Workplace culture: signs of a toxic work environment

Toxic workplace cultures have been all over the news in recent articles, in growing recognition of how a poor workplace can affect physical and mental health and wellbeing of employees. Characterised by poor communication, excessive competition, workplace gossip, negative language and bullying, a toxic work environment is bad for employees and overall business performance, as it can lead to absenteeism, poor employee engagement, low productivity, employee burnout, and high turnover rates.

8 signs of a toxic work environment

1. Inefficient leadership

Leadership is the driver of a company’s work culture, and plays a big role in how work environments are set up. Poor leadership and inefficiency could manifest as inconsistent instructions, no clear communications, poor decision-making, favouritism and cliques, or an inability to address conflicts or problems in the workplace effectively. Toxic cultures arise from this kind of leadership as employees feel confused, underappreciated and lack clear direction.

2. Poor peer relationships and gossip culture

Given that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, the people we work with have a large influence our overall experience in the workplace. Gossip culture and bullying from peers can have a negative impact, and hostile work environments where there is a lack of equality and support, and people don’t feel part of a whole team and have good relationships with co workers will havea negative impact on overall wellbeing. 

3. Lack of priority on employee wellness

Employee wellbeing is essential for productivity and success, and more and more companies are recognising the link between good mental health and physical health and business success. When employee wellbeing isn’t prioritised it is bad news for the individuals at work, but also profits. Deloitte estimate that for every £1 spent on mental health initiatives employees recoup £5 as a result of increased engagement and productivity.  

4. No initiatives or support for employee growth

Most employees want to learn skills, grow their career, and work on their personal and professional development. When this is not prioritized it can cause people to feel stalled in their careers, and as though there are a lack of opportunities for them. A culture where employee goals and growth are not recognized can be one that feels toxic as it can contribute to a lack of purpose.

5. High turnover rates

As well as a toxic environment being a driver of the great resignation, a high turnover rate can contribute to a toxic culture as relationships break down, workload increases for those left behind, and there is fear around job security. High turnover rates are also costly for employers, as replacing an individual can cost 6-8 months of their salary.

6. No clarity on employee roles

A lack of clarity around a job role and purpose in the workplace can result in toxicity, as people feel confused and frustrated. There may be shifting goalposts and poor communication, alongside work being completed which seems to not to contribute to an overall goal. Unclear job descriptions can lead to confusion and inefficiency. If employees don’t know what their responsibilities are, it can lead to conflict, unnecessary stress, and poor performance. When an employee has clarity over their role they know what is expected of them and why, which can make for a more rewarding workplace and productive workplace culture.

7. Lack of work life balance and longer hours

A lack of work life balance is one the biggest drives of burnout, absenteeism, and high turnover, and is strongly related to toxic work environments. Setting unrealistic targets and workloads or normalising staying in the office after hours actually reduced overall productivity at the same time as increasing the likelihood of stress, anxiety and depression. Individuals need a balance in their lives and feeling as though the only thing that they do is work will result in frustration and anger. Better work life balance strongly correlates with better mental health and physical health. 

8. Lack of psychological safety

A psychologically safe workplace is one where people feel comfortable to contribute ideas, share opinions and voice thoughts without being criticized or shut down. Toxic workplaces are often not psychologically safe and as such can lack creativity and innovation as people do not feel able to have honest conversations that could drive the business forward. Interpersonal relationships are hugely influential in our experience of work, so it is crucial to ensure that people can raise concerns and voice their opinions in an environment that is respectful and supportive.

The costs of a toxic work environment

Chronic and excessive stress among employees

In All Worked Up we found that over half of employees feel stressed about work before even starting their working week. Whilst this may not be due to a toxic work environment, a toxic work culture will make stress levels worse. The Employee Mental Health Report drawn from the analysis of 150,000 conversations that 11,300 employees from 11 organizations and 60 countries had with Wysa’s AI chat platform, over thirteen months (July 2021-July 2022). The data shows 32% employees expressed feeling low, bad, numb, depressed, and sad throughout the day and 75% employees reported low to moderate energy on average throughout the day. The psychological strain of a toxic workplace can often lead to stress and worsening mental health.

Higher attrition rate

In recent years the so called ‘great resignation’ has contributed to high turnover rates. The MIT Sloan Management Review identified a toxic workplace culture as the biggest predicator of an employee leaving a company. Although it can be hard to recognize toxic behaviors in the work environment, they do have a negative impact on an individual’s experience of a company, and can result in them seeking a more positive workplace culture elsewhere.

Loss of motivation and productivity

Bullying, frustration, exhaustion and stress all result in a lack of motivation, and as such negatively impact productivity. Workplace toxicity creates an environment where noone wants to be spending time, or they may feel that they are not able to contribute positively, and so drive and energy may start to wane. Presenteeism often correlates with low productivity – when people are in the workplace despite there being a strong and valid reason they should not be (illness, stress, caring responsibilities) and thus are unable to contribute fully.


The World Health Organization started recognizing burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in the International Classification of Diseases in 2019. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

All of the signs we have outlined that are representative of toxic work environments can contribute to burnout, and leave employees facing poor wellbeing as a result.

Lower employee engagement

A company’s culture directly impacts employee engagement. If a workplace if full of office gossip, mental stress is overhelming, and other toxic behaviors are prevalent, it very quickly leads to workplace dysfunction and thus employees disengaging and distancing themselves. 

5 ways for leaders to combat a toxic work culture

According to recent surveys in the news, half of tech workers are looking to leave their jobs due to a toxic workplace culture, with 45% saying their leadership team are unaware. It has also been found that women are more likely than men to experience toxic work environments, as reported in Forbes. Leaders are in a strong position to change a toxic workplace into a positive work environment, challenging negative communication, low morale and serious disruptions to wellbeing, through effective leadership and strategies. 

1. Prioritize a people-first culture

Make your team feel appreciated through rewards and recognition schemes. A strong workplace benefits system can support people throughout their lifecycle, responding to the needs of everyone from younger entry level employees to those in middle management with caring responsibilities up to senior leaders. It is essential to value different working styles, prioritize work life balance, and support people when times are difficult. Happier employees are more likely to be healthy employees and more engaged at work. 

2. Launch employee wellness programs

Early support for employee mental wellbeing has strong economic benefits through enhanced productivity, reduced presenteeism, absenteeism, and turnover. Yet typically employee assistance programs are taken up by 7% of employees. Stigma, embarrassment and a lack of time all play a role. Yet people do need and want support. An astonishing 8 in 10 people we surveyed in All Worked Up said that they would rather speak to an app than their HR team about their mental health.

An employee wellness program that is personalized to your teams and individuals will result in higher engagement and thus efficacy. Half of Wysa users do 5 or more sessions, and there is a 40% decrease in self reported symptoms of depression and In a real-world evaluation, frequent users of Wysa saw a 31% reduction in symptoms of depression after a minimum of two weeks and three or more conversations with Wysa, assessed via PHQ-2 questionnaires (PHQ-2 inquires about the frequency of depressed mood and anhedonia over the past two weeks and is the standard assessment within mental health services and psychiatry). 

3. Bring clarity to employee roles and hierarchy

When lacking in clarity about a role it can be challenging to be effective and as though you are making progress. Open communication about what everyone’s role is, their objectives, and how this fits into the wider team structure and organizational goals can make people feel more supported, as well as improve productivity and contributions.  

4. Employee rewards and recognition

Recognition for doing great work, hitting targets, or even being a supportive team member can all help motivate people and improve overall workplace culture. Listen to employee feedback about what they value and what motivates them, and set up an employee rewards scheme that is aligned to this. Flexibility can be of value here – some may like an afternoon’s paid time off, whereas others may value a free gym membership. 

Toxic workplaces have a negative impact on both employers and employees, but can be addressed with a structured and holistic strategy to improving the work environment. Wysa for Employers can help employees who are struggling manage their mental health and wellbeing, but it is essential to look at overall working practises and culture to ensure yours isn’t a toxic workplace. 

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