Toxic workplaces destroy people’s motivation, productivity, and health. Find out what makes a toxic workplace and why exactly they are so bad.
For those who have never been in a toxic workplace, the concept might seem elusive. However, it is likely that all of us have experienced at least some elements of it at one point or another in our lives.
All toxic workplaces are toxic in their own way. Scheming colleagues, bad management, constant pressure, gossip are just a few elements of what make a work environment toxic. One thing that remains a constant is that all those involved end up worse off in the end.
Reasons for why toxic work environments develop are a complex topic of its own. We’ll devote this blog post to understanding what characterizes a toxic workplace, why toxic workplaces are so bad, and what to do if you find yourself in one.
Toxic workplace is a fairly nebulous term that contains a multitude of factors. At its core, however, it can all be boiled down to toxic relationships between colleagues or between employees and management. In toxic workplaces conflicts are constant. Arguments, manipulation, intentional undermining, lies are all to be expected.
What ends up happening is that everyone in such workplaces is out for themselves. Instead of working together towards a common goal, everyone is looking to maximize their benefit (in terms of pay, status, power), often at the expense of others.
While it may seem like a giant king-of-the-mountain game, usually everyone ends up losing. Instead of progress for everyone through cooperation, it is progress for few and pain for others.
Despite these overarching things, there are a bunch of other contributing factors to toxic workplaces. Among other things these may include:
For example, researchers analyzed 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews from nearly 600 companies. The results indicate that most employees characterize toxic workplaces with these statements:
Employees don’t feel fairly treated, welcomed or included in key decisions due to their gender, race, sexual identity and orientation, disability, or age. Hence, employers should aim for diverse and respectful workplaces that see each employee as a valuable human being rather than a certain caricature of their demographic group.
The researchers’ found that respect for employees and their opinions was the single most important predictor of how employees rate corporate culture. Accordingly – if you don’t listen to and respect your employees, they have no reason to stay.
This can include dishonest, unethical, or maybe even illegal company practices that force an employee to do something against their beliefs. For example, this could include a workplace that routinely avoids paying taxes, lies to its shareholders and supervising authorities, or disregards employee safety rules.
While poor collaboration at a company doesn’t have a huge impact on turnover, “Darwinian” power struggles between coworkers do. As already stated before, in toxic workplaces everyone is out for themselves. Generally a colleague’s achievements are not celebrated, but seen as a threat that needs sabotage or ridicule.
Management that harasses, bullies, belittles, and throws subordinates under the bus is a clear sign of a toxic workplace. This is particularly bad if managers are unpredictable both in their attitudes and demands. For instance, nepotism and favoritism (some employees being elevated due to their connections or relationships without regard to their achievement) is also an indicator of a toxic workplace.
Eradicating a toxic work environment wherever it emerges should be a priority for all those involved.
First, working in a toxic workplace takes a significant toll on your mental and physical health. If you were to ask, what are the main contributing factors to stress at work, all the factors that define a toxic workplace would be near the top.
Toxic workplace and the corresponding stress and burnout lead to anxiety, depression, weaker immune system, heightened likelihood of cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. This is not to mention the disrupted daily routines (sleep, diet, exercise) that stress tends to bring with it.
Second, performance and productivity drops in such workplaces. Toxic workplaces sap your motivation to work and do your best for the team. In addition, since toxic workplaces contribute to burnout and increase the likelihood of serious illness, billions of work hours and hundreds of billions in lost productivity add up each year.
Lastly, businesses suffer mightily from not dealing with the issue as a toxic workplace is by far the most important reason people quit their jobs. According to a survey conducted by the MIT Sloan Management Review, toxic work culture is the main driver of the Great resignation. As it turns out, a toxic work culture is a 10 times better predictor of people quitting their jobs.
A different study on toxic workplaces has determined that 1 in 5 employees have left a job at some point in their career due to a toxic work environment. Thus the estimated cost of toxic culture to business is $44 billion per year.
In theory, an individual employee can fix a toxic workplace. In practice, it will take time, mental and physical resources, and a great deal of conflict to do this on your own. Unfortunately, top brass only starts to pay attention to the suffering toxic workplaces cause, when the bottom line and productivity are affected.
Finding coping mechanisms and suffering until things inevitably change is also hardly a good solution. It will significantly reduce your quality of life, not to mention chip away at your health. So there really is only one reasonable course of action – quitting.
For some, quitting immediately is simple as they have enough of a financial buffer not to worry about things. For others the process needs to be more gradual. Here are the steps you can follow to successfully get out of a toxic work environment..
Set yourself a timeline for finding a new job and pursue it. This can then include smaller tasks like sprucing up your CV, checking job sites every day, sending at least three applications out each week, practicing your job interview skills, researching the new employers etc.
Before jumping in a new job, you have to make sure you don’t step on the same rake twice. Pinpoint what made the previous workplace toxic and figure out if there are ways you can pre check whether the new place will not be similar.
Sure it is impossible to know the team dynamics without working there, but checking employee reviews about the company online and understanding if you vibe with the interviewees is a good start.
In some cases you can ask directly about company practices. For instance you can easily ask about benefits, overtime work, workplace diversity, transparency of salary increases and employee evaluations during a job interview.
You should quit the toxic job, but it will help you in future jobs and life in general to make yourself more resilient. For instance, understand your boundaries (for example regarding work after hours or unethical practices you won’t engage in) and make them clear to your management and colleagues. Remember you are also an asset in a team. You can leverage your influence to get more respect and better terms.
Outside of work, work on self-care. Get a hobby, take up some physical activity, find ways to reduce the levels of stress in your life or learn how you can manage it.
Finally, invest in your skills and education. The more you know and the more you are capable of, the more opportunities will be open for you. That way it’ll be easier to find a better, more fulfilling job with good people for colleagues.
Even if you are leaving, you can make a difference for those who stay. Bring up the problems directly with your manager or with the human resources people if the former is unwilling to listen and learn.
This work may not have treated you right and you shouldn’t feel obligated to do this. Nevertheless, it’s always nice to take the moral high ground. After all, the more people do that, the better the world becomes.
Author: Lote Steina