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- A toxic workplace is a work environment where negative behaviours are deeply ingrained into the daily running of the company.
- Common signs of a toxic workplace include a lack of work-life balance, a negative atmosphere, mistrust, disengagement, high turnover, and unhealthy relationships.
- The number one sign of a toxic working culture is a fear of speaking up.
- Toxic workplace cultures lead to employee burnout, absenteeism, high turnover, and damage to a company's reputation.
The term ‘toxic’ was first applied to workplaces in the 60s as a kind of risk assessment for dangerous professions. The definition expanded in the 80s to include damaging company cultures in Virginia K. Baillie’s book about effective leadership in nursing, and it’s been rising in pop culture ever since. Relationships can be toxic, jobs can be toxic, even people can be toxic. The term’s caught on partly because it’s so deliciously descriptive. Something that’s toxic isn’t just harmful, it’s actively poisonous. And if left alone, things will invariably get worse.
What is a toxic work culture — and what isn’t?
Most people in their professional lives have had a difficult period at work. Whether it’s a manager who isn’t doing any managing, a tricky relationship with a colleague, or a particularly painful project, it’s normal to experience ups and downs at work. So, where does toxicity come into it?
To set the scene, let’s look at one of the most recent high-profile examples of toxic workplace culture: BrewDog. Over 200 current and former staff signed an open letter to the founder about the "rotten culture" in which people were "treated like objects". And before that, there was a big exposé — complete with screenshots of aggressive Slack posts from managers — on the direct-to-consumer luggage brand Away.
The signs of a toxic workplace are varied, but the overwhelming giveaway is a work environment where negative behaviours are deeply ingrained into the daily running of the company. It can come from the top down via unhealthy communication, priorities or leadership, or from the bottom up with conflict and distrust caused by an unmotivated, disconnected or otherwise dissatisfied team. Either way, it won’t be a happy or healthy place to work.
A toxic workplace is a work environment where negative behaviours are deeply ingrained into the daily running of the company.
It’s important to recognise that a toxic workplace, while stressful and unpleasant, is not the same as a hostile one. A hostile workplace goes even further, actively harming the physical, financial or mental wellbeing of its employees through harassment, bullying or discrimination. (The kind of thing described by Uber employees in a 2017 article by The New York Times.) If anyone at your work feels genuinely scared or intimidated to do their job, it’s possible that the behaviour in your company is actually illegal according to the 2010 Equality Act.
The good news is that a toxic work culture, though extremely damaging to employees and business prospects in the short term, can be sorted for the long haul – as long as (and it’s a big ask) your team is willing to come on that journey with you.
Are some companies more at risk of developing a toxic work culture?
An interesting commonality among the companies we’ve mentioned is that they were all touted as progressive places to work – places where the internal culture forms a big part of the overall employer proposition. Away's job descriptions say that the company "encourages you to take time to recharge outside of the office" and lets you "bring your dog to work". BrewDog even aspired to be the "best company to work for in the U.K."
These are also all mission-driven companies, whether that's "making journeys more seamless" or "redefining beer-drinking culture".
When employees join progressive and mission-driven companies like these, two risky forces are at play:
- Because the company has an already-entrenched internal culture (that seems at least anecdotally to be associated with success), new joiners are at risk of feeling like they need to go along with how things are done, rather than question how things are done.
- Because employees are being given extra emotional rewards (with purposeful work) and non-monetary rewards (with perks like office dogs), it can be more difficult for them to assert clear boundaries around basic rights like reasonable hours and being treated decently.
Essentially, the things that form a strong company culture – which can be so valuable to employees and the organisation overall – also bring a higher risk of that culture turning sour.
Red flags in company culture
Getting a clearer picture of what can go wrong gives us a better idea of how to fix a toxic workplace. Let’s think about starting a new company, where the employee experience is about as bad as we can make it. Just call us Tox Inc.
But remember, we have perks! Tox Inc. is a brand everyone wants on their CV. Employees get free lunch on Tuesdays and you get a fancy gym package, too. (Whether you’ll have time to use it is a different matter.)
Reading about Tox Inc. should hopefully have raised many a red flag (and eyebrow). Sure, the company might do okay for a while, but how sustainable is it in the long-run?
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Signs of a toxic work culture
Okay, so Tox Inc. was an extreme (we hope!) example of how a company with an unhealthy culture might talk. But, it was all based on very real things that happen in toxic workplaces. It can sometimes feel hard to know if your office culture is toxic or not, but there are a few common characteristics of a toxic environment. The list below is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should serve as a good starting point:
The clearest signs of a toxic culture are when there’s no work-life balance, the atmosphere is negative, people don’t trust each other, disengagement and turnover is high, and team members treat each other badly.
1. There’s no work-life balance
Management in a toxic company glorify long days and overworking. They expect their teams to work long days and respond to messages at all hours — even during the weekend or a holiday — leading to stress, exhaustion and burnout.
2. The atmosphere is negative
Walk into an office with a negative atmosphere and you’ll feel it straightaway. Whether it's a tense, hushed room full of people or an equally silent video call, it's easy to get caught in the downward emotional spiral of negative comments, gossip and complaints.
3. People don’t trust each other
Rather than give ownership, feedback and praise, a toxic work culture often functions on distrust. From obviously monitoring output and incessantly micromanaging to assuming the worst in a team member and preventing them from growing, a lack of trust can severely affect self-esteem and confidence.
4. Disengagement and turnover is high
In a toxic work environment, team members start shutting down and disengage from their work, their team and the wider company. In a virtual setting, this can look like keeping cameras off in a meeting and poor communication. With time, people start to leave — and fast.
5. Team members treat each other badly
From gaslighting and rude remarks to stonewalling and contempt, unhealthy relationships within the team not only affect the work being done but more importantly, the team’s mental health. Difficult social interactions lead to stress, a lack of confidence and anxiety, as well as fatigue.
The #1 sign of a toxic culture is fear of speaking up
Everything we’ve mentioned so far makes for a pretty bad place of work, but in our opinion, there’s one thing that suggests a toxic company culture more than any other: fear of speaking up. When excessive admiration (from employees) meets excessive control (from the company), the result is a cult-like environment in which people are afraid to speak up.
To quote from the BrewDog open letter, "put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear. Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we have left."
Fear of speaking up doesn't just need to mean large-scale whistleblowing. It manifests in small, everyday ways too: essentially any time in which a valid point is left unvoiced. This is when office politics becomes more important than what's right. As defined in one of the Spill team's favourite ever books ('Five Dysfunctions of a Team'), "politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think and feel."
Here are some of the ways in which fear of speaking up might manifest on a day-to-day basis:
- Not flagging a problem as soon as it's spotted
- Not flagging when progress is behind schedule
- Not suggesting an improvement or alternative to a process
- Not putting forward a slightly more out-there idea
- Not intervening when you see someone about to make a mistake
- Not sharing a mistake or a learning with the wider team
- Not making (or questioning) a decision
- Not defending standards like speed or quality
- Not pushing back against unrealistic expectations or deadlines
- Not questioning someone's logic or thinking
- Not asking for feedback
- Not giving enough feedback
Banish the risk of a toxic culture with Spill's weekly mental wellbeing check for teams: spot warning signs early and encourage people to open up and share.
The high cost of a toxic workplace culture
Not only does fear of speaking up create a toxic team culture, but it's also bad for business. When problems aren't being flagged and ideas aren't being put forward, the business misses out on innovation – and sometimes in a big way. Would the game-changing ideas in tech folklore have happened if employees felt too afraid to speak up? The 'Sent from my iPhone' addition to the bottom of all emails? The early Airbnb hack to professionally photograph everyone's apartment for them? It seems unlikely.
🔥 Employee burnout: Burnout is a kind of crippling emotional exhaustion caused by work, characterised by negativity and ineffectiveness. It has a massive impact on people’s health and productivity in their role. A toxic work culture is recognised as a leading cause of burnout.
🤒 Absenteeism: When people feel anxious about coming to work, they’re more likely to stay at home. Sick leave due to poor mental health was the top cause of time off work in the UK in 2021, and nearly a third of UK employees have taken time off thanks to a toxic corporate culture.
🚪 Turnover: Hiring new talent costs money. And according to research by MIT, toxicity is the number one predictor of employee turnover. Low morale is contagious, so once one person leaves, the floodgates may open.
📉 Reputation: Once employees start to leave, it becomes harder to hire new ones. It’s difficult to attract the top players in your industry once their network has seen the reality behind the brand perks curtain. That goes for investors, too.
How to cope with a toxic company culture
There’s a chance that reading this article has led you to realise you’re part of a toxic work environment. If that’s the case, don’t panic. Recognising that there’s a problem in your company can be painful, but culture change is possible, as long as everyone’s on board. It’s important to say here that you don’t have to stay. If the environment you’re working in is affecting your mental (and in many cases, physical) health as well as your life outside of work, you may need to take a step back and reflect on whether staying is truly the best thing for you (and it’s okay if you decide it's time to leave!). If fear is driving your toxic workplace, then helping employees to feel psychologically safe (to speak up, to admit mistakes, to take risks) is the only way to fix it. Find out how to instil psychological safety in your company.
Culture change is possible, as long as everyone’s on board.
But, before you go on a culture and leadership warpath, take a step back. Creating significant change in a company culture takes time, especially in an environment with unhealthy relationships. So, start by looking after yourself: try and establish (and stick to!) healthy boundaries around your personal and work life, focus on your identity outside of the office through friends, hobbies and the all important downtime, find ways to manage stress levels that work for you and start building a support system. This doesn’t mean fuelling gossip, but rather gently finding others who may also be struggling in the company and who are also hopeful for change. A support system away from work is a good idea, too. Having people to turn to that aren’t your colleagues gives you a safe outlet to vent your frustrations.
Turning the toxic ship around
Finding yourself as part of a toxic company culture doesn’t mean it's the end of your time there. Knowing the signs is the first step in addressing the problem and with small but significant changes, you can help your employees feel safe at work.
Download our psychological safety questionnaire
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