How To Fix a Toxic Work Environment

The phrase “No one wants to work anymore” isn’t exactly new, but the number of people saying it seems to be at an all-time high. Companies are dealing with high turnover and often can’t find candidates to fill openings.

How To Fix A Toxic Work Environment

But people do want to work. They just aren’t willing to do so in a toxic environment. Employees want to be respected, not belittled. They are also prioritizing their mental health and looking to build guardrails between their work and personal lives. 

Unfortunately, nearly one out of five workers in the United States say their job environment is toxic, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA). Some other alarming statistics from the survey include:

  • 77% of American workers have experienced job-related stress over the past month, while 57% reported symptoms of burnout, such as emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, and wanting to quit. 
  • Just 40% said their supervisor respects their time away from the workplace.
  • 30% felt unsupported at work because of their race or ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability status, or other aspects of their identity or background.
  • 22% said they were harassed at work during the past year. 
  • Nearly 30% don’t believe they matter to their employer. 

As a company leader or HR director, how can you tell if your workplace has a toxic environment? And if it does, what can you do to solve the problem?

What Is a Toxic Work Environment?

Every toxic workplace looks a little different, but they all have one thing in common: miserable employees. It’s unrealistic to expect all team members to be happy 100% of the time. Still, it can be contagious if too many feel frustrated, anxious, or isolated. 

Here are six common signs of an unhealthy work environment:

  1. A lack of employee motivation. Do employees appear indifferent during meetings rather than participating? Are they just going through the motions as they perform their duties, or are they asking questions about how to improve? When workers feel unappreciated, they usually don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for their jobs. 
  2. A high level of absenteeism. Are workers constantly calling in sick or taking PTO days without advance notice? On-the-job stress can cause physical illness as well as impair mental health. 
  3. Bullying and harassment. Do employees frequently report mistreatment by their co-workers or supervisors? Even worse, do you see it happening or hear about it secondhand, but the victims aren’t reporting it? This could be a sign they don’t feel comfortable doing so because they fear they won’t be believed or will face retaliation. 
  4. Gossip and cliquishness. Does the workplace environment resemble a high school rather than a professional organization? Are some employees being ignored and excluded? Are rumors about these workers flying around?
  5. High attrition rates. Are employees frequently leaving their jobs? This could mean they are simply fed up with a toxic work environment. A study of Culture 500 companies reported in MIT’s Sloan Management Review found that a toxic culture is 10 times more likely than low compensation to be the reason why workers quit. 
  6. Difficulties with recruiting. Is your company having problems attracting qualified talent? Your current and former employees might be spreading the word that you have an unhealthy workplace. They could be warning friends who might otherwise apply for a job at the company or posting anonymously on websites such as Glassdoor. If they are, this could negatively impact recruiting. According to the 2021 Jobvite Job Seeker Nation Report, 86% of those looking for jobs consider a company’s culture as a crucial factor in whether they will apply.

What Causes a Toxic Workplace?

A company’s structure is often to blame for an unhealthy culture. Far too many organizations have a “top-down” structure, where managers dictate how things must be done instead of allowing employees to do what works best for them to carry out their duties effectively. Is it any wonder that workers feel disempowered and apathetic?

However, fixing your organization’s structure won’t do any good if the managers are ineffective. Maybe they play favorites and ignore employees who fall outside that golden circle. Some toxic bosses might have a short fuse and blow up at subordinates who make mistakes rather than calmly correcting them. And while micromanaging is bad, a supervisor who doesn’t provide any direction at all can frustrate workers. 

Another common cause for a toxic work environment is expecting employees to be on call 24/7 and not respecting their time off. No one wants to get emails or Slack messages from their boss in the evenings or on weekends. Some supervisors will even contact workers when they are on vacation. This is a recipe for disaster when it comes to turnover. The competition for talent is fierce, so who can blame workers if they jump ship to an employer that values work-life balance?

Poor communication also contributes to an unhealthy work environment, and it is shockingly common. Gallup recently reported that 93% of workers say communication within their organization falls short in terms of accuracy, transparency, and timeliness. When not everyone receives the same information or companies aren’t transparent about the reasons behind decisions that impact employees, it leads to mistakes, distrust, rumors, and a host of other issues.

Many employees say their workplace doesn’t provide mental health support. According to the APA, only 43% indicated their job offers an insurance plan that covers mental health treatment, while just 35% said they are encouraged to take breaks during the workday. With the growing public awareness of the importance of mental health, companies that ignore it do so at their own peril. 

A lack of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DEI) initiatives, or not following through on them, is a sure way to drive employees away. Even subtle discrimination and microaggressions make life stressful for women, people of color, those with disabilities, religious minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.  

Toxic Workplace Strategies

The first step toward creating a healthier workplace is pinpointing the causes of toxicity within your company. An effective way to do this is to hire an outside consultant to conduct anonymous surveys with all team members, from the custodial staff to the C-Suite. The consultant can then follow up with confidential interviews with selected employees at all levels of the company about the sources of toxicity the survey results revealed. 

It is essential that company leaders receive the feedback from the surveys and interviews with an open mind and avoid being defensive, no matter how harshly they are being criticized for fostering a toxic workplace. 

Once leaders have determined the causes of the unhealthy culture in their organization, they can tackle them head-on.

Here are some key strategies for creating a nontoxic work environment:

Promote emotional intelligence (EQ). This is an essential first step because it can eliminate so many problems, such as harassment, bullying, arguments, exclusion, and outbursts of temper. Those who are emotionally intelligent are empathetic, self-aware, and able to regulate their emotions. Therefore, it’s a great idea to give company leaders, managers, and employees resources that teach them how to improve their EQ. 

Talk less, listen more. Give employees a chance to air their concerns regularly, take what they have to say to heart, and work with them to solve the problems.

Set realistic expectations. Workers may be feeling overwhelmed if their workload is too heavy. If they are having trouble meeting deadlines, ensure you haven’t underestimated how much time they need to complete tasks and projects. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Let your employees know exactly what you expect of them to avoid confusion, and more importantly, encourage them to ask questions. Meetings are good, but avoid having too many of them because they take team members away from their day-to-day tasks and slow productivity. Memos and newsletters are other ways to provide team members with important information. 

Validate your employees. Showing appreciation for a job well down goes a long way. Praise employees for their success and share their accomplishments with their team. Positive reinforcement is the key to continued productivity and worker satisfaction. 

Support team members’ desire for a healthy work-life balance. Respect your employees’ personal time by not contacting them when they are on PTO unless it is necessary. Offer flexible schedules, including work-from-home options when possible. Create an environment where workers feel free to use their full number of vacation days per year without judgment. 

Provide mental health support. Assure employees they won’t face stigma for needing help. Consider offering an employee assistance program and mental health days.

Give employees opportunities to grow. Encouraging team members to participate in professional development activities both inside and outside the office helps overcome skill gaps and gives workers a considerable boost in job satisfaction. 

Take DEI seriously. If you don’t already have a DEI strategy in place, create one. But remember, it’s not a one-and-done task. Organizations must constantly evaluate how their DEI initiatives are working to make sure they are working and revamp them if they aren’t.

Be willing to make tough choices regarding employees who display toxic behavior. Unfortunately, not all team members will embrace efforts to create a healthy workplace. If they remain resistant despite your requests for them to change their behavior, it is time to part ways with them. If you don’t, the rest of your employees won’t believe you are truly invested in improving workplace culture. And if the company’s leadership doesn’t believe a toxic work environment is solvable, why should they?  

Changing Leadership To Craft a Positive Work Culture

Although it’s critical for team members to see that senior leaders are committed to changing company culture, the traditional top-down approach in which the C-Suite bears full responsibility for these efforts is no longer effective

A new model of shared responsibility calls for leadership strategies that empower everyone in an organization. Here’s the breakdown of everyone’s responsibilities in this model:

  • The board of directors guides the development of the new and improved culture and sees that it is compatible with the organization’s goals and what stakeholders want. Fortunately, creating a nontoxic workplace typically meets all those criteria because it improves employee productivity and saves money. 
  • The C-Suite defines what the improved culture will look like and creates the roadmap for getting there. The senior leadership also ensures adequate resources are devoted to achieving the goal of a positive workplace culture. 
  • HR leaders develop the programs and systems that motivate employees to do their part to create a better work environment. This can include professional development opportunities and recognition programs. 
  • The compliance, risk, and ethics department ensures the leadership strategies for changing the culture don’t put the company at risk. Although measures to reduce toxicity in the workplace can prevent lawsuits against an organization, businesses must ensure they don’t do the wrong things along the way, such as failing to keep employee information confidential when conducting surveys. 
  • Middle managers are the direct supervisors for most employees, so their role in creating a healthy work environment is vast. It’s their responsibility to ensure the day-to-day activities in their department align with the company’s goals. Although all leaders must model expected behavior, it’s particularly important for middle managers because they are the ones team members interact with every day. 
  • Employees provide feedback to the C-Suite on whether culture-changing initiatives are working or not and how they can be improved. They are also responsible for adjusting their behavior to align with the company’s goals. 

Improving a toxic workplace is a challenging task but an essential one. It won’t happen overnight, but if you succeed in bringing about a healthier environment, everyone will be happier. And happy employees are more productive, stay with the company longer, and spread the word about your organization.

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