How Do You Fix a Toxic Work Environment?

22nd May 2023

Sprawling on your sofa on a Sunday night, you’re reflecting back on a sunny summer weekend when a cloud crosses your skies. A deep, dark sense of dread settles on your shoulders and suddenly the laughs you shared only hours ago seem like ancient history.

We’ve all been there. This feeling is so universal it’s been given its own name – the ‘Sunday scaries‘. But in some cases, this feeling descends every single weekend. Even every evening. That sense of impending doom is a genuine fear of going back to a work environment that makes you frustrated, stressed or even sick. A work environment that can only be called toxic.

Toxic work cultures are becoming more and more common. A 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association revealed that 18% of workers have experienced a toxic work environment. It is also thought to be a driving force behind ‘The Great Resignation’ that came after the pandemic. And these are not restricted to America – this is a worldwide problem.

Yet, not every employer knows how to spot a toxic work culture, particularly in their own company. Given the severe repercussions it can have, this needs to be changed.

We’ve put together this post to help employers spot the warning signs. As well as looking at exactly what a toxic work environment is, we’ll look at how it can damage your business. We’ll also cover the common signs of a toxic workplace as well as identify some steps you can take to combat them.

What is a toxic work environment?

It takes more than a couple of tough days – or even weeks – to make a toxic workplace. Instead, you need an environment where confrontational, negative and even bullying behaviour is sustained. Often for so long, it becomes the norm.

A toxic work culture is one where no one communicates, no one takes responsibility and mean, harmful or unethical behaviour is allowed. It can even be encouraged and rewarded. It’s a culture that makes the majority of employees miserable, even if a select few seem to flourish.

What are the top 5 signs that your work environment is toxic?

Even when you understand the general concept of toxic workplaces, it can be hard to identify one. Particularly, when you’re looking at your own business. If you’re struggling to decide whether you’re facing a toxic environment, there are a few surefire signs you can look out for.

Unfair or unrealistic expectations of employees

These may be impossible company goals, such as unachievably high profits. It may be unsustainable workloads for individual staff or teams. It may be an unhealthy work/life balance, with employees unable to switch off and relax on evenings, weekends or holidays because they are expected to be contactable.

The weight of these expectations causes excessive and chronic stress to employees when they can’t meet them. This takes a toll on physical and mental health that stretches outside of the workplace and is thoroughly toxic.

Lack of reward, recognition or growth

Just as toxic as expecting too much of your employees is not recognising the contributions they do make. Failing to give positive feedback, support or rewards for the things your employees achieve are classic signs of toxicity. They leave staff feeling unappreciated and unmotivated.

A lack of opportunity for training, learning or career progression is an equally bad sign.

Poor leadership

In many cases, toxic work cultures seeps down from the top of the company. Bad leadership will spread across an entire business, even if it doesn’t start with an owner specifically.

Bad leadership can come in a range of guises. It can show up in unhealthy competition from managers who pit employees against each other instead of drawing them together. It can also show up in a boss who refuses to take responsibility – who blames their mistakes on anyone and everyone else.

It can even be micromanaging. Constant corrections, undermining or disenfranchising staff shows that they aren’t trusted, which will weigh on their minds and increase stress.

Any one of these toxic management approaches will create work stress, employee burnout and workplace toxicity, leaving staff without the confidence they need to do their job properly.

Poor communication

While bad leadership trickles down, poor communication works both ways.

It might be that managers don’t share important information, leaving their teams confused, insecure or ineffectual. It might be that staff are scared to speak up, unable to ask for help or report issues when they need to.

It can even be that colleagues don’t communicate with each other. Peer support is an important part of a positive workplace culture, and when communication is poor, employee relationships suffer.

High turnover of staff

Worryingly, this aspect of a toxic workplace culture is often dismissed. It’s easy to blame the staff who are leaving, to believe they are just not aligned with your business goals, or that they received an irresistible offer elsewhere. But in reality, this is rarely the case.

When you see high employee turnover, it is usually a sign of a toxic work environment instead. People being driven away because they are so unhappy and unable to continue in their current role. In fact, 2022 research by MIT Sloan showed people were 10x more likely to resign due to toxic workplace cultures than for financial compensation.

How does a toxic work environment damage your business?

No one wants their business to harbour a toxic culture. It makes staff miserable and reflects badly on the business, the leadership and even the product or service the business provides. But not everyone is aware of just how many ways it can negatively affect a company.

A toxic workplace culture will always take a heavy toll on staff. It impacts mental health, usually leading to chronic stress. This lowers employee engagement, productivity and focus – it also impacts physical health. Chronic stress leaves you at higher risk of a heart attack, stroke or even cancer.

It costs businesses money too. As pointed out above, poor mental health will cause more sickness which will obviously mean more sickness absences among your staff. A lack of productivity is also going to impact profits.

The high turnover of staff actively costs money too. Research by Oxford Economics shows that the turnover of one employee on £25,000p.a. actually costs £30,600. There are not only recruitment costs to consider, but the lost productivity when training someone new and while the post is vacant.

The hiring process will also take even longer if job seekers spot the toxic company culture and realise it’s why staff are leaving in the first place too. In a toic workplace, recruitment costs quickly spiral.

How do you start changing an unhealthy work environment?

As a business owner, it is disheartening to find out that your company’s culture has turned toxic. But it’s important not to give up – a toxic working environment can be improved and even turned into a positive culture. It just takes effort.

Here are some of the steps you can take to turn around a toxic work culture.

Accept the problem

No one wants to believe their business operates in a toxic environment. However, if you think this could be the case, the only way to fix it is to acknowledge it. And acknowledge that you probably, directly or indirectly, played a role in creating it.

Fixing toxic work environments means changing practices at every level. Leading by example shows humility by accepting your potential role in causing the issues. It also shows others how their behaviour needs to change to shift the toxic culture.

Open up communication

Another step that has to start at the top is opening up communication. This links with creating psychological safety – your staff will communicate more if they feel safer and more secure when they do.

More communication in general is a step in the right direction. But one focus should be making sure people hear about changes to the business from people in authority. Don’t rely on office gossip to share important news.

Update everyone on business developments (both positive and negative). Discuss any worries they have (particularly around role changes or job insecurity). Make sure staff are aware of the expectations of their role, the direction of the business and their own performance.

Celebrate your staff

Something else you must communicate to your staff is your appreciation for them.

Big rewards such as bonuses or additional annual leave are great but don’t be limited by thinking only in terms of grand gestures. Giving regular positive feedback, supporting staff with training and taking the time to show gratitude for their day-to-day input all make employees feel valued. Embed this behaviour throughout your management structure and make sure that all levels of leadership stick to it too.

(Re)Create a sense of safety and security

One of the most important parts of a healthy work environment is giving your employees psychological safety. Achieving this is not a single action, but the result of a drawn-out process.

Every other point on this list will play a part in establishing psychological safety. Checking employee workloads and deadlines are achievable will also help. Make sure to show compassion to your employees, and expect them to show it to their colleagues too.

Don’t settle for reducing toxicity – create positivity!

This is less of an action, more of a mindset. If you only set out to reduce the toxic behaviours, you might not see the significant improvement you need to shift settled toxicity. Make it your company’s mission to be a happy, fulfilling place to work – stay focused on this and let it guide any decision you make.

Combatting a toxic environment in your workplace

Identifying a toxic work culture in your business is never a good feeling but it doesn’t have to last. As an employer, it is easily within your power to turn things around.

There are plenty of things you can do to create a more positive attitude in your workplace. None of them quick fixes but they’re all worth the effort when you can show your staff they’re supported and valued.

If you’re struggling to see how you can support the health and wellbeing of your employees to dispel a toxic environment, then speak to our team today. We’ll be able to suggest improvements to your practices and programmes that give your employees the support they need to feel positive at work.


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