Beware of Toxic Workplaces

May 11 2020 / by Mari Ryan

A toxic workplace is not something that can be cleaned up with disinfectant. It’s not a germ or a virus, although it may feel like one. If you are like me, at some point in your career you’ve worked in a place that just felt downright unhealthy. Whether the harmful surroundings are due to the people, the culture, or a combination of both, these damaging environments are everywhere.

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What is a toxic workplace?
A toxic workplace is defined as, “a workplace that is marked by significant drama and infighting, where personal battles often harm productivity.” It can best be described as “an organization that is ineffective as well as destructive to its employees."

This negative environment can often be chalked up to the people. Toxic people demonstrate a pattern of counterproductive behavior that debilitates individuals, teams and even the organization over the long term. You know the types – narcissists, bullies, manipulators, control freaks. Research suggests that as many as 94% of us have worked with a toxic person during our career. In a recent conversation with Carol Marzouk, workplace conflict and communications expert, she stated, “The danger of the toxic employee is that they are sneezing on you with every comment they make. They’re like a virus, every comment is a little germ.”

While people are sometimes responsible for workplace toxicity, the workplace culture itself can also be toxic. This happens when bad behavior is tolerated. It also happens when the primary focus of the business is on profits, with little regard for the people. You can read about such a workplace in my book, The Thriving Hive: How People-Centric Workplaces Ignite Engagement and Fuel Results.

Why it matters
A toxic workplace is characterized by high levels of employee disengagement, high turnover, and low morale. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), toxic workplaces are a primary reason why workers quit their jobs. Over the past five years, the cost of turnover due to workplace culture exceeded $223 billion. Ultimately, these costs impact the organization’s bottom line.

Impact on employee well-being
The impact on employee well-being is significant. Toxic workplaces are highly stressful for the individuals who work there. Long-term chronic stress causes deterioration of health by disturbing the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. Work stress is also carried home and can impact familial relationships.

What to do
Toxic workplace cultures need to be transformed. Leaders and human resource professionals must take the lead on this.

  • Have a clear purpose. Purpose helps to keep everyone focused. The purpose should be outwardly focused, motivational, and contribute to a greater good. When toxicity appears it distracts and diminishes purpose.
  • Have clearly stated values. Values define the behaviors that support the purpose. They embody what differentiates your organization from others and make it unique.
  • Focus on creating a strong culture. Culture is made up of behaviors, norms, assumptions, and rituals that support the purpose and values. When toxicity appears, it needs to be addressed head on.

The well-being of all employees in an organization is improved when toxicity is removed. Let’s all work at creating workplaces where both the people and the business thrive.


Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, employee experience, company culture, workplace wellness, toxic workplace, organizational culture, employee wellbeing, thriving workplace

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.