A toxic work environment doesn't necessarily mean everyone verbally attacks one another every minute of the day. It more often reflects the company culture as a whole, rather than a few individuals with a bad attitude.
A toxic work culture impacts people and productivity, and key attributes include:
- Unclear, obscure and irrelevant goals and values
- Ambiguous and unclear roles
- Passive, passive-aggressive or aggressive communication
- One-way decision-making
- Lack of listening
- Staff being treated as a resource and not valued
- No employee input or autonomy
- Nonexistent company culture
- Gossip, drama, conflicts and team apathy
Toxic work environments have become more commonplace, and subsequently, more people are experiencing mental health problems and burnout as a result of their work. The culmination of these results is being dubbed "The Great Resignation." A report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that an all-time high of 4.5 million people in the United States walked away from their jobs in November 2021.
The MIT Sloan Management Review highlighted that low pay wasn't the primary reason people quit. Rather, a toxic work culture was 10.4 times more likely to contribute to an employee leaving their job than compensation.
How does a workplace reach this level of toxicity, and how can you—even if you're one of the good guys—recognize you're part of the culture and perhaps have the ability to change it?
Breeding toxicity in the workplace
Toxic workplaces are usually ones that have lost their "soul," according to Danny Gutknecht, co-founder and CEO of Pathways, an Arizona-based human resources service, as well as an entrepreneur and author of "Meaning at Work and Its Hidden Language."
"It starts when people don't think their work matters," he explained. "Leaders don't see their work as meaningful, nor do frontline workers. Everyone feels like they are on a hamster wheel trading time for dollars. People are more focused on their status and [company] politics than their work. The company may be generating revenue, but psychological safety is bankrupt."
In Gutknecht's estimation, poor communication and lack of meaning are the most harmful factors in a toxic workplace.
"When leaders lead by command instead of collaboration or stop listening to frontline teams, it leads to burnout, complaining and resentment," Gutknecht said.
He emphasized that meaning starts with understanding yourself and owning your attitudes and behaviors. Meaning and purpose breed stewardship, which results in finding a way to do what's best for yourself, others and the company.
"It's hard," Gutknecht admitted. "That's why toxic workplaces are so prevalent."
Is your work environment toxic?
Go back to the list at the beginning of this article. Do you notice any of those attributes in your workplace? A toxic environment is one that prevents you from doing your best work, harms your morale and, in the worst circumstances, damages your physical and mental health.
Gutknecht recommended paying attention to a workplace's "meaning language" when trying to identify a toxic environment. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are people focused on when talking?
- Is the work fascinating?
- Are they honest about the challenges?
- How do they talk about each other?
Red flags that point to a toxic work environment include poor communication, a high turnover of staff, unprofessional behaviors, unmotivated employees and unproductive leaders.
Another pivotal element in developing a toxic culture is the failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
Mona Eshaiker, a licensed therapist, and mental health and diversity strategic advisor at the Rise Journey, an HR consulting firm based in New York City, explained that specific groups of people—particularly underrepresented minorities, such as Black and Indigenous people of color, people with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ community—are burdened more in the workplace.
"Microaggressions add stress in the workplace, such as the daily dismissals, feeling undermined in meetings and hearing stereotypes about yourself," Eshaiker said.
Favoritism and exclusion are often toxic traits used to victimize Black employees and people of color, she added.
Diversity, equity and inclusion practices help to create a work environment where every employee feels safe, can express their ideas, share their perspective and feel valued. If your work environment lacks these qualities, it's not a thriving culture. Diversity, equity and inclusion ultimately lead to heightened morale and a culture of belonging.
How you can address a toxic work environment
"If people in the workplace aren't passionate about the work or are overly critical—run," Gutknecht advised. "Unless you're tasked with improving the culture and enjoy that kind of challenge, your time is too precious."
If you're trying to improve a toxic workplace, Gutknecht suggested addressing four essential areas equally:
- Share the burden of tasks and objectives that need to be done for a sustainable business
- Map responsibilities to those tasks
- Educate everyone on the business model and mission
- Steward organizational meaning by investing in employee development and organizational communication
Organizations must also be proactive in recognizing and addressing toxic work culture. The MIT Sloan Management Review report stated: "Leaders who are serious about winning the war for talent during the Great Resignation and beyond, however, must do more. They should understand and address the elements of their culture that are causing employees to disengage and leave. And, above all else, they must root out issues that contribute to a toxic culture."
Signs of a positive culture
A thriving workplace promotes a positive culture and work-life balance. It is a place of shared values, positive attitudes, collaboration, high morale and job satisfaction. Certain green flags signal this kind of culture:
- Clear boundaries. Blurred boundaries between home and work can lead to feelings of burnout and being overwhelmed. Clear boundaries help reduce stress and anxiety, and encourage a positive and productive work atmosphere.
- Role models. Senior staff members need to lead by example. You can talk about work-life balance, but if your employees see you working late and skipping lunch, they will feel duty-bound to do the same or resentful if they can't. Senior managers need to demonstrate healthy work behaviors.
- An inclusive work environment. All employees need to feel supported, valued and able to thrive regardless of race, gender, age or sexual orientation.
- Communication. Discussions about workload, time constraints, expectations and deliverables drive clarity. The opportunity to evaluate workplace relationships is also essential. For a culture to thrive, all team members should feel able to speak openly about these topics.
- Active mental health support. Employees should be encouraged to look after their mental health and well-being. Well-being initiatives promote a positive, proactive and preventive culture. Regular one-to-ones between managers and staff members give an opportunity to notice, voice and address any concerns.
Looking after your mental health in a toxic environment
If you're concerned about working in a toxic environment, approach someone in a leadership position with whom you feel comfortable talking. Explain your experiences and the root causes of the problem. In some cases, managers may not be aware of toxicity in the workplace. Ideally, this should be a collaborative discussion to find solutions.
If there seems to be no immediate solution, try to make a plan to remove yourself from the environment. Work on an exit plan that is realistic and suits your needs.
If you decide to stay and tough it out, remember that any kind of culture change can take time. It doesn't simply happen overnight. If you want to stay in your position but need to look after your mental health, adopt a coping strategy.
Cynthia Singer, licensed chemical dependency counselor and primary therapist at Burning Tree Ranch based in Kaufman, Texas, shared her tips on how to look after your mental health in a toxic work environment:
- Maintain a sense of self-care. Do not lose yourself or your routine for your career. Make sure to make time for yourself.
- Recognize boundaries. Many people go above and beyond for their employer or clients, but overdoing it can lead to compassion fatigue. Setting boundaries can keep that from happening.
- Have therapeutic support. The stigma around therapy is unwarranted. It is, after all, a form of self-care.
- Vocalize when you are struggling with your team.
Most important of all, you have to be OK with taking some time off for yourself. If you're struggling, get some "me time" and come back fighting fit.