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3 workplace phrases that could mean you're in a toxic job

Sometimes we even contribute to the toxicity because we have been conditioned to view “overwork” as synonymous with “passionate” and “productive,” says leadership expert Selena Rezvani.
Image: Woman working, Anxiety
We need to stop normalizing work environments that praise overwork, says leadership expert Selena Rezvani. LaylaBird / Getty Images

Always making sure your Teams status is set to “Available.” Leaving the lights on when you go home to make it look like you’re still at the office. Promising to stay plugged in while you’re on vacation. Sound familiar?

Somehow, at many offices, the 40-hour workweek has turned into the “bare minimum.” And being the first one in and last one out is expected for people who want to excel in their careers. Not just that, but when we do show up, it’s not enough to have a physical presence, we need to appear to be uber accessible across a range of mediums!

If you’ve felt this way, you’re not alone. Conventional career wisdom practically encourages it. The message we’re given is: if you want to stand out at work, you need to extend yourself cheerfully and overdeliver. That way, you don’t leave a speck of doubt in people’s minds that you’re capable, productive, and worthy. Employers know this and often leverage it –and in plenty of cases, they reward employees according to just out-of-reach standards.

We need to stop normalizing work environments that praise overwork. Often, we don’t even think twice about logging on after we’re home for the day “just to finish something real quick,” or picking up the phone while we’re on a family vacation to help solve an issue.

We don’t even realize these actions contribute to the toxicity because we have been conditioned to view “overwork” as synonymous with “passionate” and “productive.”

Here are a few corporate phrases that we often say and hear without batting an eyelash – but they each contribute to toxicity and normalize working ourselves to the bone.

1. “You won’t believe how late I left the office last night!”

When someone says, “You won’t believe how late I left the office last night,” it can create all sorts of bad vibes – even though the speaker might be super-proud of themselves. On one hand, it can make people who left work on time feel guilty or inadequate. It can also make those employees resent or envy their co-worker who has the capacity to put in that many hours.

If we aren’t careful about what we say about our workload, we can create an environment in which some people earn admiration for working late and others don’t feel good about themselves when they haven’t. Staying late at the office isn’t something that will make everyone happy at work—and can set employees up for failure by creating expectations that are hard to meet.

Instead of glorifying staying late at the office, let’s praise people who set healthy boundaries, who leave loudly (rather than slinking out of the office secretly at 5 p.m.) when it comes to their time and workload!

2. “I can’t even remember the last time I took a real vacation.”

A whopping 55 percent of U.S. workers didn’t use all of their paid time off in 2022, and about a third of employees don’t even have the option to take paid vacations. In addition to normalizing 50+ hour workweeks, most working people view vacations as a luxury they can’t afford – whether that means there isn’t any room in their financial budget or they simply don’t think they can spend a week or two away from work without (direct or indirect) consequences.

According to New View Strategies, 32 percent of Americans feel guilty for taking time off work, and the number increases to 41 percent when going away for seven days or longer. Over a third of workers also regret going on vacation because they need to double up their workload before they leave or when they return.

When you're away from work, you can finally wind down and relax after months (or years) of hard work and stress. And by getting away from your usual surroundings, you might be able to come back with new perspectives on old problems. And speaking from experience, you can even gain a renewed sense of excitement.

Using this phrase at work shows that either your job encourages overwork or that you place a high value on working more than is healthy. In either case, hearing or saying these words means it’s time to evaluate your work-life balance and make more time for rest.

3. “I know it’s your day off, but I need your help…”

Let’s get one thing straight: a day off is a day off! It doesn’t mean you’re on-call or available to help with roadblocks. Unless you offer live-saving services, there are very few workplace emergencies that absolutely can’t wait or can’t be handled by someone else. There are probably plenty of capable people at your job and on your team that can assist while you’re gone!

If you are called on your day off – or if you’re doing the calling – it’s time to consider why there is only one go-to person for the task. Perhaps it means you or management needs to work on developing other members of the team, your employer needs to prioritize hiring more employees, or you need to learn that happy workers don’t all look the same. People need to recharge and refuel in different ways but one thing should be untouchable: their personal time should be their own.

If we stand a chance to reduce toxicity and overwork at work, it starts with seeing employees not as workers who *happen* to have personal lives on nights and weekends - but as full, multidimensional human beings. People who want to use their gifts, operate according to their values, and get paid fairly in the process.

And as for you, when you reprogram your need to outdo, you create a new set point for success. One where you recognize the delight of adequacy. It’s time to start appreciating what you already have, do, and contribute. And to let go of the wearisome burdens of excess you don’t need to carry.

Selena Rezvani is a leadership coach and the author of the new book, "Quick Confidence: Be Authentic, Boost Connections, and Make Bold Bets on Yourself." For more information, visit: