Signs of a toxic work culture (and what to do about it)

an employee is cowering as a colleague yells with bolts if intense energy surrounding them in a toxic work culture

Do you feel on edge at work, do you battle negativity around your job, or are you emotionally drained at the end of a working week? These may be signs you’re dealing with a toxic work culture.

Toxic workplace behavior is the biggest predictor of employee burnout symptoms and intent to leave, according to McKinsey & Company research1. In fact, toxic behavior at work contributes at least 60% of negative workplace outcomes.

Given that we spend a third of our lives working, unhappiness at work has a habit of spilling over into our personal lives and impacting our mental health and wellbeing.

Wondering about the health status of your work environment? Below, we break down the warning signs of a toxic workplace. We also explain how it can affect you and your company, and provide strategies to deal with it. Plus, we will show you how F4S can help. Let’s jump right in.

Table of contents
Definition of a toxic workplace
10 telltale signs of a negative work environment
Physical toxic workplace signs
Emotional toxic work culture signs
What's the impact of a toxic work environment?
What are the causes of a toxic workplace?
How do you deal with a toxic environment as an employer or employee?
Build a healthier work culture

Definition of a toxic workplace

Put simply, a toxic work environment makes your job stressful and unpleasant and your workplace an unhealthy place to be. Negative behaviors such as constant criticism, bullying, disrespect, and gossip are commonplace, and make it hard for people to enjoy their jobs and do their work well.

Sadly, toxic workplaces are quite common. Studies show that almost two-thirds of people worldwide have experienced toxic situations at work2. This could be because of the organizational culture or specific individuals within it.

Toxic work environments impact both men and women, but women are 41% more likely to experience such cultures compared to men3. Additionally, racial minorities are also more susceptible to the effects of toxic workplaces4.

Working in a toxic environment can have a negative impact on both mental and physical wellbeing. Almost 50% of Australian workers say their mental health suffers because of their job5. When people feel unhappy and disrespected, they become less motivated, engaged, and focused on their work. Toxic traits in other employees also disrupt teamwork, collaboration, and good communication, and this makes the entire team less productive. A toxic workplace also leads to high turnover rates.

Toxic culture is a prime reason why people quit their jobs in the US – a whopping 4.4 million individuals resigned because of it in 2022 alone6.  When people feel mistreated and unsupported, they often look for better opportunities elsewhere. In the UK, 42% of employees have left a job because of a toxic work culture7.

These numbers tell a story.

Toxic work environments have real consequences for both individuals and organizations. Recognizing the signs early and addressing them with urgency is the solution to creating a healthy, positive workplace in which everyone can thrive.

10 telltale signs of a negative work environment

If you have concerns about your workplace being toxic, you should know the signs to watch out for. We've compiled a list of 10 telltale signs to get you started. To simplify things, we’ve divided them into physical and emotional indicators of a negative work environment.

Let’s go over them one at a time.

Physical toxic workplace signs

1. High turnover rates

A high turnover rate in a company indicates that something is wrong. It often means that employees are unhappy, mistreated, or dissatisfied with their jobs so they start to seek better opportunities elsewhere. This is a clear telltale sign of a toxic workplace.

High turnover has a negative impact on employee wellbeing, but it also has financial consequences for your business. In 2021, the costs associated with employee turnover exceeded US$700 billion8.

When employees leave, you incur expenses for recruiting, hiring, and training new employees. Additionally, productivity suffers during the transition, potentially resulting in revenue losses. These financial burdens accumulate and significantly affect your organization's overall profitability.

2. Lack of trust

Trust is incredibly important in the workplace. For example, millennials are 22 times more likely to stay loyal to a company if there is a high level of trust9.

People often feel scared to express their thoughts or take risks in a toxic work culture. That’s because they worry about facing judgment or negative consequences. Team leaders tend to micromanage members when they don’t trust their abilities. There’s also a lack of transparency, so teams work in silos.

When trust is absent, employees become disengaged and less loyal to the company. They simply tend to do the bare minimum required and don't put in extra effort to excel in their roles. They feel disconnected from the organization and start exploring other options.

3. Lack of respect

Lack of respect is a warning sign of a toxic work culture. It is when people don't treat each other kindly or value their thoughts and feelings at work.

This affects everyone's wellbeing and makes it hard for teams to work well together. It leads to misunderstandings and conflicts, which makes employees feel demotivated and unhappy. They can start losing confidence in themselves and their abilities.

Plus, employees are 26% more likely to quit when respect is lacking10. This shows how much impact a hostile environment can have. Employees look for workplaces where people treat each other with respect and dignity.

4. Unethical behavior

When people exhibit inappropriate behaviors at work, it indicates an unhealthy work environment. Examples of such behavior include:

  • Preferential treatment
  • Playing office politics
  • Discriminating against others
  • Harassing others
  • Gossiping
  • A lack of diversity and inclusion

These behaviors reduce workplace morale, making everyone feel frustrated and unhappy. Unethical behavior also damages your brand reputation. You could lose customers, clients, leadership team members, and stakeholders as a result. Plus, it can lead to lawsuits and penalties from regulatory authorities.

5. Lack of recognition

When people work hard and contribute to their job, it feels good to be recognized and appreciated. But in a toxic workplace, that recognition is often missing. Managers and colleagues don't acknowledge the efforts and achievements of their team members. This makes employees feel undervalued, demotivated, and unimportant11.

Employees also lose the drive to do their best and become disconnected from their work. Lack of recognition also creates resentment and frustration among employees. And this makes it harder for your entire team to work together effectively.

In a healthy work environment, employees' efforts and accomplishments are recognized and appreciated. This boosts their spirits and creates a positive atmosphere. There is higher morale and better productivity.

Other key signs of a toxic environment are:

Let’s go over five emotional signs of an unhealthy work environment.

Emotional toxic work culture signs

1. High level of stress

Did you know that in Australia, 70% of workers say they experience stress at least once a week12? Excessive stress is often the result of a toxic work environment where managers overwhelm their workers with too much work, set unrealistic expectations, and constantly pressure them to deliver, without offering support or clear communication.

The physical and mental health issues that result from high stress levels include imbalances between work and personal life, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and burnout.

2. Poor morale

When a work environment becomes toxic, morale tends to suffer. This can lead to employees feeling undervalued and unsupported, which in turn can result in decreased productivity and commitment to their work. There are several factors that can contribute to low morale, including a lack of recognition for their hard work, toxic leadership, unclear expectations, limited growth opportunities, and constant negativity. Also, low morale can lead to higher rates of absenteeism and ultimately impact the success of the company.

3. Bad vibes

If you ever feel uncomfortable or uneasy while at work, this could be a sign of a toxic work culture. This feeling can stem from v negative interactions, disrespect, lack of trust, or just a general sense of unease. It's important to trust your gut and recognize these ‘icky feelings’ as they can help you identify potential issues and take action to address them.

4. Psychological burnout

Psychological burnout happens when stress becomes too much to handle over a long time. It happens when you face constant pressure without the right help or tools to deal with it. This kind of chronic stress can harm your mental and physical health. It can lead to conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure. Burnout also has a huge financial cost. Globally, approximately 12 billion workdays are lost each year due to depression and anxiety, resulting in an estimated cost of around US$1 trillion in lost productivity13.

5. Lack of motivation

When employees lack motivation, it means they don't feel excited or interested in their work. They may feel unmotivated because they don't see the value or importance of their tasks, or they may feel overwhelmed and disconnected from their work.

In a healthy work culture, employees are usually motivated and enthusiastic about their work. They feel a sense of purpose and find joy in what they do. But in a poor work culture, the opposite happens. Employees may feel unsupported, unappreciated, or discouraged, which can drain their motivation.

Unfortunately, these issues reduce employee satisfaction, lower productivity, and harm overall job performance. Creating a positive work culture is important if you want to build a thriving and productive workplace for your entire team.

A healthy work environment prioritizes employee wellbeing. Employees get manageable workloads, support, and resources to cope with stress. These promote a healthy work-life balance. When these practices are in place, employees can thrive and give their best.

What's the impact of a toxic work environment?

A toxic work environment has significant impacts on employees and employers.

For example, Sarah is a sales executive at a company with a culture of favoritism. She notices that some employees are given preferential treatment and more opportunities than others. Sarah works hard to prove her worth, but despite her efforts, she is constantly overlooked for promotions and bonuses.

So, Sarah becomes disillusioned with the company and starts to feel unappreciated and undervalued. As a result, her morale declines, and she looks for job opportunities elsewhere. The company not only loses a talented employee but also risks negative word-of-mouth and reputation damage.

The costs of employee turnover include the following:

Financial cost

When a company hires a new employee to replace someone who left, it can be expensive. The cost can be anywhere from half to twice the salary the employee was making each year.

For example, if a company has 100 employees who make an average of $50,000 per year, it could cost the company $660,000 to $2.6 million to find and train new employees each year14.

Productivity cost

When a work environment is toxic, it leads employees to feel unhappy and stressed. This can cause them to lose motivation and feel demoralized, which makes them less productive. It can even lead to health problems.

In Australia, mental illness caused by toxic work environments costs the economy a lot of money – between AU$200 billion and AU$220 billion every year, and toxic workplaces are responsible for up to AU$17.4 billion dollars of this cost15. So, toxic work environments not only have the potential to hurt employees but also to have a big impact on the economy.

Legal and reputational costs

When a workplace is toxic, it can lead to some serious problems for the company. Employees may take legal action against the organization if they experience things like discrimination or harassment.

Settling these lawsuits outside of court can cost around $40,000 on average. In some cases, when there is discrimination or wrongful termination involved, the settlement can go up to $1 million in about 10% of cases16. Legal fees and compensation costs add up.

Moreover, the company's reputation can also be damaged, making it harder to find and keep customers and employees. As a result, the company might miss out on business opportunities and lose money.

What are the causes of a toxic workplace?

Toxic workplaces are caused by several factors, varying depending on the organization. Here are 10 common causes:

1. Poor communication

If communication is not clear and effective, misunderstandings occur, creating tension and conflict in the workplace. For example, if a manager fails to communicate important deadlines to their team, it causes stress and frustration for the team members who may struggle to complete the work on time17.

Also, not knowing an employee’s preferred communication style contributes to confusion and poor team performance. For example, you may have someone on your team who has an affective or neutral communication style. Knowing the difference will help you communicate effectively and boost productivity.

2. Micromanagement

When team leads excessively control and constantly monitor employees, they create a stressful work environment. In fact, 70% of employees say it affects their work performance while 85% say it has negatively impacted their morale.

Micromanaging employees suffocates and restricts employees in their roles. They become hesitant to take initiative or make independent decisions due to fear of negative consequences or harsh criticism. This stifles their creativity, problem-solving abilities, and overall job satisfaction. Needless to say some employees quit their jobs as a result18.

3. Bullying and harassment

Bullying or harassment in the workplace creates a hostile and toxic environment for employees. For example, a coworker who makes derogatory comments about someone's race or gender makes the victim feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and disrespected.

Experiencing such behavior can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and a decline in self-confidence19. It creates a barrier for employees to fully engage in their work and collaborate effectively with their colleagues.

4. High levels of stress

Champion Health found that 35% of employees experience extreme stress at work that impacts their productivity and performance20. When employees are expected to work long hours, meet unrealistic deadlines, or deal with an excessive workload, it causes high levels of stress and burnout. For example, if a company places unrealistic sales targets on its sales team, it can lead to stress and pressure to meet them, potentially resulting in a toxic work environment.

5. Lack of support

When employees do not feel supported by their managers or colleagues, it can lead to feelings of isolation and demotivation. For example, if an employee struggles with a project and their manager is unresponsive to their requests for assistance, it can make them feel unsupported and alone.

6. Poor boundaries

Boundaries are like rules that define how employees and managers should behave and interact with each other. When these boundaries are ignored or not enforced, it can create a toxic work environment.

For instance, if a manager frequently asks employees to work extra hours without any extra pay or recognition, it can result in exhaustion and resentment. Likewise, if employees are expected to answer work-related messages or emails outside of their regular working hours, it can interfere with their personal life, causing stress and harming mental wellbeing.

7. Lack of trust and transparency

In a toxic work environment, trust and transparency between employees and management are missing. This happens when management keeps important information from employees, makes false promises, or repeatedly fails to keep their word. As a result, a sense of mistrust prevails, creating an unhealthy workplace atmosphere.

8. Unreasonable workload

When employees are overloaded with excessive work and unrealistic deadlines, it can result in burnout, stress, and a sense of being overwhelmed. This creates a negative work environment, where employees constantly feel pressured and believe they cannot meet expectations or reach their goals. For instance, if a manager consistently assigns unrealistic deadlines or expects employees to work long hours without proper compensation, it contributes to a toxic work environment.

9. Poorly defined core values

Having strong core values is important, as it gives employees a sense of belonging and a clear direction to embrace and reflect in their work.

For example, let's say a company values integrity as one of its core cultural values. When these values are clearly communicated and reinforced, employees understand the importance of integrity and incorporate it into their daily work. This creates a consistent and trustworthy brand image for the company, both internally and externally.

On the other hand, without clear core values, employees may have varying interpretations of what is expected of them, leading to inconsistent behaviors and a toxic brand identity. This results in confusion, lack of alignment, and negative company culture.

At F4S, we have a unique way of understanding how each employee works and what motivates them. We use a tool called the culture map to gather information and give you valuable insights.

Get started by taking  the free assessment. You can even create a team and invite them to take the assessment. You’ll gain instant access to personal and team insights.

F4S dashboard shows team motivations to combat signs of a toxic work culture
F4S team dashboard

With this data, you can make smarter choices when it comes to hiring new team members, managing your existing team, planning workflows, and building a strong team dynamic. Your team dashboard will provide you with helpful suggestions based on the insights we gather.

These recommendations will help you:

  • Understand what your team members workplace preferences and how they like to work
  • Identify any motivation gaps that could lead to conflicts within the team
  • Find ways to achieve your goals more efficiently
  • Figure out which motivations support or hinder your team's objectives.

By using these insights, you can improve your team's performance, work towards your goals more effectively, and get things done quicker and better than before.

Accelerate understanding between teams

Breadth

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Motivated by macro big picture thinking, these teammates value moving quickly to connect dots between abstract ideas to 'get the gist' of things.

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vs

Depth

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These teammates value being concrete and specific, getting into details to understand the steps or tasks required.

Chart showing rage from Average, High and Ver High.

See the different work styles in your team

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10. Lack of diversity and inclusion

A workplace that lacks diversity and inclusion makes employees feel alone, reduces their productivity, and makes them more likely to leave their jobs.

For example, if a company doesn't hire or promote people of color or from different backgrounds, it means there is a lack of diversity and inclusion. This makes employees from underrepresented groups feel like they don't matter and aren't valued. It also makes them feel unhappy with their jobs and affects how well they work.

How do you deal with a toxic environment as an employer or employee?

Dealing with a toxic environment can be challenging, but there are several strategies you can use to navigate such situations.

Here are seven ways to achieve this for employees:

1. Set clear boundaries

Establishing boundaries is crucial to protect your wellbeing and maintain your emotional and mental health. Decide what is acceptable and what is not. Let others know what you're comfortable with and politely tell them if they cross the line. For example, if someone makes jokes at your expense, calmly say that you expect to be treated kindly and that you find their actions disrespectful.

2. Practice self-care

Find activities that make you happy and help you relax. It could be playing a sport, listening to music, or spending time with loved ones. Doing things you enjoy can boost your mood and help you cope with the negativity around you. For instance, if your workplace is stressful, make it a habit to engage in relaxing activities outside of work, such as going for walks in nature or reading a good book.

3. Seek support

Reach out to supportive friends, family members, or colleagues who can provide emotional support and understanding. Share your experiences and concerns with them, as they can offer a fresh perspective and guidance.

Coaching is a really useful tool when you're dealing with a negative work environment. It gives you a safe and supportive place to talk about your work and how you feel about it. Plus, your coach can help you understand what's happening in your work environment and find ways to solve problems. And they help you set goals, create a plan for success, keep you accountable, and support you every step of the way.

Unfortunately, coaching can be expensive, and not everyone can afford it.

At F4S, we believe that everyone should have access to personalized coaching. That's why we offer a free AI coaching programs. Our Vital Wellbeing coaching program is a nine-week program designed to teach you how to boost your emotional resilience. Get started and learn how to navigate through an unstable work environment.

We also provide helpful career resources to support you throughout the process. And here's something exciting: 90% of people who use F4S report significantly improving their overall wellbeing.

4. Develop coping mechanisms

Identify coping mechanisms that work for you and help you manage stress and negativity. This could include techniques like deep breathing exercises, journaling, or practicing mindfulness. If you're dealing with a toxic work environment, taking short breaks during the day to engage in breathing exercises can help you relax and refocus.

5. Focus on the positive

Look for positive aspects or opportunities for growth within the toxic environment. Seek out tasks or projects that align with your values and provide a sense of accomplishment. Celebrate small victories and acknowledge your own progress. For instance, if you're in a toxic academic environment, focus on the knowledge and skills you're gaining rather than the negative aspects.

6. Document incidents

Keep a record of specific incidents of toxicity, including dates, times, people involved, and a brief description of what occurred. Having documentation can be useful if you need to report toxic behavior to higher authorities or HR departments. For example, if you're experiencing workplace harassment, documenting each incident can support your case when reporting it.

7. Consider your options

Assess whether it's possible to remove yourself from the toxic environment or make changes to improve the situation. Explore alternative job opportunities, transfer to a different department, or have open conversations with relevant individuals about the issues. If the environment is too toxic to bear, it might be best to distance yourself and seek healthier alternatives.

Dealing with a toxic environment also requires a proactive approach from leadership teams and employers.

Here are seven tips on handling such situations:

1. Foster a positive culture

Cultivate a healthy and supportive work environment by promoting open communication, respect, and teamwork. Lead by example and encourage collaboration among employees. For instance, organize team-building activities, establish recognition programs, and implement policies prioritizing employee wellbeing.

2. Address toxic behavior promptly

Take immediate action when toxic behavior is observed or reported. Investigate complaints thoroughly and fairly, ensuring confidentiality for those involved. Confront the individuals responsible for the toxic behavior, provide appropriate consequences, and support affected employees. This sends a clear message that toxicity will not be tolerated.

For example, if an employee consistently engages in bullying behavior, the leadership team should investigate the matter, have a conversation with the employee, and impose disciplinary measures if necessary. They should also provide counseling or training to promote behavioral changes.

3. Encourage open communication channels

Create avenues for employees to express concerns, offer feedback, and report toxic behavior without fear of retaliation. Establish anonymous suggestion boxes, regular check-ins, or designated individuals to act as confidential resources for employees to voice their grievances.

You can implement an anonymous reporting system where employees can submit their concerns or suggestions without revealing their identities. This helps employees feel more comfortable in reporting toxic behavior.

4. Provide coaching and education

Offer training programs on topics such as conflict resolution, effective communication, and diversity and inclusion. This equips employees with the skills needed to navigate challenging situations and fosters a more positive and inclusive work environment.

Leadership teams can organize workshops on emotional intelligence to help employees develop self-awareness, empathy, and effective communication skills, which are crucial in managing toxic situations.

Coaching is another reliable way to get the help you need. It boosts employees' confidence and productivity. In fact, 8 out of 10 people who receive coaching report feeling more self-assured21. When employees feel confident, they perform better at work and have a stronger sense of job security.

At F4S, we offer free coaching that combines the power of AI and real human coaches.

With our coaching program, your team can identify and improve their strengths while overcoming any blind spots. Plus, you can learn more about their motivations to create a more positive work culture. And it's easy and free to use – simply invite your team members to take our free work style assessment. Once they complete it, you'll receive a Team Culture Report that compares their motivations with those of their teammates.

This report provides valuable insights into your team's dynamics and overall vibe. You can use these insights to create a stable work environment and enhance job security. The best part is that our AI and human coaches will be there to support your team members continuously and help them stay on track.

5. Lead with empathy

Show understanding and empathy towards employees who are experiencing toxicity. Provide support systems, such as employee assistance programs or counseling services, to help them cope with their challenges. Employers can offer confidential counseling sessions to employees affected by a toxic environment, allowing them to seek professional support and guidance to navigate the situation.

6. Conduct regular evaluations

Regularly assess the work environment and employee satisfaction through surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one discussions. This helps identify potential issues and allows leadership teams to promptly address them. Employers can conduct anonymous employee satisfaction surveys to gauge the overall work environment, identify areas of concern, and understand the impact of toxic behavior on employees' well-being.

7. Lead by example

As a leader, you should demonstrate the behavior you expect from employees. Show respect, fairness, and professionalism in all interactions. This sets a positive tone and encourages employees to follow suit. If you consistently demonstrate respectful and inclusive behavior, it sets the expectation for the rest of the organization to treat each other with respect and dignity.

Dealing with a toxic environment requires leaders and employers to take action consistently and be proactive. It takes ongoing effort and commitment to create a positive, supportive work culture, but the results are worth it.

Build a healthier work culture

A healthier work culture leads to engaged employees, higher productivity, lower turnover, and improved job satisfaction. To help with this, using a people analytics and online coaching platform like F4S can make a big difference. F4S helps you gather and analyze data to understand employees’ motivations and find ways to improve their experience. You and your team also get free personalized coaching, support, and resources to help everyone grow, develop their skills, and accelerate business growth.

Ditch the toxic work culture and watch your team thrive

Start improving team dynamics by taking the F4S assessment. Then set up a team and uncover where each team member thrives and how you can collaborate with ease.

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  1. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/sustainable-inclusive-growth/chart-of-the-day/toxic-exodus
  2. https://www.themuse.com/advice/toxic-aware-introduction-muse-survey
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  13. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-at-work#
  14. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/247391/fixable-problem-costs-businesses-trillion.aspx
  15. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-03-10/anxiety-in-the-workplace-costs-australia-billions/100894478
  16. https://nakaselawfirm.com/employers-attorneys/what-is-the-average-employee-lawsuit-cost-to-a-company-business/#
  17. https://bizfluent.com/how-communication-affects-productivity-statistics.html
  18. https://www.bkconnection.com/static/mywayPR.pdf
  19. https://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=ee/bullying/report/chapter1.htm
  20. https://championhealth.co.uk/insights/guides/workplace-health-report/
  21. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2019/10/17/building-a-coaching-culture-for-your-organization-your-team-and-yourself/?sh=5acb08474acf

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