Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

Toxicity is one of the 4 Workplace’s sins according to Adam Grant. 
He defines it as a company that chooses to value results over everything else, at all costs. Which often means the behaviors don’t matter as long as the numbers are good. 
Yelling, bullying, belittling, micromanaging, gossiping, etc. are all signs that something is toxic in your environment and needs addressing. 

The importance of mental health in the workplace

As we always say, Happy employees, Happy business. It is not hard to understand that people who feel their best physically and mentally perform and engage better with their work. 
We like to think of a healthy team one in which everyone feels free and safe to engage and participate. A place where there is space for all team members to speak up, bring ideas, and suggest solutions and, with time, enhance collaboration and innovation.
Nurturing your team’s mental health is nurturing your business. It is a virtuous circle that is too often overlooked. 

What is a toxic workplace culture?

As mentioned in our introduction,. It can be defined as a team or a company that values numbers above people and will reward productivity and economic growth at any cost. 
Sometimes we are so “deep in it” that it is hard to realize our environment is toxic. Like for any relationship, there are some red flags to look out for, especially if you can identify more than one:
  • When you or your colleagues are being belittled by your superior or other colleagues, 
  • If the communication is always negative and critical, 
  • When there is a particularly high turnover
  • When Office Drama is King  
  • An overall feeling of stagnation (no celebration of wins, no advancement…) 
More importantly, you often feel it “in your gut.”. When people start dreading going to work, the main topics are complaints about the system and others. Then you know that you are in a toxic environment. “Feeling it in your gut is not insignificant. It is a clear sign of how the work environment directly impacts our physical and mental well-being. 

II. Signs and Characteristics of Toxic Workplace Culture

Lack of clear communication
Communication is key. So when the lock is jammed, you can be faced with: 
No transparency: when management decides without informing the employees about changes that will impact them, it will create a feeling of uncertainty and increase stress and anxiety in the team. 
  • Not listening: by immediately dismissing suggestions and ideas from other team members, a colleague or manager can discourage future contribution and engagement. 
  • Passive aggressive behaviors: sarcasm or backhanded compliments create confusion, stress, and embarrassment within a team. 
  • Micromanagement: a manager constantly looking over your shoulder, and questioning every decision will frustrate employees and make them doubt themselves in the long run, reducing productivity. 
  • Critics over feedback: when criticizing without offering guidance or ways to improve, employees will feel frustrated, disengaged, and start resenting leadership.  
These are just a few examples illustrating how toxic communication can affect individuals and the overall workplace atmosphere. Sadly, there are many more. 
Research shows that poor communication has a direct impact on stress levels and burnout. 
According to a piece by Pumble, 86% of employees and executives cite the lack of effective collaboration and communication as the main causes of workplace failures. 
A survey of knowledge workers showed that:
  • 50% have admitted that it has increased their overall stress levels,
  • 34% have claimed that poor communication has decreased their job satisfaction,
  • 30% have said that miscommunication has lowered their professional confidence, and
  • 22% of them have considered looking for a new job due to poor communication.

Unhealthy work-life balance

The concept of work-life balance has been trendy for years. There is no “one size fits all” depending on work style, industry, and personal preferences. But the idea that you should have enough free time outside of work, to have a social and private life as well as practice activities and hobbies that make you happy seems to be the consensus. 
This is easier said than done, as some companies maintain unsustainable expectations throughout the year, such as: 
  • unrealistic deadlines, which forces employees to work longer hours and increases their overall stress levels
  • Overtime expectations: when employees feel guilt for leaving work at the end of a “normal” day because the “norm” has become to do overtime, something is wrong.
  • Increased workload without adequate staffing. When employees are not being replaced and tasks are being redistributed over long periods, that will inevitably lead to feeling overwhelmed, stress,ed and possibly burnout. 
  • Lack of boundaries: when managers are getting in touch with their employees at any time of day or night, it creates a sense of anxiety as employees will struggle to fully disconnect and rest after a workday. 
  • 1 in 3 people feel unhappy about the time they devote to work
  • 40%+ are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work
  • When working long hours, 27% feel depressed, 34% feel anxious and 58% feel irritable
  • Nearly two-thirds of employees have experienced negative effect on their personal lives, such as a lack of personal development, poor home life, and physical and mental health issues

Lack of Recognition and Appreciation

We all need to feel heard and valued. It is a trait all humans share. When we feel valued, we build trust more easily, and it is easier to collaborate and grow as a team. 
When our work and efforts are taken for granted and ignored, it will quickly impact the morale and motivation of the individual and the group.
  • When your colleague or manager omits to mention how much you have contributed to a successful project during a meeting, 
  • When your ideas are constantly shut down, 
  • When an employee regularly goes the extra mile to support the team but is never properly thanked for his/her efforts. 
Those are only three examples of situations that will discourage employees and can lead to a toxic environment and even burnout. 
According to a 2023 article by Haiilo , 69% of employees would be willing to work harder if they were better appreciated. In the same piece, they note that 37% of employees consider appreciation the best way of feeling supported. 
Paying attention is free, but it pays off.

Bullying and Harassment

A toxic environment can sometimes be escalated into bullying and harassment. It is important to be able to quickly identify such behavior and report it.
Verbal abuse: belittling, insulting, or making inappropriate remarks in private or in front of the team. 
Intimidation or threats: making people fear for their jobs and positions
isolation: purposefully excluding one or several colleagues from group activities, work meetings, or social gatherings
All of these can have a real negative impact on an individual’s mental health and lead to grave consequences such as depression, increased long-term absenteeism, and turnover for the company. 

Stress, Burnout, Anxiety and Depression

It feels like stating the obvious, but high levels of stress and a high number of burns among employees are alarming signs of a toxic work environment. 
Most of the situations we mentioned above in this piece can eventually lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even burnout and depression, especially if carried out for a long time. 

Organizational Consequences

Decreased Productivity and Engagement
When faced with such behaviour in the workplace, understandably, it becomes difficult for employees to keep their motivation and productivity high. Whether it is because of a lack of recognition, unclear communication, or a habit of being shut down and criticized, most people will try to keep their heads down and just go through the days avoiding friction. 
According to the 2023 Toxic Workplace Report, 54% of employees shared that a toxic workplace culture reduced productivity. 

High Turnover Rates

After a while, people will give up and disengage, eventually looking for other opportunities elsewhere. A Forbes article from 2022 stated that toxic cultures were 10 times more likely to drive employees away. And that has a cost: from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary in 2019, according to Gallup. That can be attributed to the time it takes to promote, interview for the available position, onboard, and train the new employee. 

Negative Company Reputation

Last but not least, in our world of social media, reviews, and cancellation culture, it is very easy to get a bad reputation as an employer. The younger generation (Z) in particular is less afraid of speaking up when they have been treated unfairly, when their boundaries are not being respected, or when a company is X-washing. 
These are just glimpses into a company’s toxic culture. Enough to remind all of us of the importance of having clear communication strategies, recognition and appreciation programs, as well as anti-bullying policies in place, but also to promote work-life balance and mental health to be able to avoid or identify such situations and immediately be able to act appropriately. 
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