Expert Blogs | Mental Health
8 Signs Your Job May Be Toxic for Your Mental Health
stress at work illustration

I don’t know anyone who loves their job all of the time – there are always some aspects of work that feel taxing. But how do you know when your job is not just stressful but is actually toxic and is draining the life out of you?

Jobs can be toxic for many reasons—they might be overwhelmingly stressful, or intolerably dull. It could be the clientele who make it toxic, like demanding diners in a restaurant, or maybe it’s a boss or co-worker. I’ve experienced firsthand the toxic effects of an overbearing boss who was constantly critical (which is part of the reason I’m now self-employed).

It’s important here to distinguish between a toxic job and burnout. Burnout happens when we don’t adequately recharge from the stresses of work, and are gradually worn down. With adequate rest and perhaps a different perspective on our work, we can recover from burnout and stay in the same position. But if the job is actually toxic, no amount of rest or time away will make it tolerable for long once you return.

If you’re really unhappy at work, look for the following signs that your job is toxic for your mental health.

1. It’s hard to feel positive emotions at work. You experience plenty of joy and ease away from work, but those feelings are nowhere to be found once you enter the work place. Instead you’re always uneasy, on edge, or just emotionally weary. Perhaps your colleagues tell you to “cheer up,” but you can only force a half-smile.

2. It takes all weekend to recover from the work week. Your mental health declines throughout the week. By Tuesday you’re exhausted, and can’t imagine how you’ll make it till Friday. When the weekend finally comes, you barely look forward to it because you’re so worn out. By the time you finally start to recover, it’s time to go back to work.

3. You’re stressed and irritable on Sunday night. On Friday and Saturday nights you can push work out of your mind, but by Sunday you can no longer deny that it’s coming. It’s hard to engage with the people around you, and you don’t enjoy the last day of your weekend as you anticipate Monday morning.

4. You fantasize about retirement—which might be decades away. Forget the weekend—you dream about a permanent break from work. You might even start planning your retirement, or thinking about ways to get rich so you no longer have to work.

5. Your sleep is much worse on work days. Toxic work can completely wreck your sleep. Some people feel the effects on days they work (typically Monday through Friday nights), while others may notice it in anticipation of work (Sunday through Thursday nights).

6. You’re often physically ill. Countless studies have shown the effects of chronic stress on the immune system. If you’re being poisoned by a toxic work environment, you’ll feel the effects not only on your mind and spirit, but in your body. You seem to catch every virus that’s going around, and take longer to recover than you used to.

7. You take a lot of personal days. Even when you’re not physically ill, you may be choosing to say home as often as possible. Some days you wake up and the idea of going to work just seems impossible. Maybe you get as far as getting dressed and having breakfast, but then the thought of driving to work makes you sick to your stomach. I’ll just work from home again, you tell yourself. 

8. You don’t like the person you are at work. Perhaps the most telling sign that your job is toxic is that it’s changing you in ways you don’t like. You may find yourself becoming withdrawn, bitter, self-focused, and cynical. It might even spill over into your time at home with your family, which is the most upsetting part for you.

If some of these symptoms resonate with you, think carefully about your future in this position. Is there any way to change the job so it’s less toxic? Or could it be time for a job change? Talk over these ideas with someone you love and trust, and be careful about whom you approach, especially those who have a stake in your decision. For example, a co-worker who doesn’t want you to leave is likely to give you biased feedback.

Finally, it’s important to note that a perfectly nice place to work might be toxic for you if you don’t belong there. For example, maybe your current job doesn’t allow you to express your creativity, or you’re entrepreneurial at heart and find your 9-to-5 job deadening. No matter how agreeable your co-workers are or how positive the work environment may be, it won’t be healthy for you if the fit isn’t right.

So honor your reactions to your workplace, even if you don’t understand why you’re so unhappy there. Your mind, body, and spirit are giving you valuable information that it’s best not to ignore.

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Clinical psychologist

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions. His books include The CBT Deck and A Mindful Year (co-written with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh); he hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, featuring conversations on living more fully.

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