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Toxic Workplace – Signs and Solutions

A toxic working environment can be highly detrimental to mental health and well-being. It can lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and have a negative impact on employee morale, engagement and performance.

To prevent workplaces from becoming toxic, employers and employees need to know what to look out for. This blog outlines the 10 common signs of toxicity at work, the harmful effects on physical and mental health, and how to seek help for a toxic workplace.

What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic workplace is an environment where there is significant conflict and infighting between employers and/or employees. Toxicity at work may be caused by management, co-workers or the company culture itself.

The perpetrators are often driven by power, money or status, or seek to divert attention away from their own weaknesses. They manipulate bully and harass those around them with no consideration for the physical or emotional harm it may cause. A negative work environment may affect other employees who are not direct targets of the toxicity. Co-workers can be impacted by the poisonous culture through gossip and the pressure to take sides. Anyone who tries to confront or report a toxic employee may become a target themselves.

Management may ignore or try to appease the toxic employee to avoid confrontation. If this happens, the message given to staff is that a toxic culture is acceptable. This can have a detrimental effect on morale as management is seen as incompetent and complicit. As the environment becomes increasingly toxic, organizations can suffer from increased staff absence and lower levels of productivity which will ultimately impact business goals and the bottom line.

Left unchallenged, abusive behavior can quickly spread throughout an organization as employees start to accept the toxic environment as normal. In fact studies have shown that employees who experience abuse from a manager are also more likely to mirror this behavior in a ripple effect.

Harder et al. (2014) sum up how a toxic environment can damage companies and the staff who work there: “It is reasonable to conclude that an organization can be considered toxic if it is ineffective as well as destructive to its employees.”

Toxicity at work statistics

A recent Skynova survey of US working adults found that:

  • 25% of employees reported a high level of toxicity at their workplace and 32% said it was moderately toxic.
  • 38% of employees believed they were contributing to workplace toxicity – 30% were confident they were not.
  • 2 in 5 employees felt that no one was doing anything to address toxicity in their workplace.
  • Women were more likely than men to believe that managers and supervisors were contributing to workplace toxicity, whereas men were more likely to attribute toxic behavior to co-workers.
  • Bad communication between leadership and employees was cited as the top contributor to toxicity at work.
  • 89% of employees reported witnessing a co-worker experiencing the negative impacts of workplace toxicity.

In 2019, SHRM commissioned a US workforce survey to better understand the importance of workplace culture and its impact on employees – The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture: How Culture Impacts the Workforce and the Bottom Line. It found that 58% of employees who had left their job because of the culture said it was specifically due to the behavior of their manager.

The 2015 National Health Interview Survey found that 6.8% of US adults had been threatened, bullied or harassed at work during the preceding 12 months. Women were more likely than men to report being threatened, bullied or harassed than men – 8.0% compared with 5.7%.

10 common signs your workplace is toxic

Everyone has good days and bad days at work. However, knowing the difference between work-related stress and a toxic workplace is important. Generally, work-related stress is caused by a specific situation that can be resolved over time, whereas a toxic environment will cause long-lasting damage to your emotional well-being and career progression. Here are 10 common signs of a toxic workplace:

  1. Bullying, harassment and abuse are unchallenged.
  2. Concerns raised about the toxic environment are brushed off as the way things are here.
  3. Workplace gossip and rumour are rife.
  4. Management speaks to staff in a demeaning or condescending way.
  5. Boundaries are not respected and there is a lack of work-life balance.
  6. Poor and conflicting communication between leadership and employees.
  7. Favouritism is commonplace with preferential treatment given to certain people for reasons unrelated to performance.
  8. Requests for professional development opportunities are ignored or dismissed.
  9. Unmotivated co-workers create extra work and responsibility for others.
  10. High staff turnover.

The impact of toxicity at work

Working in a toxic environment can have a significant toll on the physical and mental health of employees. It may leave those affected struggling to get out of bed, dreading going to work, frequently calling in sick or turning to alcohol and other substances to cope.

A negative work environment can cause a range of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, stress, PTSD and burnout. These issues can have major knock-on effects at work and home – sadness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, decreased motivation, low morale and other emotions – that severely impact well-being as well as productivity at work.

The physical effects of a toxic working environment (especially over a long period of time) may include insomnia, low energy levels, headaches, obesity, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal problems (diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting, nausea and abdominal pain).

What to do when your workplace is toxic

If you, or someone you know, are suffering from the impacts of workplace toxicity, it’s time to seek help.

At Kindbridge, we provide a safe space, away from the toxic environment, where you can talk to a fully-licensed therapist about what is happening and why. Understanding how you react to the negative situation can help you develop coping skills such as setting boundaries, increasing your assertiveness and building self-esteem. We can also provide support for any underlying mental health problems you may be experiencing such as depression, anxiety and stress.

Take the first step towards addressing toxicity in your workplace and regaining control – book your free 30-minute consultation.

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