After a diagnosis with a chronic illness, I woke up to the reality that my workplace culture was toxic. My diet and lifestyle was not to blame, and I did not catch a disease. It was simply that my workplace created a high-pressure environment where abuse and harassment went unaddressed. I noticed a pattern: after each meeting with my boss or a belittling comment from a colleague, I would be bedridden with stomach pains for the next couple of days.

Once I recognized that my work environment was toxic for me, I took action to self-care. The results were amazing, really. The stomach pains went away the moment I started practicing mindfulness and meditation regularly.

Looking back, I see all the red flags and warning signs I should have taken into account before agreeing to work there. I was so focused on getting to the next level of my career, I turned a blind eye and ignored it when the harassment started. I did what I always did and brushed off sexist comments thinking it would eventually stop once I was not the “new person” in my team. Had I listened to my gut instincts, stood up for myself, or been able to recognize an abusive work environment, I could have left and avoided trauma.

The best time to evaluate if a work or school environment is toxic is before you take the job offer or send back your college acceptance letter. The interview process or college tour is a great place to become aware to this new environment and how it will support or detract from your health and wellbeing.

Toxic Culture Red Flags

  1. People are afraid to communicate openly
  2. Formation of cliques and groups that have tension and gossip
  3. Suggestions for improvements are ignored
  4. Coworkers do not trust each other
  5. Lack of diversity
  6. High employee turnover
  7. Employees are treated like analytical minds without human needs
  8. Everyone has a negative attitude
  9. Working overtime is rewarded
  10. People do the bare minimum
  11. Bosses pick favorites

Have you ever noticed any of these toxic culture red flags before you began working or learning in an environment?

Throughout my career in physics and engineering, I have never worked in an environment that I would call diverse. The majority of my colleagues in graduate school and coworkers at internships and jobs were male and white or East Asian. Where I currently work, at a small start-up of about 60 employees, has the most diverse employees (about 12 nationalities represented!); however, there are no women or people of color (POC) in the C-suite or board of directors.

For people working and learning in male-dominant fields like physics and engineering, it can be hard to find a workplace or educational program that does not have the red flag of lack of diversity. I have found environments where I was the only woman (or only young person, as an intern) to be the most toxic, but I would say that representation of different bodies in a workplace is probably the least meaningful indicator of a toxic work environment in fields where a gender gap is unavoidable.

In career fields that lack diversity everywhere, the most important factor to take into account is how the leadership treats its diversity problem. Do they see it as a problem that needs to be addressed? Do they actively listen to employees’ or students’ concerns, and make positive changes? Do they support students or employees who speak up and report harassment, or do they dissuade them from reporting in the first place out of fear of lawsuits? (I encourage you to read Whisleblower by Susan Fowler for an amazing glimpse into Uber’s track-record of not supporting victims of harassment.)

One way to discover how a company, organization, or university is working to solve their diversity problem is to ask questions about their lack of diversity during the interview process. Often it is not the specific answer to your questions, but how they answer your questions that will indicate how proactive and comfortable they are discussing important issues around equity. Any sign that they shy away from answering these questions or show fear instead of enthusiasm could indicate that even the mention of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) makes them uncomfortable (which is a bad sign).

Perhaps, you’re already working or learning in a toxic environment though. How can you tell if it is negatively affecting you?

The story I described in the beginning shared how I came to see that I was working in a toxic environment because of my physical and mental health symptoms. I think the reason I did not fully see how toxic my environment was before I got sick was because the culture was akin to the “water in my fish bowl” throughout my entire life. I was used to experiencing sexism and authoritative and patriarchal environments as far back as my childhood, so I did not fully see the toxic aspects. To me, it was normal. I grew up in a family with patriarchal values, and with a father and grandfathers who served in the military (very hierarchal and valuing authority), so when I began college and saw these values perpetuated, it felt familiar and normal to me.

Side Effects of a Toxic Culture

  1. Feeling mentally drained and exhausted
  2. Feeling afraid or uncomfortable
  3. Low productivity
  4. Isolating yourself
  5. Low self-confidence
  6. Feeling inclined to gossip
  7. Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and PTSD
  8. Physical health issues like nausea, heart palpitations, weight gain or loss, and teeth grinding
  9. Feeling alone, unappreciated, and unvalued
  10. Dressing to conform, blend in, or command respect

If you find yourself exhibiting any of these mental, physical, or behavioral symptoms, you may be working or learning in a toxic environment. There, of course, can be other factors contributing to these symptoms outside of your work or school at play, especially now in 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic affecting us all.

When I was experiencing stomach pains and unsure why, I saw a doctor, but he did not solve the puzzle of why I was getting sick. I went into “scientist mode” and did my own monitoring of my symptoms and when they would be triggered, and eventually found common themes. Realizing that meeting with my boss triggered them, I thought about our dynamics in these meetings. While at the time I thought he was challenging me to be a better scientist by setting short deadlines and giving me criticisms, later it dawned on me that he was actually using intimidation tactics to push me to leave that workplace. His feedback was not constructive, and the deadlines were impossible to meet. I exhibited most of those side effects at some point during my time in that work environment.

At the time, I blamed myself for my exhaustion, lack of productivity, low-confidence, and discomfort. Now, I realize that this was the effect my work environment had on me. It was absolutely not my fault. Anyone in my position, experiencing harassment and abuse daily, would have felt that way.

After my self-diagnosis that I was working in a toxic environment and that was causing my health issues, my workplace gave us our first harassment prevention training. When I saw all the side-effects of harassment, my jaw dropped. There were all my symptoms on a neat list with an explanation. How come I was not told this before? How come it was not obvious to doctors that my workplace could be inducing my illness?

Despite identifying the source of my illness, implementing self-care and coping strategies were not feasible long-term strategies to mitigate trauma. They were “band-aid” solutions, not solving the root of the issue which was the abusive environment I worked in. The damage to my nervous system was still there, and I suffered from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While you may experience microaggressions or bias periodically and think these “little” incidents are not a big deal, over time they do add up and can induce chronic stress and relational trauma. There are many workplace situations that can lead to inducing or exacerbating health issues.

Chronic Stress and Relational Trauma

  1. Working in a chaotic, disruptive, uncertain environment
  2. Working for a toxic boss
  3. Working in demeaning, exploitative conditions
  4. Managing workplace exclusion, discrimination, and harassment
  5. Working in a low-status job
  6. Working at the bottom of a power hierarchy

If you find yourself in any of these situations, there are ways to cope using stress and anxiety management strategies; however, from my experience these are not solutions nor should they be. One person cannot change the culture of their workplace or school, and especially not someone in a high leadership position. In addition, a shift in workplace culture takes time and concerted effort on the behalf of all employees, not simply one person or a single task force.

I’m in a toxic culture. What now?

  1. Identify supporters and allies in your work or school. Is anyone receptive to your suggestions on what you need to feel safe and comfortable?
  2. Self Care. Prioritize your own health and wellbeing. Set boundaries and focus on what you can control.
  3. Leave. If your health is too negatively affected or you do not want to risk trauma, move to a different team, job, school, department, etc.

You deserve to and have a right to feel safe and comfortable in your work or school environment.

*Read that again!*

If you find yourself in a toxic work or school environment, you never have to stay. There is always another path to your goals, even if you may not see it clearly.

When I was forced to leave (and willingly left) my toxic graduate school environment, I felt like I would never be able to reach my goal of becoming a research scientist. The thought of going to another graduate program felt daunting and triggering because of the PTSD from my previous program; I did not want to subject myself to any more abuse and harassment in order to get a degree. My some strange twist of fate, I met my current manager through a mutual friend and was hired within a month of leaving my graduate program. It took a couple years, but I worked my way up to a senior scientist position without a PhD. I reached my goal, though not in the same path as I had envisioned when I entered graduate school.

As an underrepresented (and underestimated) person in my career field, I understand now that my career and life path will not look like others. I may have to take different routes to get where I want to go. While it may take longer (or, in the case of leaving my PhD program, about a year less) to reach my goals, my unique path gives me unique perspectives, skills, and strengths that I bring to any workplace and endeavor. Yes, my skills are different than a traditional scientist or engineer, but that does not make me any less of a scientist or engineer (In fact, I’d say it sets me apart and gives me an advantage!).

Navigating toxic work environments is a skillset with a body of knowledge.

Being able to recognize harassment and abuse, coping with the health effects, strategically navigating difficult situations, reporting incidents, and more are learned skills. I had this epiphany after navigating difficult situations involving bias, harassment, and discrimination throughout my career. I wondered why the many professional development trainings I attended never taught these vital skills. Why were they still considered taboo to even talk about in school and workplaces when nearly everyone experiences these situations in their career?

I spent a year reflecting on the skills I learned from each incident of harassment and bias I encountered and navigated, and put together the first professional development courses on how to navigate bias, harassment, and discrimination, called The STEM Thrive Guides, to provide the much-needed support to victims of toxic school and work environments.