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Red flags: How to spot a toxic work environment

Unsafe work environments impact your mental health and performance. Learn how to spot safe and toxic work environments with these green and red flags.

Apr 15, 2024 • 5 Minute Read

A bright green plant potted in a pink pot.
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Imagine you’ve been transported to another world and had to do your job in a dragon’s lair. Every so often, the dragon opens its mouth and shoots scalding fireballs at you. 

Would you be able to do your best work?

Unless you’re a professional dragon tamer, the answer is no. Hazardous environments don’t facilitate high performance, but unsafe workplaces aren’t always the result of physical conditions. Psychological conditions play a significant role, too.

Your workplace may be physically safe, but if it’s not mentally safe, your performance and well-being will suffer. In this article, we dig into psychological safety: what it is, why it matters, and how to tell if your workplace is safe—or a dragon lair in disguise.

Table of contents

Red flags: Spotting a toxic workplace culture

You probably know what psychological safety feels like, even if you aren’t familiar with the exact definition. When you have psychological safety at work, you feel comfortable speaking up without fear of negative consequences.

If you’re curious about mental health and safety at a current or prospective organization, look out for these red flags.

No one talks about psychological safety and mental health

In and out of the workplace, people can be hesitant to talk about psychological safety and mental health. But having open conversations about these topics reduces stigma and creates opportunities for improvement.

In a safe workplace, people feel comfortable talking openly about mental health and well-being. Leaders set an example and build psychological safety into their team practices. Support for your well-being and mental health may even be part of your organization’s values or company policies.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Does your leader regularly discuss psychological safety, mental health, or work-life balance with you? Do they frequently ask how they can support you?

  • Is employee well-being built into your organization’s values? Is it talked about on an organization-wide level?

Red flag: In a toxic work environment, no one talks about psychological safety, well-being, or mental health at work, and they aren’t reflected in company policy or values.

Leaders react negatively to failure

Mistakes happen. A team or workplace with psychological safety responds to mistakes with curiosity, not anger or blame. If you fail or make a mistake (even one that impacts your organization’s bottom line), leaders help you through the situation by explaining what happened, why, and how to turn it into a learning experience.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Do you worry about negative consequences if you make a mistake? Have you been penalized for making mistakes?

  • Does your leader walk you through mistakes so you can avoid them in the future?

  • Are you encouraged to take (reasonable) risks and experiment with new ideas?

Red flag: People stuck in a toxic workplace culture may react negatively to mistakes and regard them as failures rather than opportunities to learn and grow.

Teams don’t create space for dialogue and constructive conflict

Psychological safety doesn’t mean that everyone is nice all the time. In fact, being able to raise concerns and offer feedback is an important part of psychological safety at work.

People need space to open dialogue, discuss challenges or concerns, and receive constructive criticism to improve their well-being, job satisfaction, and work performance. A mentally safe workplace encourages everyone to speak up and uses productive feedback to make positive changes.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Is everyone encouraged to speak up? 

  • Does your organization have (and use) processes for managing conflict and providing feedback?

Red flag: In a toxic work environment, teams avoid conflict or don’t welcome differing opinions or perspectives. Feedback isn’t productive or respectful.

Green flags: How to tell if a prospective employer will value your well-being

It can be tricky to tell if a prospective workplace has a toxic work environment, but here are a few tips to help you avoid any dragon lairs.

Check the organization’s website and company values

Look at the organization’s website, especially the About or Mission, Vision, and Values page. These pages may not name psychological safety or mental health explicitly. But if they focus on people and the employee experience, they likely prioritize their employees’ well-being.

Look for inclusive language in job descriptions

If you’re interested in a particular role at a company, read the job description carefully. Does the posting use inclusive language? Or does it make assumptions about the “ideal” candidate’s age, gender, or workstyle? If an organization’s job postings aren’t inclusive, the work experience might not feel safe, either.

Ask interviewers about their approach to failure

If you’re interviewing with a potential employer, ask the interviewer or hiring manager questions like, “Can you share an example of a time when someone failed or made a mistake? What happened? How did you respond?” Their answer will tell you whether they react to failure positively or negatively.

Learn about the team’s conflict management strategies

Ask questions about collaboration and conflict, like, “How do you handle conflict on your team?” Their response will tell you whether they have conflict management practices in place. If they say their team hasn’t experienced any conflict, that could be a red flag. Toxic work environments may prevent their team from speaking up.

How to create a mentally safe work environment

The responsibility of nurturing psychological safety mostly falls to your organization and team leaders. After all, it’s difficult to ask for psychological safety if you don’t already feel safe.

But if you do, there are some ways you can advocate for you and your team’s mental safety and well-being.

Express your need for manager feedback and support

If you feel emotionally safe with your direct manager, let them know when you need support. For example, maybe someone on another team said something or behaved in a way that threatened your psychological safety. Your manager can advocate for you and help determine the best course of action.

Encourage open communication and peer feedback

Even if you have psychological safety at work, some of your teammates may not. Model best practices and do what you can to create a welcoming environment for everyone.

For example, maybe an intern or recent college grad joined your team. They may not feel comfortable asking questions for fear of being seen as inexperienced. You may not be a dragon tamer, but you can keep them safe from peril. Offer constructive peer feedback and encourage them to raise their hand and get help if they need it.

Learn how to handle a toxic work environment

89% of US workers say that psychological safety in the workplace is essential. Workplace red flags may look and feel different for everyone. But when you understand what psychological safety means to you, you’re one step closer to improving your well-being (and ditching any dragon lairs).

Want to learn more about navigating psychological safety and employee well-being in the workplace? Check out these courses:

Pluralsight Content Team

Pluralsight C.

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