7 signs of a toxic work environment

A quick summary:

  • What is a toxic work environment?
  • How to survive a toxic workplace
  • Signs of a toxic workplace
  • How to deal with a toxic work environment

A hostile work environment can be hell. The majority of us simply want to get along and build a great business. Unfortunately, it’s never that straightforward.

Businesses are all different, and that’s because they’re built by people. People all have their own approaches, methods and solutions when it comes to working.

This means that sometimes, we’re faced with a hostile work environment established by a select few who work in similar ways.

Perhaps they work well under pressure. Maybe it’s the cutthroat attitudes of their peers. It may, bizarrely, be the long nights that help them produce their best work.

But there’s no ignoring that these characteristics in the workplace aren’t favoured by the majority. In fact, they contribute to a hostile work environment.

In this guide to the signs of a toxic workplace, we’re looking at everything from unusual working hours to the lack of a benefits package in the workplace.

All things that should be viewed as red flags in any organisation. Because the absence or presence of the below points is cause for concern.

Whether you’re an HR manager, a business owner or an everyday colleague, pass this guide on to your team and help quash that toxic workplace culture once and for all.

A female employees holding her head looking stressed in a hostile work environment
What is a toxic work environment?

What is a toxic work environment?

Let’s start from the very beginning. What is a toxic work environment? Well, it’s fairly simple. A toxic work environment is an office plagued by antagonistic behaviour, bullying tactics, favouritism and general negativity.

It’s an environment that goes against the better traits of general business and people management — something we discuss in more detail in our conscious leadership piece.

A hostile work environment often reflects a business and its ability to progress and achieve results.

You’ll find that these companies struggle with retaining people and managing company-wide health, wellbeing and overall happiness.

What’s more, a hostile work environment sees high low morale and poor performance and other hurdles that can be avoided.

As we described at the beginning of this article, a toxic work environment is typically established at the top level.

Now, this is kind of biased. But across most organisations, the culture and attitudes of a workforce are driven by senior team members.

Management is responsible for nurturing organisational culture and guiding employees on how to conduct themselves.

If there are signs of a hostile work environment, leaders must be questioned first, before addressing individual departments or lower-ranking employees.

How to survive a toxic workplace

Now let’s turn our attention to how to survive a toxic workplace. This section is especially useful for any employee who has found themselves in a hostile work environment.

Firstly, it’s important to focus on why you’re here. You’ve joined this company because you believe in its mission, product or — ideally — both.

You’ve identified ways that you can contribute to the growth of the company and it offers new challenges for your career.

What we’re trying to say is, focus on number one! Try to steer clear of a hostile work environment and mix only with those who have no interest in drama.

This leads us to our next suggestion for how to survive a toxic workplace; build a network of friendly and supportive employees.

When you help others, they’ll help you right back. By creating long-lasting relationships with colleagues, we can avoid a hostile work environment.

This approach should be considered on a personal level, but also by leadership teams. If employees aren’t collaborating and bonding relationships can become toxic.

Ultimately, if you’re wondering how to survive a toxic workplace, the answer is simple. Fly under the radar and do not get caught up in all the drama.

Speak up when you’re unhappy with how things are going, the attitudes of others or the atmosphere seems off.

It’s important to create a sense of openness, honesty and trust. Without these characteristics, a hostile environment will grow.

How to survive a toxic workplace summary:

  • Do not get caught up in unnecessary drama
  • Build relationships with your colleagues
  • Encourage open communication
  • Focus on why you’re here
  • Fly under the radar

A man dealing with a disgruntled colleague on the phone in a toxic work environment
Signs of a toxic workplace

7 signs of a toxic workplace

Below, we’re looking at the signs of a toxic workplace, including high turnover, a lack of togetherness amongst the workforce or an environment that neglects health and wellbeing.

That just scratches the surface, however! We go into much more detail on a range of red flags. So, grab yourself a coffee and let’s jump right into these signs of a toxic workplace

Unusual working hours are encouraged

Having to put in that extra bit of work to get a project done and dusted isn’t the characteristic of a hostile work environment.

However, feeling as though your career depends on it each time a project nears deadline day, that’s pretty toxic.

Leaders should actively discourage overworking and burnout. Despite the badge of honour that comes with it, working around the clock can deteriorate our quality of work and life.

In a hostile work environment, leadership teams will push employees to finish projects and tasks as quickly as possible.

These requests are usually in a threatening manner and with scaremongering techniques.

While this may work initially, sooner or later employees will begin to disappear, heading for the door in frustration and dissatisfaction.

In some circumstances, employees who “put in the work” or in other words “can no longer feel the weight of the bags around their eyes” are celebrated.

This is a common trait in a toxic work environment. Managers exhibit favouritism and pride for certain employees who abide by their ways of working.

Employees who have to endure this behaviour regularly are subject to low morale, often feeling like their efforts just aren’t enough.

If anything, pushing employees to work until they can no longer think straight is a quickfire way to demolish job satisfaction in one swift swing of the burnout bat.

Don’t let hustle culture and “hard work” fool you. What is often wrapped in a layer of motivation and drive is simply a hostile work environment.

No talk of personal growth or progress

Every one of us wants to progress in life, and our work has a big influence on what that growth looks like.

A great leader should provide the platform for this progress to take place. An environment that offers a sense of direction and guidance on how to move forward.

In a toxic work environment, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It almost seems like the mention of progress and promotion is forbidden.

The reality is, these conversations are met with harsh criticism. In a hostile work environment, employees feel neglected by leadership — like they simply cannot discuss personal progress without feeling guilty.

When you’re part of a hostile work environment, there’s a clear history of lacking progression among employees.

Rumours are rife in these offices, and many members of staff know exactly what to expect when it comes to career progression — nada.

There’s also a lack any funding for career development and learning for employees. One of the key opportunities to boost engagement, job satisfaction and retention.

Ultimately, leaders need to eliminate the classic ‘carrot on a stick’ scenario when it comes to career progression.

People should be informed if learning and development opportunities are scarce. If there isn’t room for improvement, it’s important to be honest with employees.

Too often, organisations give the “near future” lie. This is when new starters are given the impression that there will be chances to progress at some point.

Avoid a toxic work environment by being open about personal growth and career progression for your team. Are you supporting them alongside your business?

A male employee staring at his phone looking unhappy at work
Happiness declines in a hostile work environment

Happiness declines in a hostile work environment

Starting a new job can be daunting. But it’s also an exciting time of new opportunities and experiences. A new desk, new office, new colleagues.

In a positive working environment, this sense of enjoyment, excitement and belonging never really fades.

In a hostile work environment, well, unhappy employees can give you a different side to the story altogether.

For some workplaces plagued by a toxic work environment, turnover rates are much higher, and people last little more than six months.

It’s important we actively review how we feel about our jobs. After all, they play a large part in our lives.

Regularly checking in with ourselves give us an idea of our job satisfaction. By understanding how we feel, we can make better decisions moving forward.

The lack of happiness surveys is noticeable in a hostile work environment. If you haven’t been asked how you’re feeling lately, it’s a big red flag.

At Heka, we conducted a survey of HR professionals on LinkedIn. When asked whether they check in with employees regarding their health and wellbeing, the results were interesting.

While 61% said they check in with employees, a staggering 39% said this only happens during an annual performance review.

This demonstrates a lack of concern for happiness levels in the workplace; a clear indication of a hostile work environment.

Top tip: Find out how to host wellbeing meetings with your team; we’ve included more than 15+ prompts and questions for you to try out.

HR statistic collected by Heka
Most HR professionals check in with employees regarding health and wellbeing

Turnover is noticeably high

For most of us, we have a rough idea of the direction we want to take our career; unless retirement is life’s next stepping stone.

When we see this occur with colleagues we think very little of it. However, a constant flow of turnover paints a different picture. One brushed with the qualities of a hostile work environment.

We start to question why people are leaving. What do they know that we don’t? These thoughts are especially true if they are senior-level employees.

High turnover also suggests there are issues elsewhere in an organisation that people aren’t speaking openly about.

This leaves many employees worried about the state of honesty and trust in the workplace and fractures a sense of togetherness.

And while this might not be the case, it’s clear that the trust of remaining employees is hindered by high turnover.

In a nutshell, high turnover creates an atmosphere of rumours and false accusations. Without solid information, employees make their own minds up on why turnover is high.

As their imagination runs wild on the possibilities, some might damage brand reputation and employee morale. This will lead to a toxic work environment.

Our advice is to remain open and honest about turnover. Explain why things didn’t work out with certain employees and the company’s ambitions to improve retention.

No sense of community or togetherness

Next, let’s discuss a lacking sense of community or togetherness often found in a hostile work environment.

Collaboration and teamwork are powerful building blocks in the workplace. And in the aftermath of the global pandemic, the world realised the power of community.

People came together across towns and cities to build virtual communities. Cooking groups, virtual book clubs and zoom quizzes took the online world by storm.

In the modern work environment, offices ought to be more than desk space and cubicles to avoid a hostile work environment.

Employers need to tear down the walls that block collaboration and communication and build an engaging workplace.

One which welcomes openness and wants to build something great. It’s this sense of togetherness — in the pursuit of success — that helps businesses move away from a toxic work environment.

In one survey, 86% of employees and executives cited a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication as failures in the workplace.

A hostile work environment with no sense of community is a cause for concern. It leaves a lot of employees wondering if general conversation with colleagues is acceptable.

Can they speak freely with one another without feeling as though someone is watching their every move?

Forcing employees to remain separate and forbidding chitchat and socialising are qualities of a hostile work environment.

Neglect of health and wellbeing in the workplace

As burnout continues to sweep across offices and plague millions each year, more needs to be done by employers.

It seems there’s a mental health epidemic happening around the world in all workplaces — and employees cannot speak up about the troubles they face.

And as we’ve explored in these signs of a toxic workplace, when employees are silenced and can’t express their feelings, it’s always a red flag.

Although, the tide has begun to turn and leadership teams are taking the benefits of a healthier workforce much more seriously.

Healthier teams are happier teams, and happier people are more engaged with their work duties.

As an employee wellbeing platform, we see the full impact of health-driven initiatives and perks.

We spoke with Millie Kocal, COO at Heka, about the impacts of neglecting health and wellbeing, here’s what Millie said…

“A team is at the heart of a successful business. If they are stressed, not sleeping well, struggling with their mental health, not being physically active or getting outdoors, it will impact their work and how they feel day-to-day.

If their performance dips, then other team members will feel like they aren't pulling their weight which can build resentment.

Health and wellbeing do not need to be a huge gesture or a big tick box, it's the small and often touchpoints that matter to people and reminds them that they are valued and important.

When the sun was out a couple of weeks ago, we let people finish up early so they could get outside and enjoy it, not a huge deal but lifted the spirits of the team and got them some vitamin D”

It’s initiatives and gestures like this — as Millie describes — that build-up; they contribute to healthier, happier employees and minimise the chances of a hostile work environment.

Poor or non-existent benefits package

Last but not least, let’s talk about poor and non-existent benefits packages. Believe it or not, your benefits package supports everything from engagement to job satisfaction.

When these qualities hit rock bottom, the seeds of a hostile work environment begin to grow and take shape.

Let’s start with poor benefits packages. These are incentives that go underutilised by the majority of workers — leadership teams likely know this too.

Neglecting an employee benefits package and leaving it to rot is a sign of a hostile work environment. Employees deserve much better.

Many of us already receive at least one health and wellbeing incentive in our benefits package. Think cycle-to-work scheme or life insurance.

Although, some of these have very little direct impact on our general wellbeing and quality of life. That’s not to say they aren’t valuable. But how valuable are they really?

Many organisations have a very small amount of employee benefits, and they often don’t support healthier, happier lifestyles.

This absence of health and wellbeing benefits is dangerous; a key red flag of a hostile work environment.

When employers provide an employee benefits package for the sake of box-ticking, it’s clear through their lack of pride in the incentives they offer.

If you work in a toxic work environment, you’ll notice leaders don’t speak openly about benefits and incentives, and that it is not a strategic priority.

As for a non-existent benefits package, this is simply illegal. Well, at least to a degree. In our ultimate guide to staff benefits, we talk about statutory benefits, i.e mandatory perks.

These are things like maternity and paternity leave, holiday allowance, sick pay and a number of other perks.

Every employer must offer statutory benefits to employees, but these alone will most certainly not attract new talent.

A woman looking stressed in the work environment whilst working on her tablet
How to deal with a toxic work environment

How to deal with a toxic work environment

You’ve made it this far! We’ve learnt about the qualities of a toxic work environment, and how to survive one.

We’ve also analysed six signs of a toxic workplace — things you should look out for when it comes to behaviours, attitudes, culture and more.

But, let’s talk about what you should do next; your next move. Assuming you’re now part of a hostile work environment, here’s what we recommend.

Tensions are often high in a hostile work environment. Employers can be ruthless and unfair, so try to remain calm.

This is not to say you shouldn’t speak your mind or be honest with colleagues, but simply to not fall to their level.

A hostile work environment will push you to join the club; believe it or not, negativity is contagious, so it’s important you always think before you speak or act.

Secondly, and very candidly, we recommend you jump ship. If you feel as though your health, wellbeing and overall happiness are diminishing, it’s time to move on.

You cannot stick around in an environment that beats you down. As we’ve explored, there’s no room for growth in a hostile work environment, emotional wellbeing isn’t a priority, and workplace perks are in a dire state.

If you’re a senior team member, concerned about the development of a toxic work environment, speak up with leadership.

It’s never too late to turn the ship around and steer a hostile work environment into a better place — it just requires a collective effort.

Speak with CEOs, People directors and HR teams about your concerns and develop an employee wellbeing framework to get your company out of a rut.

How to deal with a toxic work environment:

  • Speak with senior management
  • Focus on developing a sense of togetherness
  • Rethink the role of employee benefits
  • Carry out satisfaction surveys
  • Outline your culture, mission and values
  • Hire the right people for a positive environment
  • Improve open communication
  • Increase collaborative work
  • Identify the signs of a toxic workplace (using our guide)

Using Heka to wipe out a hostile work environment

Through Heka, our wellbeing platform provides thousands of wellbeing experiences, services and products, ranging from more than 50 categories.

From online therapy to yoga classes and so much more, we’re helping employees focus on themselves with personalised, tailored choices.

Of course, alone, Heka cannot eliminate a hostile work environment, but it can help tremendously to wipe it out.

That’s because healthier, happier people are much more engaged with their workplace. And with engagement comes productivity, performance and a positive culture.

We’ve heard from many businesses who say they are proud of how open their team have become since using Heka — sharing their Heka health and wellbeing regimes with colleagues.  

If you’d like to speak with one of our wellbeing experts, book a demo and we’d be more than happy to walk you through our platform and its various features.

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