How to deal with a toxic work environment

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Health Assured team

10 May 2019

Psychologically, physically and emotionally draining, toxic work environments are all too common.

Avoiding them isn’t always possible. But there are ways to combat the toxicity and help yourself—and others—in dealing with a toxic work environment. Both staff and leaders need to be proactive in this.


Recognising a toxic workplace

There are a few tell-tale toxic work environment characteristics. Not every unfriendly work environment will make you feel each of these, but if you’re experiencing these signs, you should speak up:

  • Chronic stress: 74% of UK workers have felt unable to work at some point due to overwhelming stress. Of course, there are countless factors that can cause dread and anxiety on waking up. Family issues, money worries, relationship problems. But an oppressive work environment, that you feel rotten walking into every morning? That’s one of the biggest stressors you can feel.
  • Bullying: not just limited to the playground. Almost a third of UK workers have been bullied at work. This is a major cause of stress and anxiety, and if bullying is tolerated—or hidden—then that’s a huge warning sign of bad workplace culture.
  • Overwork: if you’re constantly having far too much work dumped on you with tight deadlines, that’s more than just disorganisation—that’s toxicity. Overwork causes stress, anxiety and anger, and it’s a contributor to workplace hostility.
  • Sickness: are people absent a lot? Is your office quieter than usual? Nobody likes being in a toxic place, after all. When an office is oppressive and unpleasant, it’s no wonder that people will choose to stay at home and use up their sick leave. It gets worse—stress and anxiety can cause all sorts of sicknesses. And if employees are still coming in, with those symptoms evident? That’s presenteeism, one of the biggest signs of a toxic work environment, which is just as damaging.


How to turn around a toxic work environment

It’s not an easy fix. Culture, especially shared culture in a small space like an office, is difficult to steer. But once you have a handle on what causes a toxic work environment, you can begin making changes to help. While it’s not a comprehensive guide, here’s a basic primer on how to fix a hostile work environment.

  • Be positive and proactive: focusing on complaints only adds negativity. Fighting against the tide will bring everyone down. Instead, ask for and listen to solutions. If people believe they can make positive changes, rather than complaining about the problems, the atmosphere will lighten.
  • Listen: if leaders are aloof and detached from the workforce, resentment brews. And that resentment crushes productivity. Being seen to listen, and acting on the things you hear, helps people feel fulfilled and valued. Listening is the most valuable thing you can do—it’s why we’re repeating the advice.
  • Foster positivity: sometimes, people simply don’t get on. It’s as true in the workplace as it is everywhere else. Try teambuilding, placing likeminded people together on projects—and above all, listen to anything they have to say.
  • Allow time to mend ills: recovering from a toxic work environment is hard. Even though the office may be more positive after some changes, people will still have issues. It’s difficult to adjust. If someone was previously suffering from some of the problems outlined above, don’t expect them to be completely fine immediately. Let them take time off, slow down, and get themselves straight for the—much more pleasant—work ahead. They’ll know what time they need. Listen to them.


If you’d like to find out more information on any of the topics mentioned in this article, please contact Health Assured on 0333 255 9867.

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