Signs of a Toxic Work Environment: A Nurses Guide to Planning Your Exit

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment: A Nurses Guide to Planning Your Exit

“I feel scared” and “I feel like I am not good enough” are the words of a new graduate nurse whose nurse manager told her to resign. “I sat in my car and cried for 40 minutes,” she says.

Wow. This is not an isolated story of a new graduate nurse. There are many more stories out there like this. Our nursing leaders must ensure that nurses, particularly new nurses, are supported and given the mentorship they need to thrive. It is unfair not to train and support our novice nurses and nurses transitioning to different roles. 

I got in trouble for asking a concerning question.”

According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is a tactic that a person uses to gain more power and makes a victim question their reality. Gaslighting is the abuse of power and a form of bullying in the workplace.

“They didn’t give me enough orientation and expected me to know everything right off the bat, which is unrealistic.” Unfortunately, this is the harsh reality many new graduate nurses face today because many organizations make financial cuts in the education department. 

This happened to me personally as I experienced a layoff as the director of education due to what they call “restructuring.” Most hospitals function with the minimum number of educators to cover various units, if not only one educator covering the whole hospital. As we know, assigned online learning is not the same quality as practicing hands-on skills and demonstrating competency through validation. 

Creating psychological safety in a work environment is extremely important. New graduate nurses should feel comfortable asking questions and raising safety concerns. Nurses have the right to advocate for themselves and their patients without fearing retaliation. 

Nurses should be aware of their rights and articulate them. The American Nurses Association has listed the Nurses Bill of Rights here.

Although it is easy to say you should advocate for yourself, it can be challenging because you are considering your job security and how to support yourself and your loved ones. Therefore, please know your rights and options to make an informed decision about the next steps. 

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment 

1. Lack of trust among colleagues and or leadership

2. Micromanaging

3. Unprofessional behavior

4. No room for mistakes

5. Blaming type culture/Unrealistic workload

6. No structure or processes in place

7. People feel gaslighted

8. People are disengaged, have low morale, and have high turnover 

9. No support from leadership and no shared decision making

10. Physical symptoms of stress

If you are experiencing any of these, please document what is happening with dates and times. I recommend having a conversation with the person to discuss concerns. However, if you are uncomfortable and fear retaliation and losing your job, I recommend seeking expert advice. No one deserves to feel uncomfortable at work or psychologically, emotionally, or physically distressed by these toxic behaviors. Toxic work environments are simply unacceptable! 

How to Plan Your Exit Strategy

Start looking for a new position ASAP

  • Getting a new position can take 2-6 months, so do not delay it.
  • Use Linkedin and job boards such as Indeed.
  • Network both in person and online for potential opportunities.

Do not apply for every job you see, be strategic 

  • Look at positions that will bring you closer to your career goals.

Select organizations that are in alignment with your values/purpose

  • Read about the mission vision values and visit the place in person to understand the environment.
  • Do your research/Speak to people who are currently working there

Tailor your resume/cover letter to the job description

  •  Use specific keywords in the job description to infuse in your resume.

Ask about the retention rate for employees 

  • High turnover is a red flag that people do not stay.

Pay close attention to your “interview experience”

  • The experience from the application process, planning, and communication during the interview is very telling. Pay attention to body language and the overall vibe of the interview.

Wait until the official offer 

  • Get the offer in writing before you hand in your resignation letter.
  • A standard resignation timeframe is about 2-4 weeks.
  • Get Out! RUN!

Regardless of experience, every nurse must be treated with respect and dignity.

Check out the Minority Nurse Career Center to connect with employers seeking diverse nursing candidates.

Navigating a Toxic Work Environment as a Nurse

Navigating a Toxic Work Environment as a Nurse

There’s no questioning the difficulty of a career as a nurse. You may have to work long hours, deal with a variety of patients each day, and spend most of the time on your feet. You also have to deal with the risk of things like patient violence or the general sadness that comes from losing a patient you’ve been working with. But, nursing can be an incredibly rewarding career when you’re in the right work environment. A toxic work environment, however, is a different story. It can make getting your job done feel nearly impossible. If you come home each day feeling absolutely drained, and perhaps even frustrated or helpless, you might be dealing with a harmful environment at work.

So, how can you know what a toxic work environment looks like? What are your rights, as a nurse, to a healthy environment, and what can you do to make sure those rights are upheld?

What Does a Toxic Work Environment Look Like?

As a nurse, you probably already understand the importance of being able to adapt to different work cultures. If you’re not sure how to learn more about a specific culture or atmosphere within a workplace, there are a few things you can do to get a feel for it quickly, including:

  • Watching and learning from others
  • Asking questions
  • Staying transparent

The more you observe and the more questions you ask, the easier it can become to see if you’re dealing with an unhealthy work environment. Bear in mind that if you don’t like your job or you’re not satisfied with your work, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re in a toxic environment. You may need to try a different career path. But, toxicity in the workplace is very different. You can recognize it through some of the following signs:

  • There is an overall lack of communication
  • There are cliques, exclusions, or groups
  • The workers aren’t motivated to do their jobs
  • Growth is discouraged
  • Everyone is burnt out

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with going with your gut. If you get a “bad” feeling about your workplace, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it, don’t ignore those feelings.

How Can It Affect You?

A toxic work environment is more than just an inconvenience. It’s more than just something to “trudge through”. In fact, an unhealthy work environment can contribute to a variety of physical and mental health issues. Some of the most common problems include:

  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach
  • Heart issues
  • Muscle aches
  • High blood pressure

The toll on your mental health is nothing to take lightly, either. You might find yourself constantly feeling stressed and overwhelmed at work. It doesn’t take much for that to carry into your home life if you can’t let the feelings of the day go when you walk in the door. That constant feeling of stress can lead to mental health conditions like anxiety, or even depression. As that continues, you may end up needing to get extra help just to deal with those conditions.

Working every day in a toxic environment can wear you down. So much so, that it can even weaken your immune system, making it easier to get sick. As a nurse, you know the importance of taking care of your mind and body. If you don’t make self-care a priority, it could impact your personal life in a negative way. Your work environment shouldn’t be the thing that compromises your health.

How to Find a Healthier Environment in Your Field

If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, the best thing you can do is leave. An environment that large isn’t likely to change, even if you address the issues. You need to prioritize your needs when it comes to your career and your overall well-being. But, leaving a job isn’t always easy if you need the income.

Waiting to leave until you have another job lined up is always a safer option. Or, you might consider going a more nontraditional route with a remote job. Remote jobs allow you to work from home (or anywhere!), eliminating everything from toxic employees to negative patient interactions. Working remotely can help to reduce your stress levels and offer more flexibility.

Obviously, not all nursing jobs are able to be done remotely, but there are some that will allow you to work from home while still caring for others, including:

  • Clinical appeals nurse
  • Health informatics
  • Nursing instructor
  • Nurse auditor
  • Telephone triage nurse

Some larger hospitals and even national health care groups are always looking for nurses who can work remotely and fulfill these needs. These particular jobs might be different from what you’re used to, but that could be exactly what you need to break free from a toxic environment. In doing so, you can learn to enjoy your work again, and find fulfillment in helping patients while taking care of yourself, too.