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How a Hostile Work Environment Can Damage Your Mental Health

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It’s often difficult to recognise a hostile work environment, especially for those currently in one. However, constant competition, high-stress situations and unrealistic expectations are all too common in today’s offices. If left unchecked, these issues can give rise to a negative atmosphere in which employees suffer myriad physical and mental health consequences. 

Understanding how hostile work environments harm your mental health can help you guard against workplace toxicity and protect your overall sense of well-being. The red flags listed below will help you better identify such an environment so you can take action and reclaim your happiness. 

Sexual harassment

Studies estimate that 25%–80% of women experience workplace sexual harassment in their lifetime. Those who are targets for this kind of toxicity may experience a range of negative consequences, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

These conditions can last for years and significantly reduce psychological well-being. In many cases, this kind of environment forces victims to change jobs or abandon well-paying careers, which can cause financial stress and even more mental anxiety. 


Hostile work environments can also develop if someone treats people differently based on race, age, national origin, religion or sexual orientation. This kind of discrimination can cause employees to feel intimidated, scared and uncomfortable at the office, emotions that can trigger a fight-or-flight response and a slew of mental health conditions. 

Feeling unsafe can cause you to develop PTSD, depression and anxiety, which may lead you to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. These coping mechanisms are also unhealthy and can ultimately make matters worse. 

Toxic leaders 

It’s unclear whether hostile work environments create toxic leaders or if toxic leadership produces hostile environments. Nevertheless, the two often go hand in hand. The hallmark characteristic of toxic leaders is narcissism, a trait that can quickly deteriorate trust and teamwork. 

Eventually, you’ll start to feel underappreciated and undervalued, which can severely affect your mental health and your overall performance. Keep an eye out for toxic leaders in mid-level management and front-line supervisory roles and note their condescension before it destroys your health, and the health of the company. 

Negative communication

Negative communication tends to be the norm in hostile work environments, and it affects the entire organization. When grumbling and complaining develop into sarcasm, cynicism and finger-pointing, everyone tries to deflect blame, and tensions rise. 

Eventually, you may start to withdraw from any social interaction, which leaves you susceptible to depression and make you feel like you’re always in defence mode. The mental stress and the situation itself can cause lasting psychological issues and severely hinder your work productivity and job satisfaction in the long run. 

Inability to advance 

Some employees feel like they’re going nowhere. They’re trapped in a hostile work environment with no opportunities for advancement and stuck in a dead-end job that’s ruining their physical and mental health. Ultimately, the psychological distress can trigger a flight response that makes you want to throw in the towel, and many workers do. 

While you can certainly help yourself grow outside of work and ask for a raise, there’s no guarantee you’ll get one. In this case, you’ll end up feeling stagnant and unhappy, which can easily send you into a downward mental spiral. 

Surviving a hostile work environment 

It’s highly unusual for employees to thrive in a hostile work environment. However, it is entirely possible to survive such a workplace. You just can’t expect to do so long term. Otherwise, you risk succumbing to the hostility and either developing a mental illness or becoming toxic yourself. 

If you’re stuck in a hostile work environment, practice self-care while you design an exit strategy. Look for opportunities to treat yourself throughout the workday and establish healthy boundaries around job-related responsibilities. If you’ve already begun to experience symptoms of mental stress or illness, connect with social support and get the help you need. 

Meanwhile, finalise your resolution to quit and develop an actionable plan to move forward. While deciding to leave is rarely easy, having a strategy will minimise stress by giving you something to look forward to; hopefully, sooner rather than later. 

Ginger Abbot has written for The National Alliance for Mental Illness, HerCampus, Motherly, and more. When she’s not freelancing, she works as chief editor for the learning publication Classrooms, where you can read more of her work.

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