Workplace Culture - What to Do in a Toxic Situation

Last Updated: 17 November 2023

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Christine Suter

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Describing your workplace culture can be very difficult.

It would be like expecting bees to describe the workings of the hive. They can’t, we can’t, it’s just there, we’re surrounded by it, and we behave and work in it according to all the unspoken rules and codes.

At best, here’s what you might say when someone asks what it’s like working at your facility:

  • “It’s great” (meaning there’s a positive culture);
  • “It’s OK” (meaning most of the time it’s positive, but it could be a little more pleasant perhaps); or
  • “It’s bad” (meaning that if another job came up you’d be gone…).

Sadly, of late, we are seeing the proliferation of the latter - “bad workplace cultures” or toxic cultures - where personal and professional growth is hindered, aspirations can’t be realised, and self-esteem is slowly eroded.

One thing we do know is how a toxic workplace affects us. For example, you might:

  • Literally feel sick at the thought of going on shift (upset stomach, muscle tension, beginnings of a headache);
  • Take a ‘sickie’ because you can’t face the day;
  • Check the roster to see who you’re working with;
  • Sit mutely at staff meetings for fear of being put down;
  • Turn a blind eye to other’s poor performance because they have connections higher up;
  • Turn a deaf ear to snide remarks and comments made by others about others;
  • Feel unfulfilled, unenthusiastic, unsupported and unappreciated; and
  • Not know who to trust or look up to.

Negative Coping Strategies

Find a new job:

It's sad if it comes to this, and if you have to go, you have to go. But how can you be sure you’re not jumping from one frying pan into another? You will go to your new workplace unhealed, on guard and wary. Your new workplace will be denied the confident professional that you really are.


As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. At least you’ll be left alone, but you will be compromising your integrity. You will be suffering a debilitating degree of cognitive dissonance when your newly-formed conformist survival values are in stark contrast to your inner values, and the values of the facility or organisation as a whole.

Workplace Culture Image

Positive Coping Strategies

It’s not your fault:

Don’t think you had something to do with this. You are witnessing people behaving badly and you’re not responsible for them.

Re-focus on your job purpose:

You’re there to care for patients/residents, not to make best friends (although I agree that forming close workplace relationships is a bonus). Remember that your patients/residents deserve your positive best. They do not need an overly cautious, worried and distracted nurse looking after them.

Maintain your integrity:

You were employed to do a job to the best of your ability in order to earn your wage. Keep your head down and backside up. Don’t get involved in tearoom gossip or storeroom backstabbing. Don’t discuss work on social media. You may be on the outer for a while, but do you really need to associate with negative people to be accepted into the work group? If you keep busy, knock-off time soon arrives.

Learn from others:

Whatever level of nurse you are, you are in a great position to learn from those toxic people how not to behave. The physical and psychological upset you are experiencing is not what you want your managers or colleagues to experience.

Keep a diary:

As boring and bothersome as this may seem, you must keep a diary of dates, times, the shift, what happened, who witnessed it and what you did about it, and importantly - how it made you feel. For example: not “… I felt ignored at the staff meeting…” (which can easily be referred to as bad manners), but “…being ignored at the staff meeting made me feel isolated and humiliated…” (which can only be referred to as a form of bullying).

Additionally, complete staff incident reports and lodge them, and keep yourself a photocopy.

There’s safety in numbers:

By being seen as keeping out of the toxic goings-on, you may eventually draw people to you who are feeling the same way. You will now have support, and as a group, you have a louder voice to make your concerns heard.

Report up the line:

There must be someone or some department that will hear your concerns. Look around your facility for posters displaying health and safety information, anti-discrimination information, bullying and harassment information and workplace violence information. Find out who the head of your HR department is and who your work health and safety representatives are.


Long-term toxicity can lead to the ‘death’ of an organisation, but there will come a time when the senior executive staff will pick up the warning signs like increasing staff absenteeism rates, poor patient outcomes (increase in falls and/or pressure injuries), poor consumer feedback, staff reporting cases of bullying and so on.

Try to stay strong, keep yourself at a level above the goings-on, and ride the rapids because there’s usually calm waters ahead.

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