Toxic work environment examples are all around us: in businesses big and small, multi-national and local. Not only does a toxic environment cause significant damage to your people’s mental and physical wellbeing, it can also reduce your productivity, affect the quality of your output, and decrease job satisfaction.

With workplace culture playing such a big part in your ability to attract and retain the best talent out there, a toxic workplace culture can seriously harm your ability to compete.

That makes it crucial that you know how to detect and repair any breakdowns in trust at your business, so you can track the root of any problems and take action before too much damage is done.

We’re going to explore how you can identify signs of a toxic environment at work, the effects it might have on your company, and how you can repair damaged environments to create a healthy, thriving workplace.

What are the signs of a toxic work environment?

In order to be able to prevent, address, and fix toxic work environments, it’s essential to be able to recognize them. Here are some of the biggest signs to look for:

  • Anxiety and burnout, with people performing less effectively as a result
  • High resignation rates
  • Absenteeism, either due to illness or a lack of engagement
  • Presenteeism, which damages your productivity

Measuring these impacts can effectively identify signs of a toxic work environment, even when one isn’t otherwise immediately apparent.

How do toxic work environments affect the business?

Toxic work environments carry a range of direct and indirect consequences for your business. On the surface, this kind of culture will damage morale and communication among your people: Because when professionals don’t feel trusted or comfortable, they become less willing to share ideas or expose themselves to risk.

This anxiety typically results in a reduction in productivity and engagement, which in turn leads to increased attrition and a loss of ROI on your hiring efforts. A struggle to retain your best people can easily damage your reputation and your ability to recruit. After all, it’s much harder to compile a persuasive employee value proposition (EVP) when turnover is high and ex-employees are likely to share details of their own struggles working for your company.

What causes toxic work environments?

While many things can factor into toxic work environments—from micromanagement to abusive language or a simple lack of recognition—a recent uptick in employee surveillance may majorly contribute to unhealthy work cultures.

Bossware and employee surveillance

Since remote and hybrid work skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, employee surveillance has followed suit. Companies worldwide have adopted all kinds of “bossware” in an attempt to monitor the productivity and efficiency of their people and to make sure they aren’t “dialing it in” when away from the office.

HiBob recently carried out a piece of research with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) that looked at the impact of HR tech on effective people management. This research found dramatic differences of opinion in relation to “bossware.” For example, 41 percent of HR respondents said they are uncomfortable using technology to monitor people. In contrast, an incredible 70 percent of senior business leaders felt these types of measures are acceptable.

This clear disconnect is reflected in attitudes toward productivity too: While Microsoft’s Work Trend Index revealed that 87 percent of all employees—remote and in-person—feel productive at work, only 12 percent of CEOs reported the same belief.

Fundamentally, these opinions come down to trust. Despite an overwhelming weight of research data, such as by Owl Labs and Forbes, that shows productivity increases when people can work remotely or hybrid, too many companies and leaders simply do not trust that their talent will remain committed to their work. The evidence to the contrary keeps on coming: A Stanford study of 16,000 employees found productivity increased by 13 percent when staff worked from home, and Prodoscore Research similarly reported a 47 percent increase in efficiency.

Focus on quality matters more than productivity

In today’s challenging business environment, this disconnect contributes to a heavy emphasis on productivity at all costs, which often affects the wellbeing—and ironically, resulting productivity—of professionals.

It is this emphasis on productivity over quality, often reinforced by a culture of surveillance, that creates the majority of toxic work environments today. As the line between work and personal time blurs, employee surveillance can be deeply intrusive: One HP survey found that 69 percent of people have used personal laptops or printers for work activities, and 70 percent of respondents have used work devices for personal tasks. “Bossware” is unable to distinguish between work-related and personal activity, making people feel that they are being excessively monitored and not trusted.

Leadership’s role in mending toxic work environments

Fundamentally, toxic work environments are created by a lack of trust in your people, and a failure to provide them with support in the face of negative behavior or challenging times.

Therefore, the key to repairing your culture is to lead from the front by championing trust, transparency, and teamwork throughout your teams. This especially applies to remote and hybrid team members: If you feel the need to monitor some of their work activities, explain what you’re monitoring and why, and make sure that those measures are relevant and necessary for the purpose.

Today, it’s also possible to leverage HR communications technology to address problems and drive a trusting, healthy culture among even the most widely dispersed teams. For your business to thrive, your people management needs to embrace a supportive, value-driven culture of regular feedback, wellbeing check-ins, trust, and transparency—all of which can be facilitated by HR tech.

Addressing toxicity: The key to a stronger business culture

It can be hard to know how to deal with a toxic work environment, and once it sets in, it can seem impossible to shift. But you can be ready to take appropriate action by understanding the key warning signs of increased anxiety, presenteeism, and burnout.

As remote and hybrid work continues to become mainstream, resist the urge to monitor your people excessively. Instead, build a culture of trust that empowers them to perform their roles to the best of their ability, supported by an effective digital workplace strategy. Not only will your people’s happiness increase, but so will the quality of your output, productivity, and retention.

Tali Sachs

From Tali Sachs

Tali is a content marketing manager at HiBob. She's been writing stories since before she knew what to do with a pen and paper. When she's not writing, she's reading sci-fi, snuggling with her cats, or singing at an open mic.