Elements of a Toxic Work Environment

By Mila Koljensic

A toxic work environment increases stress in your day-to-day work life.

We all have our bad days – or even weeks or months – at work. Managers are under tremendous pressure to bring projects in ahead of time and under budget. Executives have to please the governing boards and the customers. Employees are expected to be friendly, get along, and generally build a positive work environment for their colleagues and supervisors; even though they have no authority. If that doesn’t put enough pressure on you, read on.

Lack of recognition, poor organization, favoritism, unhealthy communication, gossiping, high turnover, unreasonable time management constraints, and burnout are a few reasons that make even the most steadfast employee want to avoid going to work.

Adding insult to injury, toxicity is also defined by bad leadership, poor management skills, and lack of communication.

All of this happens in work environments regardless of the type of industry (law offices down to factories) daily without pause. Toxicity can create tension between peers, generate competition between managers and subordinates, instigate conflict, breed low morale, spawn negative results, inspire psychosomatic illness, drive high turnover, and give rise to verbal and physical abuse among employees. A toxic workplace defines conflict, where personal problems also affect productivity.

Let’s start with executives and managers.

Toxic workplaces are assumed to be the responsibility of these folks, especially if they lack credibility and have poor leadership skills. They’ve made it their purpose to keep power, money, or special status to distract attention – both from their superiors and subordinates – from their failures.

Moving on to regular employees.

A toxic employee affects everyone around them – from their immediate department or even people in other locations – by spreading negativity at work.  They ignore their responsibilities, gossip, and promote animosity between peers. Their coworkers feel very put upon, and may even believe they have to compensate for their toxic coworker.  The stress may cause them to take frequent sick leave, affect their productivity (i.e., not make goals or deadlines), and keep them in a constant state of stress.

Most people work to live; they don’t typically live to work. It’s essential that we achieve some sort of work-life balance and develop the skills necessary to “shut down” at the end of a business day. While this separation may not always be possible, it should be a goal – leave work problems at the office, and home problems at home. Don’t let your job inspire you to go home and kick the dog. That solves nothing. 

Characteristics of a Toxic Work Environment

Employees exhibit a multiplicity of symptoms related to a toxic workplace environment, and this guide will help you identify them.

Chronic stress – Many of us are surprised at how toxic or hostile worksites affect our whole life.  We experience physical health problems ranging from sweaty palms to a racing heart, go through sleepless nights, and are overly vigilant (feeling as though we’re being constantly watched and judged). These seemingly personal battles harm your professional productivity, leaving your workplace rife with significant drama and infighting. Do you wake up fatigued in the morning and force yourself to go to work? A job that leaves you and your colleagues stressed will often hamper time with family and friends. This is what chronic stress looks like.

You’re overworked – People who are cognizant of the duality of work and life – and are able to establish these boundaries – may feel a need to pick up the slack for their colleagues who are busy gossiping and are generally nonproductive. They may, either unknowingly or at the expectation of a supervisor, take on other employees’ job duties, leading to severe burnout and resentment.

Are you being bullied? Yes, workplace bullying is a real issue that many employees face.  However, this often goes unaddressed or is discounted as a “juvenile thing.” If going to work makes you feel burdened, scared, and threatened then your workplace is likely toxic.

Office gossips – We all know at least one person whose productivity depends on their ability to spread rumors.  Aligning with a gossip most often leads to an employee being excluded from the more positive, focused, and conscientious people at work. Further, since gossips may also be bullies, their coworkers either become victims of or contributors to the tension gossip inspires. These negative communications among workers will adversely affect peer relationships, and team productivity will suffer. Regardless of what side you’re on, indulging in gossip will only poison the work environment.

Your boss is hotheaded – Happy workforces are definitely characterized by the presence of an inspiring and encouraging manager, who believes that there is no “I” in “TEAM.” If you’re a worker who is conscientious, diligent, and communicative, this manager will truly have your back, help you through the busy times, and defend your work to his/her superiors.

However, toxic managers can make the workplace poisonous and intolerable. Bosses who devalue and hurt your self-esteem, undermine your confidence, and question your abilities are truly toxic. Such managers entirely misunderstand the concept of leadership, resulting in a toxic work environment.

Who is responsible for workplace toxicity? Who should be held accountable?

Individuals at any level – whether executives, managers, or lower-level employees – at your workplace can create a toxic work environment. Office rumors, peer pressure, and disrespect can make your workers feel their work is meaningless.

If your organization has not vociferously communicated its values, you are likely tacitly promoting a toxic workplace. Lack of communication from managers with poor leadership skills creates mistrust. I believe a toxic workplace culture results from leadership who don’t have the skill to manage or inspire their employees.

Check these points to identify what causes toxicity at work:

  • Your company hasn’t outlined and articulated its core values.
  • The values merely appear on the website but don’t seem to form the base of your organization.
  • Core values are not aligned with the organization’s processes and guidelines.
  • Employees tend to do things because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”
  • Managers who lack leadership qualities and who operate on preconceived biases do not provide regular or productive feedback.

Once you’ve recognized the indications of a negative work culture, you can turn the negatives into proactive and positive business practices. Here are a few ways through which you can deal with toxic workers and reduce high turnover rates:

Acknowledge the problem.

Once you spot the problem, you must address the issue with honesty and an open mind with your workforce. As a team leader, make your employees part of the solution – engage them by inviting their ideas to fix what’s not right and eradicate negative communication and bad feelings. Assure them that you’ll make every effort to improve their work experience.

Improve work-life balance.

Focusing on work-life balance can improve your employees’ feelings about their work environment. It’s important that employees notice that their managers have regard for their personal lives, and that you notice when they are stressed and depressed.

By implementing policies on flexible work hours, fewer workdays, paid vacations, detailed job descriptions and expectations, etc. you are encouraging your employees to maintain a work-life balance. This will improve the quality of all of their relationships, both in and out of the workplace.

Support diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Encourage teamwork over favoritism and politics at your workplace. A strict Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy evokes positivity, unity, and trust among workers.

No discrimination or bullying based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation/preference should be tolerated in a workplace. Respect for each other without judgment will lead to a positive work environment.

The takeaway.

Burnout culture has become the norm, and if you feel trapped in one, you might think you can never get out of it. But these tips and ideas mentioned above can surely help you tackle your stress and take steps to protect yourself from a toxic work environment.

You don’t need to implement these tactics immediately; observe your employees, analyze the environment, and then decide what measures to take to remedy the situation.

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