We all cherish the work we do, however, it's not always sunshine and rainbows. As leaders, how can we protect ourselves and the team from a destructive work culture, and foster a supportive environment?
Over the past decade, mental health has become a trending topic. Many people are now concerning how it relates to their daily lives. According to research commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO), cases of depression and anxiety raised over 25% during the pandemic. Surprisingly, as of 2020, only 35% of countries reported having national programmes dedicated to work-related mental health issues.
What Is A Toxic Workplace?
A toxic workplace is often characterised by a cycle of stress and conflict, where pressure and unclear leadership communication erode team morale and productivity. It’s the leaders’ responsibility to recognise and address these issues.
Frequent conflicts among colleagues can signal deeper problems, typically stemming from a lack of guidance and support. Another issue is poor communication from leaders; when clear communication is absent, it leads to confusion and disconnects employees from our company's goals.
Moreover, a high-stress environment can cause employee burnout, leading to increased absenteeism and extra pressure on overall team productivity. Recognising these signs is the first step in transforming a negative workplace into a thriving, positive environment.
Why Is Recognising A Toxic Work Environment Crucial?
Considering the significant time we spend at work, we cannot underestimate the impact our workplace has on our mental well-being. When we find ourselves trapped in a toxic work environment, it drains our energy and makes it hard to move forward. Studies show that enduring such toxicity can lead to elevated blood pressure and anxiety1, potentially causing health issues like diabetes, heart attack, stroke, immune system disorders, chronic back pain, and gastrointestinal problems.
This suffocating atmosphere also has a detrimental effect on overall team morale and teamwork, driving talented employees to seek better workplace cultures elsewhere. High turnover rates can challenge a company's reputation and project a poor corporate image.
To stay away from such work culture, it's important to recognise the common signs and learn how to address them, so you can navigate through the challenges on your path to a fulfilling career.
The 10 Key Signs of a Toxic Work Environment
Stay alert for the following typical indicators of a harmful workplace.
In a stressful work environment, there is typically poor communication between teams and management. In most cases, communication can be unclear, inconsistent, or even completely absent. What's worse, when employees receive little support from supervisors and colleagues, they start to struggle in understanding their role's goals and purpose, leading to lacklustre performance.
On the other hand, due to the lack of communication, employees would feel left in the dark about essential information. It's challenging to not having a clear understanding of the bigger picture and shared goals. As management, it is crucial to acknowledge this situation and establish clear, consistent communication channels and provide support to the team.
Lack of Trust
A lack of trust is another common issue in hostile workplaces, usually caused by poor communication between peers and leadership. It happens when teams are assigned tasks mismatched with their skills and experience. For example, asking a salesperson to sit out of sales meetings can make them feel unappreciated, untrusted, and excluded. To prevent this, we must have a good understanding of the team's skill set, and also steer clear of constant micromanagement and undue criticism, which can diminish trust and morale. Imagine being watched and criticised at every step; workers will start questioning their abilities. Instead, we should focus on empowering our employees through regular feedback, trust-building activities, and recognising their contributions.
When the work culture is destructive, as a matter of fact, the consequence would be a high turnover rate. For instance, it is not uncommon to see companies in major cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore promote a competitive culture that values long working hours. In some extreme cases, employees are encouraged to leave work only when the senior management do so. This practice only drives employees to explore better opportunities in other organisations that prioritise their overall well-being. This is why it’s essential to build effective employee retention strategies, including creating career development programs, recognising employee achievements, and promoting work-life balance.
Bullying and Harassment
Bullying and harassment, whether it comes from seniors, peers, or other departments, cannot be tolerated and in extreme cases, may constitute a criminal offence. From mistreatment, indifference among employers, discrimination, or humiliation, these behaviours create a hostile atmosphere that inflicts stress and anxiety upon employees. Even when people defend such actions as jokes that don't cause physical harm, like spreading false rumours or telling inappropriate jokes, they can still hurt others' feelings and make them feel insecure. The management should take this serious and apply a zero-tolerance policy towards such behaviours. Regular training sessions on appropriate workplace conduct and establishing a safe, confidential reporting mechanism are highly recommended as well.
When the to-do list seems never-ending and new tasks keep piling up, it's a clear sign of excessive workload. Feeling some pressure related to your workload is normal and can be motivating. For example, in certain industries like accounting and auditing, high workloads during peak financial seasons are expected and understood.
However, overloading employees with an unsustainable amount of work can quickly lead to burnout and a significant drop in productivity. You can avoid this by assigning workloads realistically to acknowledge the limits of employee capacity, and aligning assignment with each worker's knowledge and abilities to promote a balanced environment.
Absence of Recognition
In some detrimental office cultures, people do not receive recognition that they deserve. When you put in effort and make achievements, but it goes unnoticed or unappreciated, it can demotivate and disengage the team, making them feel undervalued and disconnected from their work. Imagine working hard to secure a big contract, and when you succeed, no one in the workplace acknowledges it. It can make you feel like your efforts don't matter. This lack of recognition impacts individual morale and promotes a demotivated atmosphere. It is up to the management to cultivate a culture where recognition and appreciation are integral. Implementing regular acknowledgment programs, performance rewards, and personal appreciation gestures to demonstrate value for employees' contributions.
In today's society, where the existence of different races, religions, and sexual orientations are widely accepted, it's unfortunate that unfair treatment can still be experienced at work. When it comes to unequal treatment, whether it's based on gender, race, or favouritism, it creates feelings of injustice and resentment and should not be tolerated. If someone is promoted due to favouritism rather than merit, it doesn't seem fair. Such disparities create mistrust and communication gap among the team. We should strive to build a work culture where fairness and unbiased treatment are the norm. Regular diversity and inclusion training, alongside clear anti-discrimination policies, can help us work towards this goal.
Sometimes, the stress at workplace can come from poor management. Poor leadership qualities include a lack of empathy, humility, and a self-centred focus that prioritises personal interests over the team's well-being. It's often said that leaders are hired to achieve results for the company, and with this mindset, management can easily start viewing employees as resources rather than individuals. In such cases, fellow managers should not prioritise their personal interest in achieving results over the well-being of the team. Positive leadership, on the other hand, values empathy, teamwork, and the welfare of the team. After all, as Richard Branson said on social media, “Take care of your team, and they will take care of your business”2.
Low Employee Morale
Ever walked into the office and immediately felt the low energy in the air? Low employee morale is a frequent outcome of a toxic workplace. We're talking about more than just “Monday Blues”, but the situation where employees frequently feel dread when heading to work and lack enthusiasm for their tasks. Whether it's due to poor management, burnout by excessive workload, or any of the aforementioned signs, this lack of interest can be suffocating and significantly impact team spirit, therefore leaders should find out these root causes and address them as soon as possible. Initiatives like team-building activities and open forums for employee feedback can effectively uplift morale.
Working in adverse conditions can harm your health, both physically and mentally, with long-term consequences. The ongoing stress and negativity associated with such work culture can contribute to a number of health issues, including stress-related illnesses and anxiety disorders. The constant pressure and tension can even elevate blood pressure and in some cases, lead to heart problems. These health issues not only have a negative impact on your job performance but also affect your personal well-being. That’s why, to protect your team and yourself, always keep an eye on these signs and learn how to handle them. Implementing wellness programmes, stress management workshops, and regular health check-ups are vital steps in this direction.
What are the Long-term Effects of Working in a Toxic Environment?
The long-term effects of working in a toxic environment can have a profound impact on your well-being. One major consequence is chronic stress, which can lead to a range of mental health issues. Researches have repeatedly proved that the constant pressure, conflicts, and negativity from a toxic workplace can result in anxiety, depression, and even more severe conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)3.
Furthermore, job satisfaction and commitment often suffer in such situations. When you find yourself dreading work and feeling undervalued, it becomes challenging to maintain motivation and dedication. This, in turn, can hinder your career growth and overall happiness.
On a physical level, prolonged exposure to stressors in a harmful work condition can trigger a decline in health. High levels of stress can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, and other chronic health conditions. In some cases, it can also weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to illnesses.
How to Create a Healthy Work Culture?
Learn how to create a healthy work culture for you and your team.
Employees: How to Deal with a Toxic Workplace?
If your workplace is toxic, employees can recognise and take protective measures. First, talk with your trusted colleagues and seniors — be open and honest can help identify root causes and find solutions. Through these challenging times, seek support from a trusted network which can provide emotional assistance and guidance that you needed. If conflicts become unmanageable, for example, bullying and harassment can get serious, consider involving HR or mediation – a third party that can step in and assist in resolving disputes and improve working relationships.
How Can HR Professionals Rectify a Toxic Work Environment?
As gatekeepers, HR professionals plays a key role in building a better and healthier work environment. A responsible HR team should actively gather employees’ feedback on this matter, and one of the most straightforward methods is conducting regular surveys. By using anonymous questionnaires, employees are more willing to share honest comments about issues and areas that need improvement, particularly regarding a toxic work environment.
On top of that, HR can provide mental health resources and support, such as routine health checks for high blood pressure and stress symptoms, as well as medical care and employee assistance programs to help affected employees manage workplace challenges.
Implementing clear communication and conflict resolution strategies is also essential. Organising workshops like cognitive behavioural training can enhance interpersonal skills and promote a more healthy work culture.
Recognising and addressing workplace toxicity is the first step in building a healthier and more productive work environment. We’ve discussed the ten common signs, from poor communication to negative leadership, that can bring negativity to the workplace. Ignoring such issues can impact employees' mental and physical health, and their performances.
Businesses, especially the management, should take the responsibility and lead the charge in continually improving work conditions, starting with open communication and treat everyone well and fair. By prioritising their well-being and providing the necessary support, we create a secure and positive environment where everyone can excel, ultimately achieve greater success, a win-win for everyone!
1. Wang Z, Zaman S, Rasool SF, Zaman QU, Amin A. Exploring the Relationships Between a Toxic Workplace Environment, Workplace Stress, and Project Success with the Moderating Effect of Organizational Support: Empirical Evidence from Pakistan. Risk Manag Healthc Policy. 2020 Aug 7;13:1055-1067. doi: 10.2147/RMHP.S256155. PMID: 32821183; PMCID: PMC7423346.
3. Cristian Balducci email@example.com , Franco Fraccaroli & Wilmar B. Schaufeli (2011) Workplace bullying and its relation with work characteristics, personality, and post-traumatic stress symptoms: an integrated model, Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 24:5, 499-513, DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2011.555533