The modern workplace has changed drastically in just a few years, and one negative trend is the rise of bad behavior in the office. As employees continue to work harder, facing increasingly tight deadlines, the intense pressure they are under is feeding the creation of toxic work environments.
If organizations fail to quickly recognize and put an end to this toxic behavior, it can lead to a long-term, damaging impact. A recent McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) report found a direct correlation between a workplace's toxicity and the levels of stress and burnout reported by its employees.
They go so far as to state, "Toxic workplace behavior is the biggest driver of negative workplace outcomes, such as burnout and intent to leave."
According to this research, employees are almost 8 times more likely to report symptoms of burnout when faced with high levels of toxic workplace behavior. And, burnt out employees are over 6 times more likely to leave their job within the next 3 to 6 months.
The bottom line is that organizations looking to attract and retain top-level talent can't afford to let toxic workplace behavior creep into their culture.
In this article, we will dive into what a toxic work environment is, what causes it, and leave you with actionable strategies to create a healthy work environment that reduces stress and prevents burnout.
What is a Toxic Work Environment?
A toxic work environment is characterized by negative and unhealthy behavior that is disruptive and damaging to employees, such as harassment, bullying, discrimination, excessive pressure, and lack of support. Various factors, including a lack of communication, excessive workloads, and unrealistic expectations, can cause it.
In a toxic work environment, employees often experience anxiety, depression, and even physical symptoms, such as headaches and digestive issues.
Ultimately, a toxic work environment leads to a hostile work culture, causing employees to feel unsupported and overwhelmed, lack of trust in their managers, and harm to their overall productivity.
What Causes a Toxic Work Environment?
If left unchecked, a toxic work environment stifles innovation and productivity, leads to high turnover, and causes disengagement across the entire organization. But what are the main factors that lead to workplace toxicity?
According to a survey by AESC, U.S. employees site three primary influencers of toxic organizational culture:
It should come as no surprise that the number one factor contributing to a toxic workplace is improper or ineffective leadership.
Leaders set an example for their organization, for better or worse. And, when leaders tolerate or ignore bad behavior, do not consistently enforce policies and procedures, create an environment of fear, foster unhealthy competition, don't provide adequate training or provide feedback, create a high-stress work environment with unrealistic expectations, or fail to resolve workplace conflict in a fair and transparent manner – it's no wonder that it results in employees who act out in unprofessional and toxic ways.
Lack of Trust
Trust in the workplace is critical because it impacts the organization's credibility, employee performance, and customer loyalty. And when trust is lost, it is incredibly damaging to the workplace environment and culture.A lack of trust in the workplace contributes to toxic behavior by:
- Undermining employee confidence and motivation.
- Fostering fear and paranoia among employees.
- Encouraging employees to withhold information and ideas.
- Causing employees to engage in unethical or harmful behavior to protect themselves or their interests.
- Leading to high levels of stress, absenteeism, and turnover.
- Making it difficult to resolve conflicts and improve relationships among employees.
- Creating an environment where rumors and misinformation spread, further eroding trust.
The third most reported factor leading to a toxic workplace culture was ineffective organizational communication. Inadequate information sharing leads to unclear expectations, duplication of effort, misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and frustration among employees, all of which can result in conflicts and toxic behavior.
Furthermore, a breakdown in team dynamics occurs when teams don't know how to communicate effectively. Employees feel unheard, ignored, and left out of meaningful discussions, which decreases engagement, trust, and morale.
What Are Some Toxic Work Environment Signs?
A toxic work environment is where employees experience negative emotions and behaviors regularly. It can manifest itself in many different ways. Still, some of the most common signs of a toxic workplace include constant criticism and blame, excessive workloads, lack of recognition, and a general feeling of unhappiness among employees.
- High Levels of Stress and Burnout Reported Among Employees: One of the most unmistakable signs of a toxic work environment is when your employees are constantly feeling overwhelmed or stressed out. If employee workload is too heavy, or they are not getting the support they need, it can lead to stress and anxiety. Toxic workplace behavior increases the likelihood that employees will experience symptoms of burnout by 20% (compared to organizations with low toxic behavior).
- Unprofessional Behavior: Another red flag in toxic work environments is unprofessional behavior, such as gossip, bullying, and disrespect.
- Lack of Recognition: If one's work is constantly being overlooked and criticized, staying motivated and performing at their best can be challenging. Additionally, not giving enough recognition or appreciation for a job well done will lead to team members who feel unvalued, disconnected, and unengaged.
- Unhappiness Among Employees: This one is pretty obvious, but another significant sign of a toxic work environment is co-workers who are constantly arguing, showing overt signs of frustration, or are just noticeably unhappy.
- A Lack of Respect: A toxic work environment can also be characterized by a lack of respect and trust. Employees may feel their opinions and suggestions are not valued and may be too scared to speak up. If employees are constantly being blamed for issues, or the leadership team is not open to feedback and collaboration, it can lead to a culture of fear and competition.
- Poor Performance: Another sign of a Toxic work environment could be poor performance - this could be caused by lack of collaboration and teamwork, resulting in sub-par work output, service or products.
6 Ways to Eliminate a Toxic Work Environment
Nip Toxic Behavior in the Bud
You know the old saying, "one bad apple spoils the bunch," the same is true in the workplace. It only takes one bad hire to plant the seeds of a toxic work environment. And the reality is that toxic behavior is highly contagious. It must be dealt with quickly and swiftly to avoid the risk of it taking a foothold and spreading into all areas of your organization.
Here are several ways to quickly identify and eliminate toxic work behavior:
- Trust Your Gut: The best way to avoid a toxic employee is not to hire them in the first place. You may notice one or more red flags with a potential candidate during the hiring process. Don't dismiss them. When reflecting on a "bad hire," most managers admit there were warning signs during the interview process, but they decided to give the candidate the benefit of the doubt. Avoid repeating past hiring mistakes by trusting your initial instincts and not dismissing potential red flags.
- Be Clear on Your Workplace "Non-Negotiables": What are your workplace behavior deal-breakers? Prioritize, document, and review them with your team. While much emphasis has been placed on an organization defining its core values (which we agree is very important), if you want to avoid a toxic environment, you need to be very clear on the type of behavior that won't be tolerated.
- Be Consistent: Eliminating toxic behavior in your workplace requires more than just talking about what you won't tolerate; You must consistently enforce consequences when someone on your team acts in a way that is damaging to the organization. Inconsistent leadership is toxic in and of itself and will only lead to more negative conduct.
Invest in Your Current (and Future) Leadership Team
If weak and ineffective leadership is one of the biggest promoters of toxic work culture, it only makes sense that strong leaders foster a healthy workplace. After all, it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that their team respects and lives up to the company's values.
Here are several ways organizations can support their current and future leaders, helping them to nurture a positive workplace culture.
- Invest in training your potential future supervisors' management and leadership skills before they are promoted or hired into a role leading others.
- Conduct an annual 360 assessment for all leadership team members that allows the leader to get the feedback necessary to be successful.
- Ensure your current leaders have an active development plan to continually improve their leadership skills.
Evaluate Your Hiring Process
Every toxic employee within your organization was at one time offered a job through the company’s hiring process. That said, adjusting your hiring process is a great way to minimize the chances of making a bad hire.
These adjustments include:
- Use a multi-measure hiring assessment, like TalassureMX, to further identify red flags and help eliminate bias.
- Ask for, and check references that managed or worked directly with the candidate.
- While hard skills and work experience are extremely valuable, don’t forget to interview for emotional intelligence skills as well. Bad hires are considered “toxic” due to low emotional awareness and impulse control, as opposed to a missing skill or lack of experience.
- Ensure the job description is up to date and clearly defined. A well-written job description that outlines key skills and experience needed is a critical first step to making a good hire.
Foster a Positive Work Culture
One of the best ways to avoid creating a toxic work environment is to focus on fostering a positive work culture which requires a combination of intentional actions and behaviors.
A key aspect of creating a positive environment is to lead by example and set the tone for the rest of the team. Encouraging open communication helps to build trust and forms a sense of community.
Some other ways to build a positive work culture include:
- Recognize and Reward Good Work: Recognizing and rewarding good work reinforces positive behaviors and creates employee motivation.
- Provide Opportunities for Professional Growth: Investing in growth opportunities helps to keep employees engaged and invested in their work.
- Promote Work-Life Balance: Promoting work-life balance is essential for employee well-being and can increase job satisfaction.
- Encourage Collaboration and Teamwork: Collaboration and teamwork are critical components of a positive work culture and can be fostered through team-building activities, such as The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, and encouraging a supportive work environment.
- Foster a Sense of Belonging and Inclusivity: A sense of belonging and inclusivity can be promoted by creating a welcoming atmosphere for all employees and addressing conflicts promptly and fairly.
- Solicit Feedback and Act on It: Solicit feedback from employees and take action on their suggestions, this will show them that their opinions and input are valued.
- Celebrate Successes and Milestones: Celebrate successes and milestones, both large and small, to show appreciation and build morale.
Make Employee Mental Wellness a Priority
With such a strong correlation between toxic behaviors and employee burnout, it is crucial to treat employee mental health and well-being as a strategic priority to avoid promoting a toxic work environment. Measure symptoms of stress and burnout (anonymously, of course) as a key performance metric, and take action when you see signs of trouble.
Prioritizing employee mental health and wellness in the workplace involves creating a supportive environment that encourages well-being and reduces stress.
A few ways to do this include:
- Provide resources for stress management and mental health, such as workshops or training, to help employees cope with challenges and maintain good mental health.
- Create a supportive and inclusive environment that celebrates diversity. This can foster a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation.
- Encourage breaks and physical activity to help employees recharge and improve their well-being.
- Educate employees on the importance of mental health to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and create a more understanding workplace.
- Provide access to counseling and mental health services to help employees receive the support they need to maintain their well-being.
Listen to Your Employees
Employee satisfaction surveys are a great way to get ahead of issues impacting workplace culture before they become big problems. However, this strategic approach to address trending concerns in the workplace is only effective when companies truly take feedback seriously and implement a strategic plan to address concerns.
If employees feel like their employer does not listen to their feedback or fear retaliation for truthful answers (especially if the feedback is not anonymous), they will not answer honestly. Because of this, organizations must be highly transparent with the results, sharing all feedback no matter how critical.
If employees are reluctant to share honest feedback, it is a sure sign you are already dealing with a toxic work environment.
While a toxic work environment is always damaging to an organization, in today's highly competitive job market, companies looking to attract and retain top talent simply can't afford to let bad workplace behavior infect their culture.
A toxic work environment can increase stress and burnout for employees while reducing productivity and engagement. Additionally, the higher amount of toxic behavior an organization tolerates, the more likely it is for its employees to leave within the next 3-6 months.
When toxic workplace behavior is allowed to take root, it damages the organization, its employees, and the customers they serve.