In recent years, there has been increasing awareness and discussion about the prevalence and harmful impact of toxic workplace cultures. A toxic workplace culture is one where behaviours and practices undermine the wellbeing and productivity of employees. It can manifest in various ways, sometimes quite overtly including harassment, bullying, discrimination, micromanagement, but often it’s covert and includes a lack of support and communication, being overlooked for promotion, being excluded from team events due to personal commitments.
The effects of a toxic workplace culture can be severe, not just at an organisational level where there is a direct impact on revenue and engagement, but particularly on an employee’s mental health. Here are some of the ways that a toxic workplace culture can impact a worker’s mental health:
- Anxiety and Stress: Working in a toxic environment can cause an employee to feel constant pressure and fear, leading to increased levels of anxiety and stress. This can manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and sleep disturbances, which can further affect their mental and emotional wellbeing.
- Depression: When an employee feels unsupported and undervalued in a toxic workplace culture, it can lead to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and disengagement. Over time, this can lead to depression, which can further exacerbate the negative impact on their work and personal life.
- Burnout: Employees in a toxic workplace culture may experience burnout due to chronic stress and workload pressures. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress or perceived threat. This can lead to a lack of motivation, irritability, and a decline in work performance.
- Low Self-Esteem: Toxic workplace cultures often involve criticism, blame, and a lack of positive feedback. This can lead to an employee developing low self-esteem and negative self-talk. Over time, this can lead to a lack of confidence, a fear of failure, and a diminished sense of self-worth – all which impact on performance.
- Substance Abuse: The emotional toll of a toxic workplace culture can drive some employees to turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Substance abuse can further exacerbate mental health issues and can have a negative impact on work performance, attendance and personal relationships.
When I reflect on the number of people I know, including me, who have been in work environments that were toxic, it’s obvious that it had a significant impact on their mental health and on their relationships outside of work. Often, it’s much harder to recognise the toll of the toxicity when you’re in the midst of it and it’s not until you’re out of it that you realise how much it has affected you.
It’s important for organisations to prioritise creating a healthy and supportive workplace culture that prioritises the wellbeing of employees. This starts with coaching and training leaders regularly on effective leadership styles. It requires the leadership team to role model expected behaviours and develop a healthy culture that is psychologically safe. It also includes providing resources and support for mental health, clear communication, and a zero-tolerance policy for toxic behaviours.
Although workplace wellbeing initiatives have increased since the Global Pandemic some corporate behaviours have worsened – think Elon Musk’s 2022 takeover of Twitter or Amazon’s backflip on people working from the office rather than remote office working. Being clear on your company’s goals and consistently communicating the reasons behind decisions that are being made help not only employees to understand and accept but also for leaders to better manage their own behaviour.
Siphoning out poor behaviour from the top and openly challenging people who display poor behaviour is one step towards creating healthy culture. Adopting behaviours that will promote a healthy culture, like respect, trust, vulnerability, openness, curiosity, empowerment, will to continue to build it.