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Toxic Work Environment: How to Spot the Signs and Fix it

A toxic work environment is bad for your employees’ physical and mental health, according to the U.S. Surgeon General and the World Health Organization. It’s also harmful to your business’s health. Toxic work culture can dampen employee productivity and drive away your best people.

Toxic work environments are unfortunately common. In a survey by the American Psychological Association, 18 percent of workers said they have a somewhat or very toxic workplace and 30 percent had experienced abuse, violence, or harassment at work.

While anyone can spread negativity at work, in most organizations toxic workplace culture starts at the top. When leaders bring negative attitudes to work or treat employees poorly, it can have ripple effects throughout the organization. That’s why it’s important to stay vigilant for signs of a toxic workplace and address them before too much damage is done.

What is a toxic work environment?

Since companies have different toxic work environment signs, there isn’t a universally accepted toxic work environment definition. But there’s general consensus on what causes a toxic work environment and what this type of workplace looks like.

So, what is a toxic work environment? Based on an analysis of employee reviews, MIT Sloan Management Review describes lack of inclusivity, workers feeling disrespected, unethical behavior, abusive managers, and a cutthroat environment as common signs of toxic work culture.  According to a recent Forbes article, a toxic workplace is “anywhere that employees do not feel safe, supported, or heard.”

This isn’t usually an issue that employees can fix by trying to adopt a positive attitude or changing their behavior. Just as healthy fish can’t thrive in polluted water, even mentally healthy workers can’t thrive in an environment that is psychologically harmful.

Signs of a toxic work environment

Many people aren’t aware they’re part of a toxic work environment, especially if they’ve worked in that environment for a long time. Since employees may not feel safe voicing their concerns, management is in the best position to watch for signs. If you begin to notice some of the following signs of a toxic workplace on a regular basis, it may be time for deeper investigation.

#1 High employee turnover – A high turnover rate is one of the clearest signs of a toxic work environment. Leaving a job is a big decision. If several employees make this decision, citing reasons like poor leadership or lack of opportunity, dig deeper to understand if the root of the problem is toxic company culture.

#2 Fear of failure – Toxic work environments lack psychological safety. This means workers are afraid there will be negative consequences for sharing thoughts and ideas, taking risks, and making mistakes, which breeds a culture of blame and finger-pointing rather than accountability. Research by Google found that psychological safety impacts team effectiveness even more than structure, meaning, dependability, and other factors.

#3 Frequent gossip or drama – Most people participate in office gossip at times, but when the primary form of communication becomes passive-aggressive whispers and glances, teams become divided and distrustful and struggle to collaborate effectively. This type of behavior can escalate into workplace bullying, which has been tied to depression, anxiety, and burnout, and is especially problematic when the office bully is a manager or company leader.

#4 Low employee morale or enthusiasm – In toxic work environments, employees often feel deflated and discouraged, with little enthusiasm or desire to participate. Research shows that negativity is contagious and can contribute to both high turnover and lower productivity.

#5 Poor communication – Insufficient or confusing communication is a common toxic work environment characteristic. If teams are siloed or managers lack skills like active listening, communication suffers. Employees feel unclear about their roles, responsibilities, and expectations, which can hurt productivity and stifle innovation.

#6 Failure to prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging – In toxic work environments, leaders may say they’re committed to DEIB, but their actions tell a different story. Instead of feeling safe and comfortable and having equal access to opportunities, underrepresented groups may face bias, exclusion, or discrimination.

#7 Disrespectful or unethical behavior – Feeling disrespected at work is a strong predictor of how employees rate their company’s culture. Workers also call out unethical behavior, such as lying, misleading, making false promises, or failing to comply with regulations, as a sign of toxic work culture.

#8 Cutthroat competition – Whereas healthy competition is good for business, a culture that encourages people to undermine each other to get ahead can breed animosity and reduce productivity. Rather than collaborating effectively across teams, employees in toxic work environment may actively blame or sabotage one another.

#9 Unfairness – Being treated unfairly erodes trust. When unfairness rises to the level of bullying, yelling, public shaming, or belittling, it can become abusive and a clear sign of a toxic workplace.

#10 Lack of recognition or growth – Employees need to be acknowledged and rewarded for their efforts, with opportunities to learn and grow. Fair pay and solid benefits are a good start, but employees also need to know their work is seen and appreciated. In toxic workplaces, team members are left alone to carve out a plan for professional development. There’s no advocacy or opportunity for mentorship or internal promotion, which can rob even the most dedicated employees of their motivation.

#11 Unclear or unreasonable expectations – Another sign of a toxic work environment is when, for example, managers assign tasks late on Friday that are due Monday morning or expect an immediate response to emails sent on evenings or weekends. When employees feel unable to “unplug” from work to take breaks, PTO, or enjoy personal time after hours, they’re likely part of the toxic workplace culture. Expecting top performance without breaks is not only unrealistic but also a recipe for poor work-life balance and burnout. Lack of clarity about roles, responsibilities, or expectations can also make it difficult for employees to know what to do or who to ask for help.

#12 Bad management – It’s often been said that “people leave managers, not companies.” Managers are crucial in creating a positive culture, problem-solving, and setting a healthy example. If they don’t receive appropriate support and training, they may engage in micromanaging, blaming, or undermining—especially if these behaviors were modeled by their own boss. Layers of bad leadership are signs you’re in a toxic work environment.

Toxic work environment examples

So what does a toxic work environment look like from an employee perspective? Here are a few examples:

“No matter what I do, it’s never enough.”

“I hate how my manager talks to me when I make a mistake. He’s condescending toward me like I’m a kid who’s in trouble. The worst part is, he does it in front of my co-workers. I think he’s hoping the embarrassment will make me ‘shape up.’”

“I have to be ‘on’ for work all the time. If I don’t stay plugged in on evenings and weekends, my co-workers outperform me. Management is always sending emails about using PTO and finding work-life balance, but let’s be real: If I don’t keep up with my coworkers, I’ll be passed over for that promotion.”

“I don’t think we’re handling this project well, but there’s no point in saying so because John and Sarah pretty much make all the decisions for the rest of the team. It doesn’t matter, I’ll just get through this and it’ll be done. If it goes poorly, that’s not my problem.”

“I think our company is doing something that isn’t technically legal. Everyone around me just looks the other way, and I think the implication is that I’m supposed to look the other way, too. I guess this is normal if everyone else is treating it like no big deal.”

Effects of a toxic work environment

Even with a great strategy and team in place, businesses can fail due to toxic workplace behaviors. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” says Peter Drucker, a writer and consultant dubbed the father of modern management. Toxic corporate cultures cause a lot of suffering for employees and also directly impact an organization’s bottom line. Here are a few common effects of a toxic work environment:

Burnout and poor mental health

Toxic work environments don’t stay at work—they often follow employees home and impact their loved ones, sleep, and overall health. “When a workplace becomes toxic, its poison spreads beyond its walls and into the lives of its workers and their families,” writes Gary Chapman in the book Rising Above a Toxic Workplace.

These environments can take a toll on employee mental health and lead to issues like chronic stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression. Employees in toxic company cultures aren’t doing their best work and likely aren’t thriving in their personal lives either.

Higher health care costs

In addition to harming employees’ mental well-being, working in a toxic environment has been tied to physical health problems. And when workers get sick, their employers pay the price in higher health care costs. A toxic work environment could add as much as $16 billion per year in employee health care costs.

High employee turnover

A positive work environment will attract great people—and a toxic one will drive them away, no matter how much you pay them. About 1 in 5 employees have left a job due to toxic workplace behaviors. In fact, people are 10 times more likely to quit a job over toxic work culture than bad pay.

Replacing workers is a costly endeavor. You can end up shelling out twice the amount of your former employees’ annual salary to replace them.

Difficulty attracting top talent

In addition to driving people away, toxic working environments make it tough to attract top talent. Working in a toxic environment is one of the biggest reasons employees leave negative reviews on sites like Glassdoor. And job seekers are quick to notice, with over three-quarters reporting that they research an organization’s culture before applying for a job. More than a third of employees say they’d turn down their dream job if the culture didn’t seem like a good fit.

Reduced productivity

It’s difficult for team members to do their best work in a toxic work environment. One study found that as stress increased, employee productivity decreased. Employees disengage when they feel disrespected—and extremely disengaged employees are almost 20 percent less productive than workers who are fully engaged.

Absenteeism and presenteeism

Employees who have negative experiences on the job may start missing work more often, especially if the physical effects of chronic stress on the body begin causing more frequent illnesses. Those who do clock in are more likely to suffer from presenteeism—technically present, but not functioning at their best. Both lead to lower employee engagement and are common effects of a toxic workplace culture.

Lack of team cohesion

Toxicity in the workplace can make employees disconnect from those around them, or create conflict, division, and distrust between the very people who are supposed to work together for the good of the organization.

Poor business performance

Most company leaders (85 percent) recognize that toxic workplace culture can lead to unethical or illegal behavior, which in turn reduces the company’s financial value.

How to deal with a toxic work environment: employees

If you’re in a negative work environment, you may be wondering how to survive a toxic workplace. If you aren’t an executive or manager, you may not be able to make changes at a high level, but there are a few strategies that can make the situation more bearable. Here are a few ideas for how to deal with a toxic work environment:

Find people you trust

Workplaces riddled with gossip, blame, or unhealthy competition can feel like places where everyone is out for themselves. In these situations, it’s important to identify who you can trust at work. Keep an eye out for co-workers and managers who are not part of the workplace toxicity and build relationships with them. This can help you get the support you need.

You may also want to consider talking with a mental health counselor or therapist if you have access to one through employer-provided benefits or otherwise. A professional can help you identify ways a toxic workplace has affected you, navigate this stressful situation, and take steps to protect yourself.

Focus on what you can control

You can’t force other people to act a certain way. You may not be able to change company policy, but you can control your own behavior.

Stay focused on doing work you’re proud of and model healthy ways of interacting with your colleagues. Make sure that anyone you’re responsible for feels psychologically safe to speak their mind with you. Encourage honesty and never penalize others for disagreeing with you.

Provide honest feedback

Many people ask how to stay positive in a toxic work environment. While it’s easy to say “set boundaries” or “just say no,” it can be nearly impossible to maintain work-life balance and stay optimistic in a toxic work environment. If you feel reasonably safe doing so, be honest with your manager (or your manager’s manager) about the type of organizational culture you’re noticing. Lay out how you see it affecting people’s health and productivity. This may be an uncomfortable conversation, but as long as you won’t be penalized for speaking your mind, it could improve your situation in the long run. If you need to stay anonymous, consider voicing your concerns in employee surveys or other outlets.

Develop an exit strategy

Many employees wonder how long to stay in a toxic work environment. This depends on a number of factors, including your finances, risk tolerance, family needs, and ability to find a new job. Leaving a toxic work environment too soon could be detrimental to your financial wellness, but staying too long could harm your physical and mental health. It’s a personal decision that involves carefully weighing the pros and cons.

If workplace toxicity has started affecting your mental or physical well-being and there’s no safe person to share your concerns with—or you’ve tried and nothing has changed—it may be time to leave the toxic work environment. If you’ve reached this point, you’ll want to map out a plan for how to leave a toxic work environment. For example, you may need to turn down new projects or use your PTO to carve out time to plan your next steps. It can be risky to leave a toxic workplace without having a new job lined up, so be sure to create an exit strategy.

How to fix a toxic work environment: leaders

With dedicated planning and effort, companies can improve the work environment. If your culture could use a detox, here are a few tips for how to handle a toxic work environment:

Acknowledge the problem. Employees need to know that you recognize the toxic environment at work and will take steps to solve it. Unless you “own” the problem, it will be very hard for them to feel psychologically safe. Start by identifying any bad actors or departments with unhealthy microcultures and assessing the scope of the toxicity in the workplace.

Ask for employee input. Set up a system, such as quarterly surveys, internal incident reports, or ethics phone lines, that allows team members to provide anonymous feedback and report any misconduct in the workplace. Once you’ve gathered feedback and determined what changes you can make, communicate those changes clearly so employees know they’ve been heard. Exit interviews and engagement surveys can be other great ways to learn about aspects of your culture that need attention.

Provide rewards and recognition. If a toxic work culture has dampened morale and productivity, consider launching or revamping your recognition program. Employees need to feel their contributions are seen and valued. Rewards can be monetary, but equally important are sincere expressions of gratitude, an extra day off, employee spotlights, or kudos on team meetings. Similarly, providing opportunities for learning and professional development can be effective in honoring and motivating workers.

Walk the walk about work-life balance. Ask whether your company truly supports work-life balance or just talks about it. Do workers feel that “unplugging” reflects badly on them? Do employees who overwork get promotions and recognition ahead of those who take needed time off? Talk to managers about monitoring workloads and expectations and making changes when needed to prevent burnout.

Create psychological safety. Encourage a posture of listening within your organization. Your workers need to know that you care what they’re thinking and that they’ll be heard if they speak up.

Offer comprehensive mental health benefits. Most employees report that employers’ support for mental health is an important consideration when looking for work. Recognizing the important role work plays in people’s lives and well-being, the U.S. Surgeon General recommended that organizations offer mental health benefits that provide easy access to quality, affordable services, including telehealth and in-person care, and encourage time off to get mental health care.

A mental health benefit that offers care for the full spectrum of needs, from self-care resources to manage stress to treatment for complex issues like substance use disorders or suicidality, will support your entire employee population. Since a toxic working environment is a company issue, not an individual one, the benefits vendor you choose should also offer organizational development tools such as specialized assessments, strategic consultations, ERG support, and training for managers.

Train managers. Without the right training, managers may engage in behaviors that promote a toxic environment at work, such as expecting 24/7 availability or treating people unfairly. Managers should undergo training on how to create psychological safety and develop employees’ unique talents. Remember, managers aren’t there to “keep people in line.” Rather, they’re there to assist and lead, and they need support to do the job well.

Take a systematic approach to DEIB. A lack of diversity and inclusion is a powerful predictor of negative reviews about toxic workplace culture. Having a comprehensive DEIB policy that you consistently communicate and enforce can build trust, respect, and a sense of belonging among workers. In addition to creating healthier environments for employees, diverse companies are more profitable.

Going beyond ‘good enough’

The work of building a healthy company culture is never truly done. There will always be chances to acknowledge shortcomings and make them better. In the case of a toxic work environment, this is critical. By welcoming feedback and creating a solid plan for how to change toxic work culture, you can overcome workplace toxicity and make things better for every person in your organization.

You don’t have to do it alone. Find out how Lyra Health supports organizations in building a culture of mental wellness through Workforce Transformation.

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Lyra offers workforce assessments and tools to create a culture of mental wellness.

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About the reviewer
Keren Wasserman

Keren is the organizational development program manager on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Keren has a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago and has worked as a management consultant focused on large-scale change management implementations. She lives in Seattle where she spends her free time hiking, soaking up the PNW's most glorious mountain views.

About the author
Rachel Heston-Davis

Rachel Heston-Davis is a writer and content marketer who specializes in the mental health and practice management software sectors. She is a contributing writer at Psych Central and her essays on mental health have appeared on What To Expect (a property of Everyday Health), Taavi, and Motherfigure.

Clinically reviewed by
Keren Wasserman
Organizational Development Program Manager
26 of July 2023 - 15 min read
Mental health at work
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