Illustration by Lara Borovcic-Kurir

Have you ever had that gut wrenching feeling on a Sunday night when you start thinking about work the next day? I know I have. And I‘m not alone. In a recent survey in the UK, 34% stated that they had been less engaged with their jobs due to a toxic working culture. With 67% saying that they’d suffered anxiety due to workplace bullying. 

Not only does toxic culture affect retention and loyalty when it comes to employees, it can also have a profound effect on their mental health and well-being.

Toxic work culture can take many forms and it’s up to HR and people teams to identify it and safeguard employees. Whether that be from abusive work colleagues, lacking boundaries or by creating transparent and anonymous feedback mechanisms so that transgressions can be reported. 

Healthy work environments need constant monitoring and tweaking, it’s an ever moving target. But understanding where you stand currently and where you want to be, takes time and dedication from all. From C-suite down, all need to be on the same page in helping steer the organization into smoother sailing (and happier) waters. The first step to fixing a toxic culture is by recognizing the problems. So what are the tell-tale signs and how do you act on the concerns?

What does a toxic work culture look like?

Here’s what you might expect to see in workplaces that experience a toxic dysfunctionality:

Fear-based culture  

This is one of the most toxic working environments to be in. Employees are silenced by a variety of methods such as intimidation, gaslighting, abuse and domination. Repercussions are inevitable so employees will often avoid reporting dysfunctional behavior. Teamwork and collaboration are basically non-existent as employees try to avoid risks and cut corners, focusing instead on trying to satisfy their boss.

Blame game culture 

This starts at the top of the company, where management refuses to take responsibility or ownership of mistakes and it trickles down to all levels of the organization. The “every worker for themselves” mentality harms productivity and engagement, with no one taking accountability or ownership of projects or deadlines. This sets a precedent that mistakes are unwelcome and there will be consequences.

Clique or cancel culture 

Cliques of employees tend to make others feel uncomfortable about being their authentic selves with inappropriate or toxic remarks. These might be around anything that differentiates someone, such as race, gender, religion, age orweight. This form of culture shows a weak HR or management structure that allows this behavior to manifest. Cliques undermine teamwork and collaboration and can make those targeted feel vulnerable and excluded. 

Authoritative culture  

As the title suggests, power and control are at the heart of this dominant culture that permits bullying. Those that dare question management's decisions or try to speak honestly are punished, overtly or covertly, by being passed over for promotions or pay rises, as well as being treated with little to no respect. Employees caught up in this culture are often left feeling dejected and less valued and labeled a non-team player.

Hustle culture 

This can be prevalent throughout many large corporations. This profit-driven, micromanaging culture drives its employees to overwork for very little rewards. Working long hours is glamorized and not taking breaks, normalized. There’s little care for the impact this has on personal lives and well-being. The natural conclusion for employees who are caught up in this cycle is often severe stress that leads to burnout.

All forms of toxic work culture can have an extreme effect on an employee's mental health and well-being. But understanding the early signs of toxicity and calling out these behaviors can certainly be challenging.

Illustration by Lara Borovcic-Kurir

How toxic culture affects employees' well-being and mental health

We’ve previously talked about the many benefits of a healthy and unique working culture. The high retention, improved motivation and engagement levels as well as increased productivity. The exact opposite is true of those companies that have let their cultures slide into toxicity. Not only does attrition increase, but longer term factors such as lack of employee loyalty, higher absenteeism and reduced productivity are natural consequences to a workplace where teamwork and collaboration aren’t encouraged.

But along with the physical manifestations of burnout and stress come the equally damaging effects on employees’ mental health. Anxiety, depression, insomnia and in extreme cases, suicide, where bullying and abuse are out of control. 

Illustration by Lara Borovcic-Kurir

The corporate world has made great strides in bringing physical safety to workplaces, with fire and safety training, ergonomic seating and nutritional lunch options, but in terms of fostering culture and supporting mental health, there needs to be some changes.

Whilst HR leaders might not have the skills to be able to tackle all of these issues, or indeed the capacity, finding qualified help on behalf of employees is key. It goes a long way in supporting them and helping to correct the fallout from dysfunctional workplaces. For example, HR could look at offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to help train management on the best approach towards employee mental health. By providing telephone consultations and referrals to be there for employees when they need it most.

How do you change a toxic work culture?

Identifying a toxic culture in your workplace can feel challenging and pretty dismal. But all is not lost, unhealthy cultures can be turned around. Here’s a four step plan to help you repair your workforce and reinstate normality.

Understanding the problem

If a toxic culture is deeply embedded within the fabric of the organization, then gaining actionable information on what the challenges are, is the first step in understanding the issue. Gain feedback and data from your people on what’s not working but also, on what’s going well. Take accountability and drive the process of change forwards, with open and honest communication. Be transparent with your team and try highlighting the steps that need to be taken, to urge a simple and workable solution.

More talk, more action 

If you say you're going to action something, then do so. There’s no quicker way to lose trust and momentum than falling at the first hurdle of inaction. Prioritize the points that need to be addressed and once they’re implemented, communicate this throughout the company. Once employees see progress on the points that they’ve raised, they'll invest time and feedback on the ways you can keep improving.

Consistency changes cultures 

Actively changing a culture takes time and dedication. But maintaining consistency when it comes to building a healthy culture goes a very long way. Being organized and consistent with your communication and aligning your behavior from the top down is key to addressing the issues. It takes a determined and courageous HR department to tackle a toxic work environment, but the rewards are certainly worth the effort.

Safety first 

As we mentioned before, the physical safety of employees so often seem to outweigh creating a psychologically safe environment. The office or remote environment needs to be a welcoming and nurturing space to reflect the care for employees’ physical and mental well-being. Access to mental health resources and training or implementing wellness focused strategies are the first steps in helping to re-dress this imbalance.

No organization wants to develop a toxic work culture, or deal with the consequences that it brings. And working towards changing it, will of course be a challenge, but a collective effort that will be beneficial! Being consistent in calling out bad behavior and letting it be known that any form of psychological transgressions will not be tolerated, is the first stepping stone on the path to building a healthy, happy and desired work culture.

If you want to learn how Valuebeat can help you get systematic data on your company's culture, click here to speak to our friendly team.

Written by
Claire Stone
Content Specialist

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