Workplace culture has a major impact on how you get your work done and how you feel every day, both on and off the job. In fact, three out of 10 people report that their workplace culture makes them irritable at home.
A toxic work environment can also have measurable impacts on productivity. A Harvard Business School study found that nearly half of employees who experienced incivility in the workplace reduced their effort and made a conscious choice to spend less time at work. Perhaps even worse? 38 percent intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
Unfavorable workplaces are bad news for employee morale and mental health, but they’re still surprisingly common. Nearly 55% of workers say they face unpleasant and potentially hazardous conditions at work.
How can you tell if you’re truly dealing with a toxic work culture? And more importantly, what can you do about it? Let’s dig into what you need to know.
5 characteristics of a toxic work environment
Is your workplace really toxic? This is one of those situations when it’s smart to trust your gut. The fact that you’re doubtful about the health of your company’s culture says that there’s plenty of room for improvement.
But if your intuition isn’t quite enough to convince you, here are five other telltale signs that your work environment leaves a lot to be desired.
1. There’s little to no enthusiasm
If you look around at your colleagues, does everyone’s face seem like they just found out they need a root canal?
Bad attitudes create a self-fulfilling prophecy – all that negativity is a result of the culture, but it also fuels the overall gloomy vibe in the office. And worse, it hinders everybody’s ability to get things done. 93 percent of workers say they’re less productive when they work with people who have poor attitudes.
2. There’s a pervasive fear of failure
Nobody wants to screw up at work. 28 percent of people admit that making a mistake on the job is their biggest workplace fear. But there’s a big difference between hoping to avoid a brief face-palm moment and feeling paralyzed by a threatening environment that punishes perceived failures.
A total lack of psychological safety (which measures how secure employees feel in taking risks and making mistakes) is another indicator of a toxic workplace.
When people are afraid to step out of their comfort zones, the whole team suffers. In fact, Google’s Project Aristotle found that a high degree of psychological safety has the greatest impact on team effectiveness – even above dependability, structure, meaning, and impact.
A high degree of psychological safety has the greatest impact on team effectiveness.
3. There’s constant dysfunction and confusion
Nobody is clear on their roles or responsibilities. Crossed wires are common, and people are always left out of the loop. Team members can barely tell which way is up.
Toxic workplaces are breeding grounds for dysfunction and confusion. That’s because these negative environments are often accompanied by a lack of trust, ineffective communication, and power struggles. Those issues make it all the more challenging for team members to collaborate, so projects, meetings, and relationships frequently run off the rails.
From the Playbook
Understand each team member’s contribution, and learn what everyone needs to be successful.Run the roles and responsibilities play
4. There’s never-ending gossip and drama
A little bit of office hearsay is normal. Most people are guilty of paying attention the rumor mill in one way or another, with 96 percent of respondents admitting to participating in office gossip.
It’s when gossip is taken to an extreme that toxic workplaces become apparent. If your average day at work feels like you’re starring on a reality TV show, you’ve reached a whole new level of drama. Nobody openly communicates and, instead, opts for whispers, side-eye glances, and passive aggressive remarks.
It might seem harmless, but this maliciousness takes a toll. Workplace bullying is correlated with psychological burnout, depression, anxiety, and aggression.
5. There’s high employee turnover
There’s a revolving door of employees, and it seems like you can’t keep anybody around for the long haul. You’re never sure what empty desks or new faces you’ll see in the office tomorrow.
If throngs of people are running for the hills, that’s a strong indicator that the culture is driving employees away. One out of five people who have left their job in the last five years have cited culture as their reason for exiting. Organizations that purposefully craft a positive culture experience a 14 percent turnover rate, while those who ignore their culture are saddled with a 48 percent turnover rate.
There are a number of reasons that employees leave jobs. But if you feel like you’re seeing a mass exodus, that’s a red flag about your work environment.
How to deal with a toxic work culture
You recognized your work environment in one (or even several) of the indicators above. Now what?
Should you cut your losses and put in your two weeks’ notice? Maybe. But, before you pack up your desk and hit the road, it’s worth trying some of the below strategies to see if you can improve things at work.
1. Find your allies
A venomous work environment means you probably won’t get along with everybody you work with. However, building a support system of some friendly and like-minded colleagues can help you boost your spirits and feel less isolated.
This will be the group that you can connect and commiserate with, which is important when it’s been proven that disclosing stress is a coping mechanism. In addition, positive social relationships strengthen employee retention and productivity.
2. Focus on what you can control
The common advice of “stay positive” is cliché and even condescending when you’re stuck in a work environment that’s sabotaging your happiness. Rather than pasting on a fake smile and keeping your chin up, ask yourself this question when something irritates you at work: Do I have any control over this?
If you’re not in a leadership position, you probably have limited power over how other people behave and interact. But you can control how you respond to it.
Stay focused on the decisions and reactions that you have a say in, and you’ll avoid expending energy and frustration on situations that aren’t worth your sweat.
3. Document everything
Here’s a sad but true fact: one in four workers say they don’t trust their employer. That’s sure to be true in a toxic workplace. That diabolical environment has you constantly peeking over your shoulder, just waiting for the next person to throw you under the bus.
It’s exhausting to constantly worry about who could stab you in the back, and it’s sad that you’d even feel a need to protect yourself in this way. But keeping accurate records of your work and conversations will at least give you some peace of mind.
Was a decision made during an in-person conversation? Get it in writing. Keep detailed documentation of all of your work. If your boss lobs an unfairly negative performance review at you or a colleague misrepresents an interaction, you’ll have some undeniable evidence about what really happened.
4. Muster your courage and provide honest feedback
When you’re dealing with a negative work environment, it’s tempting to bite your tongue for fear of adding fuel to the fire. However, speak up when you’re given opportunities to provide feedback – whether that’s through employee surveys, your one-on-ones with your manager, upwards performance reviews, or another outlet.
It’s possible that the leadership team doesn’t even realize the extent of the negativity that’s spreading throughout the office, and you should take advantage of the chance to enlighten them about what could be going better.
Can we guarantee that you’ll notice vast improvements? Not necessarily. But, you stand a better chance than if you say nothing. After all, one in three companies might not regularly act on employee feedback – but that means two out of three companies will hopefully take some action to turn things around.
If nothing’s working? It might be time to hit the road
The above tips can help you avoid getting too weighed down by a toxic work culture. However, it’s important to recognize that depending on your level of seniority, there’s only so much you can do. You aren’t going to single-handedly repair everything that’s broken.
If you’ve taken these steps to improve your situation and nothing seems to be working, it’s probably time to jump ship and find a team and an environment that’s a better fit for you.
That decision might feel daunting or even a little guilt-inducing. But, remember that life’s way too short to dread your work every single day – especially when work stress can have such massive effects on your personal life and mental health.
Get stories like this in your inbox