10 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and How to Fix it

A toxic work environment can sap your energy both mentally and physically, affecting you in both your professional and personal life. In this article, we will share the signs of a toxic workplace- and what you can do to change this.

“People don’t leave their jobs, they leave toxic work culture.”

– Dr. Amina Aitsi-Selmi, Author of the Success Trap

The ideal workplace is where people feel happy, inspired, and valued, yet we still hear people share how they hate their job because of workplace toxicity. Employees need healthy workplaces that encourage them to fulfill their greatest potential and do their best work. However, a survey conducted by Deloitte has shown that 77% of employees experience burnout at their current job. And because managers and leaders play an instrumental role in creating a healthy work environment, it is important to know the signs of a toxic work environment and take proactive steps to address the issue.

The Price of Toxic Work Environments

A toxic work environment is not only unconducive to productivity and the well-being of the workforce. Characteristics of a toxic workplace often include a lack of psychological safety. People could experience fear, hostility, intimidation, and office gossip. It is also not uncommon for unreasonable demands to be made on employees. There might also be a perceived lack of empathy and compassion from management.

Employees in highly toxic work environments are often unhappy. People are prevented from doing their best when there isn’t psychological safety, and they are more worried about “getting things right” or “not getting penalized” than doing a great job they are proud of. As you can foresee, burnout and employee attrition are expectedly high. On top of the 77% of employees surveyed by Deloitte who have experienced burnout, this same survey found that nearly 70% of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout.

Imagine expending all the energy and resources to hire talent and have them trickle out one by one. A poor employer brand is difficult to reverse and would require significant effort to reverse, so this is an area you need to take quick, decisive action to improve your workplace culture immediately.

Common Signs of Toxic Workplace

Here are some common signs of a toxic workplace.

1 High anxiety about failure

When an organization is one of those toxic workplaces, employees constantly fear failing every time. Employees experiencing this are always conscious of whether the output they submit to their managers will be accepted or rejected. Once this anxiety takes its toll, they express it by calling in sick because they’re stressed out.

2 Micromanagement

Unhealthy workplace practices include micromanagement when an employee’s every move is scrutinized to the extent of feeling uncomfortable doing the job. Micro-managed employees have to ask for permission for everything and constantly report to their managers. There is little to no empowerment. They also don’t have control over their job, making them lose their confidence and motivation. For some, the psychological impact can be so severe that it impacts self-esteem.

3 Lack of psychological safety

Feeling that one’s input isn’t valued, welcomed, or respected at work is a symptom of a lack of psychological safety in the workplace. Without psychological safety, employees feel uncomfortable asking questions during meetings or are too intimidated to pitch an idea that could help the organization. These are indications of a toxic working environment. And when employees feel like they can’t speak up, people’s creativity, commitment, and potential become limited over time. Research conducted by MIT Sloan Review revealed that lack of psychological safety may be a consequence of unethical behavior witnessed by employees.

4 High absence rate affecting productivity

Beware of any signs your employees might be experiencing chronic stress: A negative work environment is not inviting. People dread coming to work and might be late for work or leave early; they may become irritable or moody and stop participating in team activities. A toxic workplace affects your employee’s mental health. A survey from FlexJobs of 15,00 respondents showed that 76% of respondents said that workplace stress affects their mental health, leading to depression or anxiety.

5 Poor work-life balance

Work-life balance is increasingly important to the workforce, with studies showing that nearly 81% of workers experience burnout or mental health issue. However, employees who don’t have it are in a toxic workplace. Such a work environment makes employees feel like they no longer have personal space due to excessive demands from the workplace. This issue is not isolated to employees. According to Gallup, managers have never been more stressed out where 32% of managers report feeling burned out at work very often or always.

6 Lack of recognition

One of the most common problems in toxic work cultures is a lack of recognition. Evidently, a recent Gallup study showed that 81% of leaders say recognition is not a major strategic priority for their organization. All employees who put in their best for their jobs would love to be appreciated, encouraged, and acknowledged. However, without receiving due recognition for their hard work, this can negatively impact their morale and productivity, leading to dissatisfaction. Employees may feel like they don’t belong to a team and there’s no point in doing their best if it won’t be recognized in the end.

7 Limited career growth and progression

It’s tough to visualize a future with the organization if you feel stuck in a job with limited career growth. It occurs when an organization does not prioritize developing employees. However, an SHRM study shows that 52% of workers said they need to learn new skills within the next year to want to continue working with the same employer. Not investing in employees’ careers hinders their potential and talent retention, as the lack of career development/advancement is often cited as a common reason for someone to resign, according to this article by Mckinsey & Company.

8 Workplace Incivility

Workplace incivility can be rude, disrespectful, and offensive behavior directed at an employee by a co-worker or supervisor. In fact, research conducted by Zippia shows that 68% of workers around the world do not feel safe at work. The same study also shows that there are approximately 2 million victims of workplace violence every year.

If present in your company, this practice needs to be addressed as soon as possible, as the MIT Sloan Management Review states that employees who experience workplace incivility perform worse in their jobs and are less helpful to their colleagues. A company’s practice should be changed due to its psychological impact that can lead to attrition.

Photo by Ahmad Gunnaivi on Unsplash

9 Lack of communication and clarity

Poor communication in the workplace is one of the signs of toxic work culture. This means that employees have no idea what their managers think about how they’re doing because they don’t get feedback or managers refuse to communicate with them. When there is a lack of communication, deadlines can be missed, wasted resources, and mistakes committed. It can also result in frustration, confusion, and friction in the work environment, eventually leading to attrition.

How Leaders Can Fix a Toxic Environment by Taking the Initiative

Toxic work culture exists, but there are many ways that leaders can help fix a toxic culture in the organization. Leading by example by demonstrating healthy workplace behaviors is often one of the best ways to start. Like encouraging open communication with all stakeholders – management included – about problems and potential solutions. It may make the leaders and HR life more complex but reduce burnout and increase commitment.

Here are some ways leaders can go about fixing a toxic work environment.

1 Focus on employee experience and be human-centered

There is a spectrum of how bad the problems are in a workplace, and it is important to take a closer look at the specific needs of your employees when it comes to dealing with workplace problems. Put in structures to engage your employees in safe conversations, ask them for honest feedback and act on them. You want to create a workplace culture that invites employees to come to work, so listening to their needs is important.

2 Promote diversity and inclusion

People tend to be more creative and innovative when they feel they belong and understand each other better. It is only possible if there is diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Look into meeting routines and how to facilitate inclusive conversations such that all voices are heard, and new ideas can be shared safely.

3 Create a psychologically safe system where people can speak up

Eliminate toxic culture by allowing employees to air their complaints without fear of retribution or negative consequences. Make sure your company has policies in place for employee engagement and feedback. Train your leaders and managers to be curious and open to new ideas and alternative perspectives because their initial disapproval often reduces psychological safety.

Managers can facilitate inclusive and generative conversations by developing coaching skills.
Build psychological safety for high team performance.

4. Develop a strengths-focused collaborative culture

People have an advantage if they’re already good at what they’re doing. Finding ways to use their strengths will allow them to do what they excel at and often result in the best outcome for them and the company.

A Gallup analysis reveals that people who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged at work, 8% more productive and 15% less likely to quit their jobs.

CliftonStrengths is a highly effective way to build a collaborative culture.
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5 Prioritize mental health and work-life balance

Mental health is an important topic that any business should take seriously. It doesn’t only negatively affect individuals but the workplace and employees. This is why businesses need to ensure their employees are mentally healthy. Some small actions you can start with are being sensitive to people working across time zones, offering to support others, demonstrating self-care, and creative management of schedules to ensure optimal performance. For example, you could share some of your self-care strategies and how to negotiate deadlines with your team. Institute code of conduct policy. Managers and leaders have to keep in mind that employee’s sense of safety and security is very important..

6 Make Safe, Fair, and Inclusive Workplaces a Priority

By establishing workplace discrimination laws, you can help create a positive work environment for everyone who works at your company. Reducing office gossip to the minimum is one possible goal. Another one is to eradicate all unfair workplace practices, protect workers and abolish poor behavior by making sure that everyone is treated with respect. You don’t want physical violence, workplace harassment, or verbal abuse in your workplace culture. Institute a system where employees, even senior leaders, who exhibit undesirable behavior are called out and counseled promptly.

7 Develop leaders to lead by inspiring, not micro-managing

Leaders’ mindsets are a core part of a good work environment. Many toxic workplaces result from outdated leadership models where leaders believe they need to lead by command and control.

This manner of leading is no longer effective in the current context. In some ways, forceful managers are often seen as toxic employees. But to expect a change overnight is impossible and unreasonable.

Instead, support the managers and all employees in developing their leadership so that you get more good and loyal employees, elevate the employer brand and become the employer of choice.

Develop your leaders to lead the diverse workforce effectively. Check out our personalized support for managers.
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8. Make career development part of your strategy

Employees need to be equipped with the appropriate skills to thrive in their careers. Training can help employees learn how to communicate effectively and handle difficult situations. It can also help them understand their rights and what they can do to improve the situation.

Conduct better career conversations.
Develop essential coaching skills.

Photo by Alexander Suhorucov from Pexels

9. Make the workplace a place where civility is valued

Contrary to incivility, civility is the ability to treat others with respect even when you disagree with them. If leaders want their company to be seen as a place where civility is valued, they need to work on how they interact with employees. Make mutual respect a core value. Leaders can listen more than they speak and ask curious questions instead of giving orders. Leading with the coaching mindset is one good way to start. This way, you take your organization off the list of toxic workplaces.

Managers Must Take Action to Abolish Toxic Workplaces

The bottom line is that toxic workplaces can negatively impact your employees. If you don’t address the problem, it could lead to a variety of issues like stress, burnout, and even physical health problems. If you notice your workplace is becoming toxic, take action today and act on the issues before it’s too late.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Take advantage of Chuen Chuen’s extensive experience coaching leaders worldwide and her deep expertise in designing agile leadership corporate training solutions for your teams. No matter which stage of leadership you are at, we can partner with you and meet your business needs. Explore our executive coaching programs, corporate training courses, or hire Chuen Chuen as your speaker so that your organization will become agile and adaptive.

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