Toxic workplaces (and how to ensure your work environment remains healthy)

Date Published : Aug-11-2022

Written By : Kim Brown

Everyone has had a bad day at work. Even the best jobs can be stressful and draining at times. But a workplace should not make staff feel anxious, angry, or burnt out all of the time. Toxic workplaces exist in every sector, and it can be very hard to change the culture once it has been polluted. That’s why leaders must be able to spot red flags early on and address issues that could be potentially toxic to their staff and company.  


What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic work environment is one where employees are unable to work or advance in their careers due to a negative atmosphere created by other coworkers, leaders/managers, or the company culture itself.

Toxic workplaces breed unrest, unhealthy competition, low morale and mental and physical illness. They can cause staff to experience burnout, depression and absenteeism.

Toxic environments impact people while they are at work, but they can also impact their personal lives. This is especially true now that more people are working from home. They take over conversations with loved ones, make it hard to get a restful sleep, and cause prolonged worry and stress. 

Companies that are oblivious or apathetic towards this type of culture can often find a way to survive, but they do not thrive. Bosses may be exposed and forced to resign for implementing grueling work schedules, or good workers end up leaving the company as soon as they can.   


Signs a workplace is toxic

Below are some common problems that can lead to an unhealthy workplace. Note that having one of these issues doesn’t automatically make a company toxic; sometimes it’s a weakness rather than a toxic trait. But the problem may impact your ability to do your best work.


Poor leadership

Leadership conduct sets the tone for how the rest of the team behaves at work. But some leaders still prefer to act like a “traditional boss.” They tell people what to do, don’t actively seek input from team members, create hierarchies and take credit for everyone else’s work. A boss believes that every employee should work as hard as they do, even if staff are only making half of what they make.

Bad bosses come in all shapes and forms. Some micromanage because they haven’t learned how to trust their employees. Others may place blame on staff, but are unwilling to take responsibility for making a mistake themselves. And then there are those bosses that have no issue emailing or calling staff on evenings and weekends. While there are different types of poor leaders, they all fuel a toxic and miserable environment for staff.


Ignoring the fact that staff have lives outside of work

This ties back to the previous point. Some leaders fail to acknowledge that staff cannot prioritize work 24/7. People have families to care for, activities to attend, and some might even have second jobs to work. If you go on vacation, you should not be checking in to see if anyone needs work from you.

Employees should not feel like they have to constantly be tied to work email. Work-life balance is essential to survival. It’s normal for an urgent matter to take up part of your evening once every few months, but if you are working under the expectation that you must be available at all times, that is toxic.


Nasty colleagues

Sometimes, a good worker can also be a bad colleague. Toxic co-workers are overly competitive, always need to know what others are doing, and will throw their team “under the bus.” They might gossip or bully others in order to make themselves look better. Managers aren’t always aware of toxic behavior, which is why it is important for leaders to foster an environment of trust and openness. There’s more on this at the end of the article.


Rapid turnover

Rapid employee turnover is a pretty reliable indicator that a workplace is toxic. Leaving a job is hard, so if there is a steady stream of staff leaving just as quickly as they are being hired, something isn’t right.

A high turnover rate can be triggered by a lack of direction, bad leadership, or little opportunity. The workplace is truly toxic if management fails to address the issue and continues to invest resources in filling positions instead of making the company better.


Chronic burnout

Burnout is a big problem for companies and individual employees. When staff can’t do their best work, a company’s bottom line suffers. Moreover, a person’s health can be jeopardized if they are constantly feeling stressed and overworked.

Burnout is experienced by employees who do their best work but are not acknowledged for their efforts. After being overworked for a long period of time, the worn-out employee feels disillusioned and uninspired. The worker may become disconnected and apathetic, take extended leave, or quit.  


Toxic positivity

“Think positive.” A positive attitude can be helpful, but it’s not always appropriate or realistic to look on the bright side of every situation. Toxic positivity tries to invalidate people’s feelings if they aren’t overly optimistic. A good example of this is when a company announces that staff must return to the office. This would make a lot of staff feel upset. But HR makes a big pitch about how being in the office will benefit everyone. They neglect to address any staff concerns or complaints, making them feel as though their well-being doesn’t matter.

Toxic positivity can also be a coping mechanism staff use on themselves to endure a job they really don’t like.


No potential for growth

If people are never promoted, new roles are never added and there are no learning opportunities for skill advancement, then the company is probably not invested in the growth of its employees. While some people may prefer working a job that never changes, others are motivated by challenges and advancement. A company that has no growth plans for its staff may not have a growth plan for itself either.


Ways to keep the workplace healthy


Encourage honest feedback from staff

There are people who will tell their managers when something is wrong. Companies need these people as they can help inspire change and improve work culture. Listen to how others feel, validate their concerns, and do something about it where appropriate. Let them know how to share feedback, or set aside time for 1:1s. 

When staff feel as though they can be honest with management, they are more likely to stick around. They will try to work with the company to make changes instead of leave. They’ll also bring issues, such as toxic co-workers, to light. This can help a company get on top of problems sooner and keep any toxicity to a minimum.


Be transparent and work on building a system of trust

Staff aren’t always going to be happy about decisions made by management. But if you can explain why choices were made, employees will at least have a better capacity to understand the motivation behind the decisions.

Staff also appreciate when management can share data about revenue, profits, losses, upcoming projects, etc. Keep your team in the loop. It will help them feel included and create a system of trust.


Avoid playing favorites

A leader who has obvious favorites may contribute to a toxic work culture. Others end up feeling like their hard work is not appreciated. It can induce bullying and the formation of cliques. Some people will naturally work better together than others, but try to maintain a professional relationship with all team members.


Show that you value accountability

An effective leader will promote accountability in the workplace, and will lead by example. They will admit to their mistakes and show others how they respond after the mistake has been made. Others will follow suit.


Give credit where credit is due

This is such an easy thing to do, but it is often overlooked because management doesn’t appreciate how powerful it is. Ensure that everyone who contributes to a project is getting the credit that they deserve. If they go above and beyond, acknowledge that you see their hard work and appreciate their commitment to the company.