation. In some cases, you might even risk putting your own career in jeopardy.
Nevertheless, taking action is important. After all, as Weston explains, toxic relationships are never just one person’s fault – instead, they tend to develop and grow in toxicity because of harmful and unhealthy behaviours on both sides. (Hustle culture, anyone?) So, it’s up to you to make a change.
“If you think you are in a toxic relationship with a colleague at work, then one of the best things to do is speak up with management and don’t gossip about the person in return,” says Weston. “Try and build other positive relationships around you too.”
If your relationship with your boss is toxic, going to HR or making an anonymous complaint are both options. In some cases, like Hollie’s, making the brave decision to simply quit is sometimes the only real way to put your mental health first.
Women are more likely to be negatively affected by toxic relationships, especially when it comes to the abuse of power in the office. So, look out for your coworkers, too. “I love to see women supporting other women in work, too,” says Weston. “As women, we need to be there for each other and help each other.”
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