Toxic Work Environments: Understanding The Causes, Dangers, And Possible Solutions

Does your job consistently take more energy and give you a sense of dread? Are disrespect, unfair treatment, and/or high demands characteristics of your workplace? Are you struggling with your mental health because of how you’re treated at your job? These are all signs of toxic work environments.

Having some discomfort and reluctance to show up at a job is normal, no matter what job you have – even people who have their dream jobs in a completely healthy work environment will sometimes not want to work or resent their job because anything you have to do will be unappealing sometimes.

But toxic work environments are different because the way you’re treated by the people you work with is damaging to your mental health. It’s not the work itself that is detrimental – workplaces can be high-pressure, fast-paced, and sometimes tiring without being toxic. Toxic workplaces are toxic because of the way you’re treated by the people you work with, especially management.

There are a number of ways workplaces can be toxic. Some are more damaging than others, and how you’re affected will in part be determined by your personality.

You can take measures to be less affected by a toxic work environment, but these are often short-term solutions. Whenever possible, it’s more effective to advocate for change or leave. These may not be easy solutions, but don’t underestimate how much a toxic work environment can damage your health, emotional and even physical. However, understanding the nature of a toxic workplace can help you be less affected.

What are toxic work environments?

Work environments are driven by company culture. Company cultures are the values, beliefs, and behaviours that are encouraged, as well as what is discouraged.

When company cultures are unhealthy, there is often a toxic work environment.

‘Toxic’ is a vague term that’s dramatically increased in popularity in recent years. There isn’t a universal definition of what constitutes a toxic work environment – some people will call their workplace toxic because there are elements they dislike. But the term is meant to refer to work environments where fear is commonplace. Often it’s the fear of being mistreated by the people you work with.

Truly toxic workplaces are rare, but they’re very impactful.

The types of behaviours that make an organisation unhealthy vary from overt discrimination and sexual harassment in a hostile organisation, to subtle disrespect in a company where the leaders think they’re ethical and fair. Sometimes a culture is healthy for most people, but there are small groups of people who experience the culture as toxic because they’re treated differently. The types of behaviours that cause toxicity can vary but the results are the same – employees feeling tense, uneasy, and waiting to be mistreated.

Experiencing consistent fear and tension in your job that isn’t connected to the work but how you’re treated is exhausting, harmful to your mental health, and can make you hate and dread a job you were initially passionate about. This is likely to make enjoying your personal time difficult because of the pressure you’re constantly under.

While the individual experiences of a toxic workplace can vary, and there are different qualities some people define as making a workplace toxic, the most impactful are:

1) Disrespect

This is the most common and most impactful reason workplaces are toxic because it makes you like you don’t matter and potentially ashamed of who you are, which is an incredibly painful and isolating experience.

People can put up with a lot – long hours, challenging assignments, poor work-life balance, etc. – when they feel respected. But when respect is lacking, all other grievances become much less tolerable.

Disrespect can take many forms, but it’s characterised by people not caring about how their behaviour will affect others. This could be direct disrespect through bullying and abusive behaviours, or more subtly by not respecting your time even after you’ve made requests for change.

When people can treat each other disrespectfully without consequences, unhealthy ways of communicating become normalised. People are sent the message, covertly or directly, that damaging types of behaviour are to be tolerated because they’re so widespread and intrinsic to the company culture.

Feeling respected, trusting your colleagues, and being confident that problems and concerns will be discussed is very important to feeling secure at your workplace. If these qualities are lacking, even if everyone experiences the same types of treatment, you’re much more likely to struggle with your mental health and be negatively affected by the environment.

2) Discrimination

Discrimination is rare and doesn’t affect everyone, but those who do experience it are very strongly affected.

There is most likely to be discrimination when managers believe there is a power imbalance. People belonging to minority groups (cultural-linguistic background, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or age), women in male-dominated fields, and those with limited experience are the most likely to be discriminated against, although anyone is vulnerable to discrimination. When a small group is singled out for unfair treatment, the harm they experience is profound. 

Individuals can be singled out and given more work or less trust than others without clear reasons why. Managers can demand higher standards from certain people or require someone to check in more than their colleagues. This is often very frustrating and can impact mental health, especially when there isn’t a clear reason why they’re being treated differently, so people in these types of situations can blame themselves.

Organisations can also have a club or family mentality where only those who have a connection to management, such as being related or friends socially, are able to advance. This usually isn’t as impactful as being specifically discriminated against, but it hurts the culture and can lead to high rates of turnover.

3) Unethical

All people want to be treated fairly, and most people want to be able to think of themselves as good people. They dislike being lied to, having positives oversold and challenges and negative aspects of their job downplayed. Being misled, tricked, or manipulated makes people feel mistreated and unsure of what they can expect in their jobs; this creates a stressful and exhausting environment.

Organisations can be fair to their employees but treat clients unethically. This causes a moral dilemma for some people, especially those whose core values include qualities such as honesty and justice.

People who don’t conform to cultures can be singled out. So if your values make you resist following a company culture, you can be disadvantaged since you’re following different rules. This places enormous pressure on people to sacrifice their values, but adopting the company’s culture at the expense of your values has its own consequences.

People who sacrifice their values can lose their sense of self, while treating others in ways you believe are unethical can lead to regret. And even if you conform to a toxic culture, they’re still unhealthy places to work.

4) Highly competitive

Organisations can encourage healthy competition – even when the work is fast-paced and high pressured – without becoming toxic by keeping the competition motivating and enjoyable. But when the goal is doing better than others, whether this is out-performing your colleagues or making your company one of the best in the industry, then the competitive nature is almost certain to create a toxic work environment.

People are most likely to feel motivated to work hard while maintaining their mental health when success is based on factors that are within their control. This could be feeling accomplished after working hard on a project or confident that they did enough to prepare ahead of an important meeting.

But if you base success on out-performing others, you don’t have any control over your ability to succeed or not. You can work incredibly hard, but you can’t guarantee that someone else won’t do better, which according to your definition of success will mean that you failed.

Organisations that have cultures based on being the best usually aren’t healthy places to work because they have an unhealthy definition of success. Competition can be encouraging, but not when it’s based on beating others. 

5) Abuse

Abuse is a form of disrespect but because it’s so aggressive (sometimes passive aggressive) and is rarely mistakable, it’s far more impactful.

Disrespect can be subjective – some people fell disrespected when jokes are made at their expense while others think of this as harmless banter; certain tones can feel disrespectful to one person but not another. But interpreting what is abusive and what isn’t doesn’t come down to personalities.

Abuse is yelling, bullying, demeaning, isolation, and humiliation.

Some managers at companies will have the occasional abusive day – often when they’re upset (at something work-related or in their personal lives) and take their emotions out on the people they work with. While this can make for an unpleasant day and add some unwanted tension to the workplace (since you have to worry about being mistreated) for abuse to truly make a workplace toxic it needs to be consistent and remorseless. Non-abusive managers who are occasionally abusive recognise they’re being unfair and apologise or indirectly find a way to make amends. Abusive bosses in toxic workplaces don’t think of their behaviour as warranting any sort of compensation.

Workplaces with consistent abuse are rare, but they’re almost certain to be toxic, no matter who works there.

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Not all people will be affected by a toxic workplace in the same ways. Demanding excessive hours or an unrelenting workload can be interpreted as disrespect for your time and mental health, and some people enjoy the challenging nature of a high competitive culture that would be toxic to others.What makes a culture toxic is sometimes subjective and a matter of how individuals respond – someone who is willing to confront abuse would likely be less affected than someone who doesn’t feel capable of calling out abusive treatment; a shy introvert might not be affected by what an extrovert would consider isolation.

Because there are different ways that a workplace can be unhealthy, it’s important to recognise when you’re experiencing a toxic work environment so you don’t blame yourself for struggling.

Why do company cultures become toxic?

Company cultures are based on how work gets done, so the culture is largely determined by how leaders think workers should be treated to be as productive as possible. If they believe that using criticism and shame is the most effective way to motivate employees, then abuse and ridicule will be common ways of communicating.

Toxic leaders often worry that if they were kinder to their employees, they wouldn’t work as hard.

Leaders can recognise that they’re putting pressure on people and creating a tense work environment, but they often rationalise their behaviours by telling themselves that the ends justify the means and that their behaviour is necessary to keeping the organisation profitable. Rather than thinking of themselves as overseeing a toxic company culture, they typically view themselves as tough but fair leaders in an organisation where the right people who are willing to apply themselves can flourish.

Some companies with toxic cultures have poor leadership and use strategies that punish employees rather than empowering them. The leaders often refuse to accept responsibility for their role in the organisations’ problems and blame external factors or the other employees rather than considering how their practices contribute to the challenging environment.

However, some leaders of toxic workplaces will be aware that the culture is toxic but feel powerless to change it. In older organisations, leaders often inherit the cultures and introducing change is difficult as it requires convincing people at all levels that change is necessary and will benefit the company.

Companies can also keep a toxic culture because they’re risk-adverse and fear change. Any form of change in an organisation – internal or external – can potentially cost them productivity and profits. So management can be afraid of the potential risks associated with trying to change the company culture, even if it costs employees their mental health.

Before toxic company cultures can change, leaders have to change their beliefs about how to motive people and maximise potential, and recognise that these changes will benefit the organisation. This requires moving away from viewing the toxic culture as an unfortunate but necessary cost of doing business and exercise their power to enact change.

Why should everyone – workers and leaders – want to prevent toxic cultures?

Toxic workplaces are bad for the individuals, but they’re also bad for businesses. This is why workers at all levels should be aware of what toxic workplaces are and know the costs so they can have a reason to change them.

People who work for organisations with toxic cultures can have physical symptoms – they’re at an increased risk of developing a coronary disease, asthma, diabetes or arthritis. They can experience insomnia, physical pain, fatigue, and a reduced memory and tolerance for agitation. Some people develop mental health conditions, which can require treatment to recover from. The most common are depression, anxiety, burnout, and chronic stress. You’re also more likely to engage in “negative rumination” – replaying unpleasant interactions in your head over and over in an attempt to explain them or prepare yourself to face the same event in the near future.

Toxic work environments follow people home and make their personal lives more challenging as well. You can neglect important relationships and mistreat the people you’re closest to because you’re too drained to pay attention to their needs or respond fairly when they do anything you dislike.

Furthermore, if you work in a toxic workplace, the effects can last even after you leave, such as becoming nervous when you get emails or phone calls at home, struggling to enjoy your personal time, and feeling as if you don’t matter. Toxic work environments send you harmful messages about your worth. You can come to believe these messages and unlearning them can take time – they don’t disappear even if you quit or the environment changes.

The leaders of toxic workplaces should be invested in avoiding or healing a toxic work environment, and not just out of compassion. A callous business-driven manager could choose not to care about how their employees are being impacted by the hostile work environment as they view it as necessary to being productive.

But people who work at toxic workplaces are on average 20% less productive than those who work for an organisation with a healthy culture. This can be intentional because being disrespected and feeling unappreciated makes them put less effort in, but it can also be accidental. The physical symptoms they experience make them get sick and miss days more often, and the distracting tension keeps them from being as productive as they could be.

Organisations can think that mental health is the responsibility of the individual, but when they refuse to take accountability for how their behaviour impacts on the mental health of the people who work for them, they’re creating an environment where people are going to need to dedicate more of their internal resources to taking care of themselves, which will inevitably come at the cost of their workplace productivity.

A toxic work environment can also keep talented people away and make effective workers quit.  

A growing number of people value healthy work environments and are committed to protecting their mental health. Sacrificing or straining their wellbeing for a job is, for many, considered too high of a cost. They also want to work for organisations whose ethics and mission they respect. This trend is putting pressure on workplaces to change their approach so they attract and retain talented people.

The number one reason cited for leaving a job across all careers is a toxic work environment. This high rate of turnover is expensive for companies since it takes time and money to replace people.

Managers can enforce toxic environments in the name of productivity but this approach makes people get less done, not more.

What is needed for a company culture to change toxic work environments?

Changing a workplace culture is possible, but it takes a lot of effort and commitment. Change won’t happen until leadership appreciates the value of a healthy environment. Addressing a toxic culture requires the people who work there to understand that the culture is causing problems and want to make improvements. Lower-level employees are the most likely to be affected but the least capable of making changes as harmful cultures are usually maintained by management.

A common obstacle to cultures changing is a lack of ownership. Does anyone in your organisation take responsibility for the company’s culture?

Avoiding responsibility for a toxic culture is easy – people at all levels can shift responsibility away from themselves on to someone else. And the people who do this often don’t believe they’re lying because there is truth to their claims.

Leaders and management are often blamed for toxic organisational cultures. This is usually warranted since the leaders of companies set the tone for how people are treated through what types of behaviours are rewarded and which are punished. But if the culture of the company has been toxic for a very long time, they can rightly claim that they inherited this culture and were afraid to introduce changes, or that they tried and failed to improve the organisation’s atmosphere.

Middle management can be more committed to maintaining the culture than addressing what makes it toxic. This can result in managers doing noting or reporting people who complain instead of trying to bring about the changes that were requested.

Employees can also avoid responsibility by claiming they’re just acting like everyone else and there’s nothing they can do to encourage others to improve their behaviour since they’ll be undermined by management. There can be truth to this as well, but existing power structures need to be challenged by someone if change is going to take place.

Everyone involved may feel that since they didn’t create the culture, then it’s not their responsibility to find ways to improve the situation. But if everyone thinks they’re blameless and do nothing, than the culture can never change.

Before changes can take place, there needs to be a fundamental shift in what organisations value. Because cultures are the by-product of a company’s goals, leadership styles, organisation, and priorities, these have to change before any improvements can be made to the culture, even if leadership is trying to bring about positive changes.

Discussions and plans for changing culture rarely accomplish very much if the company isn’t willing to rethink how it does business:

  • What types of behaviour are rewarded or discouraged?
  • How are mistakes and failures reacted to?
  • What are the company’s values?
  • What types of competitiveness are encouraged?

The answers to these questions are often very revealing and indicate what the culture is rooted in. By finding ways to reverse the trends that produced the cultures, unhealthy company cultures can be improved.

Companies can’t change their cultures if they keep doing business the same ways they always have. Improving a culture is only possible when destructive practices are ended, people at all levels are empowered to call attention to people engaging in unhealthy practices, and healthier approaches are adopted. Companies can theoretically commit to repairing their culture, but if there aren’t real reasons for people at all levels to change, then these improvements are unlikely to last or be followed during challenging times.

It’s possible for workplace cultures to change, but this is often unlikely. Instead of waiting for a culture to change, it’s almost always more effective to look after yourself instead.

What should you do if you work in toxic work environments?

Working for an organisation with a toxic culture can do incredible damage to your mental health and affect every aspect of your life. The side-effects are often painful and difficult to avoid. But you can shield yourself from at least some of the damage by taking measures to protect your mental health.

There are different ways to do this, and what will be the most effective can vary from person to person. But the best methods for the majority of people include:

1) Practice self-care. Spending as little as 20 minutes each day doing something that makes you feel relaxed or accomplished can boost your mental health, which makes you feel more capable of dealing with challenging situations. If you go home mentally and physically exhausted and don’t do anything to take care of yourself, then you aren’t going to feel any better. Practicing self-care doesn’t change anything at work, but it can give you more strength to tolerate how you’re treated there.

2) Find a support system outside of work. Allies at work can be very helpful. De-briefing with someone who feels the same way as you and is trustworthy can benefit your mental health and help you feel supported. Knowing you’re not alone can make your work environment much less impactful.

It’s also useful to have someone outside of work you can talk to so you have another perspective, as well as a distraction to make it easier to not think about work when you don’t have to.

3) Develop strategies to deal with the stress and frustration your workplace causes you. There are many different ways to de-stress – some people like to relax while others get more benefit from doing something physical. Having intentional ways of processing stress and tension can make it less impactful.

4) Advocate for yourself as much as possible. What changes would you need in your workplace to make it feel less damaging? Is there someone you could talk to about having these changes implemented? Should you report some of the people who are responsible for the toxic environment? Would your colleagues support you in this? These options may be risky, but even finding small ways to improve your situation can be very empowering.

In some cases, outside organisations can require your company to follow laws designed to protect workers. This can include using a union or professional supports if these are applicable and available. Having your organisation held legally responsible could require hiring a lawyer or other paid for services, which isn’t an option that’s available to everyone due to the costs and potential mental stress.

5) Look for the positives of your job. Don’t tell yourself things that aren’t true or ignore unacceptable behaviour, but try to identify ways your job positively contributes to your life. Are there are relationships with your colleagues that you value? Does your salary enable you to do things you enjoy in your free time? Are you proud of the work you do? Does your job make a positive difference in the lives of others?

Acknowledging what you would miss about your job if you left can help you be less affected by keeping it from being an entirely negative experience.

6) Give yourself the option to leave. Quitting your job may not be easy or practical, especially if there are other people who rely on your income, but if you believe there’s no way you could possibly leave, you’ll likely suffer much more. An exit strategy can make your job far more tolerable. People can withstand much more pain if they have the option to end it. You could resolve to take action if certain lines are crossed so you know what your limits are, or identify ways you could rearrange your life to make leaving more practical sometime in the future. Even in you don’t intend to leave, giving yourself this option helps you to be less impacted.

It’s almost impossible not to be impacted by a toxic work environment. Some are more damaging than others, but no matter the nature of your workplace, if you work for an organisation with a toxic culture, it’s important to take measures to protect your mental health.

Don’t underestimate the damage a toxic workplace can do you your life. No job is worth sacrificing your mental health for.

A wooden figurine slumps over a pile of rocks with another rock on it's upper back - Toxic Work Environments
Toxic work environments can put you under incredible amounts of pressure and tension  

Toxic workplaces are by definition damaging places to work. They can cost you your self-confidence, make you believe you’re incompetent, think you have no valuable skills, and follow you home to damage your relationships – including your relationship with yourself. You can even develop mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, burnout, and chronic stress from your poor treatment.

Although the best solution is to stop working in a toxic culture – by successfully bringing about change or leaving – you can improve your situation by understanding the nature of your workplace and how it affects you.

Unnamed pain usually hurts more than struggles you’ve labelled, so identifying what about your workplace upsets you can make it less damaging.

To be successful and fulfilled, in your career and personal life, it’s important to feel safe, secure, and appreciated. There may be rough days at your job or times when you don’t want to work, but this isn’t the same as a toxic workplace. Toxic work environments can destroy your sense of self and make it impossible to feel proud, confident, or content.

This is why it’s important and valuable to understand the nature of toxic workplaces and be able to identify if you’re working for one. If you are, it’s important to protect your mental health and ideally take steps to change your situation.  

Other recommended reading about toxic work environments

Unsolicited Help can have Toxic Effects in the Workplace

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