Everyone has bad Mondays, frantic weeks and disappointing months. That’s the reality of the working world. But how do you tell if that bad Monday was just a one-off, or the result of a toxic work culture?
Toxicity at work is more than just a job you dislike. It’s microaggressions and gaslighting, it’s lionizing the hustlers and staying silent in the face of inappropriate comments. Whilst the challenges of a bad Monday will rapidly become a distant memory, the elements of a toxic work culture will linger like a bad smell.
Toxic working environments have a myriad of negative effects on our experiences at work. A report from Culture Shift has shown that 41% of employees have had their productivity impacted by poor working culture and 71% needed to have therapy to deal with an issue they’d experienced at work.
The impacts extend to companies too. A 2015 study from Harvard Business School found that nearly half of all employees surveyed consciously reduced their effort at work after experiencing incivility. And when Glassdoor analysed over 1.4 million anonymous employee reviews to determine why people left their jobs, they found that employees were 10 times more likely to quit because of toxicity than because of poor remuneration.
Employees hate it and companies can’t afford to permit it, but what are the actual indicators of toxicity at work? In no particular order, here are four signs that your workplace culture is toxic.
1. No work-life balance
If you’re consistently working beyond your contracted hours, missing time with friends and family or feeling guilty about taking annual leave, you might be working in an “always-on” culture.
Toxic bosses will frame this as an expectation for employees to “go the extra mile” and shower praise on those who bolt themselves to their desks at 8am and don’t leave until they’re the only ones left in the office.
Remote workers aren’t free from this either as the digital intensity of our days has increased significantly. In a 2021 survey Microsoft found that the average length of meetings on its platforms increased by 10 minutes and 62% of calls were unscheduled.
2. Fear of failure
A fear-based work culture is perhaps the most recognisable, and one of the most damaging, negative working environments. Nobody wants to screw things up at work, but if employees feel like they can’t tell the truth or challenge their bosses then that’s a clear indicator of a fear-based culture.
In a healthy workplace, employees should be encouraged to challenge the status quo to ensure everything runs smoothly, and, crucially, good leaders will listen to employee feedback. A great boss will also give employees room to err and focus on building skills rather than berating failures.
3. Workplace cliques
Do the same people always get the high-status projects? Are senior leaders followed from room to room by a gaggle of yes-saying sycophants? Sorry to break it to you, but it looks like you’ve got a clique in the company.
These groups can range from the gossipy coworkers who always get lunch together and giggle in hushed tones throughout the working day, to the entourage of higher-ups who always land the big clients and bask in public praise for a job not-so-well-done. Anyone outside of the privileged inner circle is left to fight to feel valued or recognised.
4. Poor communication
No one knows what their responsibilities are. The phrase “crossed wires” is mentioned on a daily basis. Someone is always left out of the loop.
Toxic workplace cultures are defined by poor communication because they’re also breeding grounds for a lack of trust, reduced enthusiasm and petty power struggles.
Being able to recognise the features of a toxic work culture is great, but why do our workplaces become pernicious in the first place? Adecco Group CEO Alain Dehaze suggests that a lack of corporate empathy underpins many toxic problems in our work environments and, ultimately, leads to high employee turnover. Fortunately, employees often "leave for reasons that are within the control of employers", meaning companies probably already have the tools to change. Read Alain’s blog on using corporate empathy as a tool to retain top talent.