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Last Updated on May 31, 2022

6 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment (And How to Handle It)

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6 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment (And How to Handle It)

Are the “Monday Blues” becoming such a regular part of your work life that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to enjoy going to work? If bad days and weeks are turning into a consistent thing, it may not be you. It could be that you are working in a toxic work environment.

In 2021, 47.4 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs, despite a looming recession. While many chose to blame poor compensation for inciting “The Great Resignation,” a study from MIT Sloan Management Review shows that employees considered a toxic work environment ten times more of a reason to leave than compensation and was the strongest predictor of employee turnover.[1]

A toxic work environment is defined by a lingering negative culture that has been accepted as “just the way things are.” It’s a culture that leaves you feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and burnt out. This leads to poor customer service, disengaged and unproductive employees, and a negative impact on the company’s bottom line.

Here’s how to spot signs of a toxic work environment and how to handle the situation.

6 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

1. Employees Are Encouraged to Compete Rather Than Collaborate

While competition is often seen as a way to bring out the best in people or to help companies evolve, competition also brings out the worst in people. Competition can lead to secrecy, sabotage, and a lack of trust among colleagues. It breeds a lack of rapport between colleagues, impairing teamwork in other situations.

Competitions also create a disadvantage for those who have softer personality traits, those with less experience, or those with less confidence to execute an idea successfully.

What to Do:

Suggest collaborations. Collaboration allows everyone in the team to contribute while benefitting from their colleagues’ knowledge, expertise, and confidence.

Introduce collaborative sessions that focus on “how can we make this idea work” instead of “why is this idea bad or wrong.” This encourages everyone to expand their thinking for the benefit of everyone.

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If competition must be used, use it in short-term situations to achieve a specific goal. You can also create competitions where the whole team is rewarded for achieving the outcome and the “winner” receives an additional bonus. This allows the whole team to stay engaged during the competition and helps build morale throughout the process.

2. Lack of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is “an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk” or the belief that a person within a team can express their ideas or concerns and ask questions without some form of retribution, such as judgment or criticism.[2]

When it comes to psychological safety in a workplace, it starts with having employees feel like they belong. [3] The inability of individuals to feel they can safely express themselves openly and honestly can lead to resentment and animosity. This also leads to the inability to solve conflict or problems in the work environment, and mental health challenges like anxiety may occur.

What to Do:

Create a system where employees at all levels feel they can safely express their issues, concerns, or ideas without being judged, criticized, or mocked. This can be done anonymously or by creating small groups to meet and allow each employee to be fully heard. Allowing employees to be heard, helps boost morale.

Some tips on including psychological safety at work include prioritizing it, creating spaces for new ideas, and embracing productive conflict. Providing additional support like counseling or coaching sessions can help encourage those who are afraid to speak up share their thoughts and feelings.

3. Lack of Opportunity for Growth and Advancement

The opportunity for growth and advancement is a primal driving force for humanity. Without it, we’d still be living as the cavemen did.

Andrew Chamberlain, a researcher at Glassdoor, found through an analysis of reviews that career opportunities within a company ranked higher than compensation when it came to workplace happiness.[4]

This finding is closely mirrored by Tony Robbins’ Core Human Needs and even Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which both share that dignity, achievement, and feeling important are all driving factors for people.[5][6]

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If an employee feels that their work won’t be recognized or that they will continue to be passed over for promotions or recognition (ie. awards, etc), it can lead to weakened morale, disengagement, and a drop in productivity.

What to Do:

Provide clarity for employees about how they can advance within the work environment. Ensure that promotions are based on merit and performance instead of favoritism. Always attempt to hire from within the company for higher-level roles than recruiting outside the company.

Many employees can feel a sense of recognition and growth by being given higher-level tasks and responsibilities or more flexibility in their work environment. When more work is being delegated with good measures, greater trust is built between the manager and employee.

4. Employees Lack Confidence in Their Leadership

Culture is a direct reflection of the leadership within the company. Be it a middle management leader or one of the C-suite executives, a company with poor leadership can never reach the levels of success that it is capable of, regardless of how talented its employees are.

Poor leadership can take many forms. It can look like the following:

  • A leader who is unable to manage or communicate with different personality types
  • A leader who never keeps their word or follows through on promises
  • A leader who is lazy, disrespectful, or a bully
  • A leader who refuses to listen to or participate in solving challenges and issues that arise
  • A leader who is disconnected from or lacks an understanding of the processes and systems within the company or from the employees

What to Do:

Depending on the level that the leader holds within the company, an outside consultant may need to be brought in to address the leadership issues from within. The leader in question must also be on board to make the change necessary to shift the culture.

To discover the root of the leadership challenges within a company, Liz Kislik shared in her TedxTalks that it’s important to interview the people who are closest to the challenges to get a broad range of perspectives on what is happening.

She shares four questions we can ask to better understand the patterns and underlying dynamics that are created and impacted by poor leadership:

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  • What goes right here?
  • What’s the thing, that when it happens, makes you go nuts?
  • Is there something that can help you do your job better?
  • Why do you stay if it sounds like there are so many problems here?

5. Lack of Boundaries

Lacking boundaries both in the workplace and when employees leave for the day is a common yet underrated sign of a toxic work environment.

A lack of boundaries in the workplace can look like the following:

  • Overloading employees with impossible workloads and deadlines
  • Continuing to interrupt employees working on a task
  • Poor management of meetings (e.g., allowing meetings to last longer than necessary by getting off topic or discussing personal topics)
  • Inappropriate comments, gestures, or behaviors (e.g., discriminatory or sexually suggestive remarks)
  • Using guilt and shame to pressure employees into working overtime, taking on additional responsibilities, or not taking their vacation time
  • Expecting employees to answer non-urgent text messages and emails in the evenings, on weekends, or during their vacations
  • Expecting employees to do any form of work during their vacations

What to Do…

As an employee, it’s important to discuss these issues with a member of the leadership or HR team.

Especially where the boundaries are potentially abusive, sexual, or discriminatory, it’s important to file a complaint or make note of all the details while they are fresh in your mind. Be sure to include the date and time of each event, what happened, and anyone who may have been a witness.

As a leader or company, creating an environment where employees can set boundaries without fear of retribution is important to overall employee satisfaction and engagement. This means that the standards and expectations need to be set at the time of employment with the company or during reviews or promotions to ensure that both the employee and their direct management team understand what the boundaries are.

It may also be beneficial to provide communications training to both employees and management teams to ensure boundaries are communicated respectfully.

6. Inability to Be Present When Away From Work

If you find yourself working in a toxic work environment, the chances are that you are taking work with you after hours. It doesn’t stop when you clock out for the day or the weekend. Toxic workplaces often create a level of stress that bleeds into every area of your life including at home, in your relationships, and even during vacations.

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When you’re no longer able to leave your work stressors at work and they continue to plague you while you are living life, there is an issue. Long-term exposure to this type of stress has serious consequences, such as depression, anxiety, weight gain, thyroid issues, chronic illness, and more.

What to Do:

Finding a way to disconnect from work and release stress is imperative for your mental well-being and the longevity of your career.

Activities such as exercise, meditation, taking a walk in a park, and journaling can help you to release any pent-up emotion from work, giving you the much-needed mental space to be present in other areas of your life. Remember that it’s ok to set boundaries. Assess your needs and then develop a strategy or plan before speaking to your manager.

What Are the Most Toxic Work Environments?

High-stress industries and workplaces that provide little to no mental well-being support rank among the most toxic work environments.

An anonymous work talk app called Blind found that 52% of employees in the tech industry rated their work environments as unhealthy. Intel was ranked as the most toxic tech workplace (48.5%), followed by Amazon (46.5%) and eBay (44.5%).[7]

MIT Sloan Management Review also found that highly innovative workplaces—those companies that are consistently looking to challenge the status quo and gain an edge in the marketplace—experienced a higher turnover rate and were more likely to be rated by employees as having a toxic work environment.[8] This includes companies such as Tesla, SpaceX, and Netflix.

Companies such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car and LinkedIn, which tend to be less adventurous when it comes to change, experienced higher employee happiness and lower than average turnover during the Great Resignation.

Final Thoughts

A toxic work environment can take many forms that ultimately leave you feeling a heightened level of stress, anxiety, or overwhelm. Especially in today’s job market where companies are experiencing unprecedented labor shortages, employees have more power to start important conversations around shifting company culture.

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Proactive communication, rooted in an intention for positive change and growth, is the greatest tool that anyone within any level of a company has to create change and transform a work environment from toxic to thriving.

Featured photo credit: Proxyclick Visitor Management System via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] MIT Sloan Management Review: Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation
[2] re:Work: Guide: Understand team effectiveness
[3] Center For Creative Leadership: What Is Psychological Safety at Work?
[4] Harvard Business Review: What Matters More to Your Workforce than Money
[5] Tony Robbins: Discover the 6 Human Needs
[6] Simply Psychology: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
[7] HR Dive: 52% of tech employees say their workplace is toxic, study shows
[8] MIT Sloan Management Review: Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation

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