Spotting warning signs of a toxic workplace environment

In the wake of the Great Resignation, employee retention is increasingly becoming a priority for employers. With a study finding that toxic workplace culture was the main influence in people leaving their jobs, employers and managers must prioritise the cultivation of a safe and positive working environment. 

Toxicity can manifest in various forms in the workplace; unfair expectations, poor communication and boundaries, or unpleasant behaviour. It is crucial for leaders and employees to be able to spot the signs that a workplace is becoming toxic so that they can challenge it. 

  1. Employees are not setting clear boundaries 

When there is not a clear culture of boundary setting, many employees will not feel comfortable in establishing and enforcing their self-protecting boundaries. If you notice that many members of staff are not taking their breaks or holiday days, or are responding to emails regularly outside of office hours, you should resist seeing this as a  sign of dedication to the company, rather that it signals a lack of self-care. Often either consciously or subconsciously, people feel that working without recovery breaks makes them more productive. When this behaviour is ignored by employers and managers, it becomes the norm for everyone to overwork themselves and then feel unable to take a break when their bodies and minds tell them they must. 

Intentional recovery should be actively encouraged within an organisation and leaders and managers must consider the impact that their decision to message or email an employee outside of working hours has on that recovery. Employees feel under pressure to reply which compromises the personal time needed to renew performance capability and ensure personal sustainability. Encourage those within your organisation to ask each other: do you have any additional capacity this week? Before asking them to take on extra tasks or asking for favours. 

Building a collaborative culture based on a shared understanding of the necessity for recovery will remove animosity between colleagues over taking holiday, or not responding outside of the working day.  

  1. Employee burnout

When humans are overwhelmed and are struggling to cope with the pressures of their jobs, this can snowball into more serious issues that compromise their emotional and physical wellbeing. 

Sustained pressure over time can lead to burnout: a state of chronic stress and exhaustion. Symptoms can include extreme fatigue, negative feelings towards work, and reduced productivity and efficiency - all of these signs are there to be ‘read’ in others by looking at the quality of working relationships between managers and colleagues, and the effectiveness of collaborations. Managers and leaders need to be both curious and brave enough to look for signs of burnout, and offer solution focussed support where needed.   

Better still leadership should ensure they understand how pressure is being experienced at the coal face and work with them to ensure that workplace pressure  acts as a catalyst for growth and performance, not stress and burnout. 

  1. Concerns are never voiced with leaders or managers

If employees rarely approach managers or leaders for support, then this may be a key sign that the culture is not felt to be a psychologically safe one. When employees feel that they can speak openly and honestly with line leadership, without fear of negative consequences, their overall wellbeing and happiness at work will be maximised. If employees are afraid to talk about their struggles or concerns, this is a clear sign of toxicity in the workplace. Fear is the enemy of creativity and anxiety about potential  personal negative consequences for sharing insights or concerns is a clear sign that  open communication is not happening. 

To combat this, managers and business leaders can encourage open communication between colleagues, and set a precedent through comfortably expressing their own vulnerability within the work space. Accessible frameworks of support must also be created and clearly signposted by employers to ensure everybody knows that wellbeing is a priority and that non-judgemental support is available to all. . 

  1. Employee retention is low 

The pandemic and the Great Resignation that ensued brought discussions about employee turnover into the mainstream. Many sought to pursue careers that aligned with their passions, to fit in with family life, or to earn more money. Because of the various factors driving the Great Resignation, not all leaders will recognise that the workplace culture in their organisation is likely to be a contributing factor in whether people stay or move on. Employees expectations have changed since the Pandemic, and high attrition rates are a clear sign that those expectations or desires are not being met.  Leaders must develop a keener eye for the ways in which their personal behaviour and decision making shapes the prevailing culture and what this may mean for avoiding toxicity.  Open conversations that build trust and show respect, coupled with opportunities to give regular feedback will help identify areas for improvement and increase the sense of shared purpose needed to retain talent..  

  1. Your wellbeing strategy is reactive rather than proactive

Firefighting issues as they come up is not enough. This is often too late to change an employee's perception of work and any negative feelings that may have been boiling beneath the surface for a length of time. 

Instead, a proactive approach to prioritising employee happiness, open communication and respect of boundaries needs to be embedded in company structure and policy. This will also enhance the feeling of being cared for among employees, signalling that their happiness at work is seen as a priority.