What Makes a Negative Work Environment According to Employees?

In our recent Toxic Work Environment Report, we found that 86% of employees have experienced a workplace where a negative atmosphere — caused by coworkers, supervisors, and/or the company culture — made it difficult to work or progress in their job. 

toxic work environment

On top of that, 76% of employees said they have left a job because of a negative work environment. 

No employer sets out to create a negative workplace, but clearly many employees are having poor experiences at work, some of which are so bad, they have even left their jobs! 

So what makes a negative work environment according to employees? 

Let’s take a closer look at each of these top negative experiences reported by the employees in our survey. Addressing some of these common issues can help employers create better places to work. 

Negative experiences employees have had at work 

The majority of employees in our survey have experienced what we defined as a toxic workplace. We wanted to dig deeper into this surprising finding and learn more about the factors that contribute to a negative work environment. 

Below, are the top negative experiences that employees reported having in the last twelve months: 

negative experiences at work

1. Conflict among coworkers

40% of the employees in our survey have experienced conflict among coworkers in the last year. Here’s what a couple of employees had to say when we asked them to describe the experience: 

“Not having people you work with be a team that works together; people becoming clique-ish and gossiping/spreading rumors.”

“Poor communication between different departments, lack of distinct supervisorial chain, back-stabbing to get promotions, no accountability individually.”

Conflict among coworkers not only contributes to a negative work environment, it can also affect productivity and lead to turnover. As an employer, dealing with conflict among coworkers can be difficult, but it’s important to take a proactive approach. 

Consider having a system in place for employees to discreetly share when they are having issues. Encourage employees to come to management and make sure they feel comfortable and heard. Know that small scuffles may happen at work, and that’s ok, but be prepared to step in when conflict is ongoing and severe. 

2. Poor work/life balance 

Poor work/life balance is another big factor in negative work environments and “more work/life balance” was one of the most important changes employees would like to see made at work. 

And work/life balance is something employers should take seriously. Some studies suggest that a poor work/life balance in mid-life (defined as working more than 50 hours per week) might actually affect health even into later stages of life. And two-thirds of employees say they have experienced burnout in their careers – which can cause symptoms like physical and mental fatigue and depression. 

You might consider offering more paid time off or more flexible schedules. Remote working options can also give employees more flexibility and cut down on time-consuming commutes. Help employees embrace a healthier relationship to work. Don’t expect employees to respond to emails outside of working hours or bring their laptops on vacation with them. 

Your efforts to implement more work/life balance should pay off. Not only will it lead to healthier and happier employees – 89% of surveyed HR professionals saw an increase in employee retention after implementing flexible work policies.

3. Lack of opportunities for growth 

34% of employees said that they have experienced a lack of opportunities for growth at work in the last 12 months. Additionally, this was the number one change that the employees in our survey would like to see their employers make to create a more positive workplace. 

Employee development should be a priority. We recommend supporting employee development in the following ways: 

  • Promote from within.
  • Provide ongoing feedback on employee performance
  • Pay for educational opportunities like seminars, books, and online classes.
  • Help employees set and reach goals with a Growth Plan. Click the button below to download your free Growth Plan Template that you can use to work through professional and personal development opportunities with each employee.

4. Long hours with no breaks

There are no federal laws requiring rest or meal breaks, and less than half of states require employers to provide meal breaks for employees. But this doesn’t mean that it’s ok to make employees work long hours with no breaks. 

Workers report this as a major symptom of negative work environments and it can also play a role in creating poor work/life balance and employee burnout – which we know leads to negative health outcomes and turnover. 

Try to be mindful of employee’s working hours, and encourage breaks for shifts longer than 5-6 hours. Build in ways for employees to decompress during the work day if you can. A little can go a long way in terms of boosting morale in stressful jobs. Consider providing the occasional free lunch in the break room or schedule quick, fun events throughout the workday. 

5. Unfair treatment by managers

Many employees in our survey said that unfair treatment by managers contributes to a toxic work environment. One employee shared what that looks like: “No positive feedback for putting in effort and going unnoticed by team leads for trying to go above and beyond expectations.”

It’s estimated that bad management costs U.S. companies around $960 billion dollars per year! So it’s no wonder “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers,” has become such a common refrain. 

35% of employees in our survey said that more training for managers/leadership should be a priority when it comes to creating a more positive work environment. And that’s a great place to start. Making the initial investment to fully train your leaders can help mitigate this common experience that creates a negative work environment.  

6. Lack of support from human resources 

A lack of support in the workplace can be stressful and make employees feel like their company doesn’t care about their needs. 

Employees should feel supported by their employers, and there should be a clear process in place for asking questions or getting help from managers or human resources. 

Even if you are a small team, it’s important to make sure your employees know where to go when they are having an issue, don’t understand their benefits, or need help with something at work. 

7. Unsafe working conditions

This is a big issue for obvious reasons, especially in manual labor industries where accidents are more likely to happen. In recent years though, COVID has become a concern, and now more than ever, employees expect their employers to take the proper measures to keep them safe at work. 

Some tips for creating a safe work environment no matter your industry?

  • Make sure all employees are properly trained. 
  • Provide employees with the right tools and equipment. 
  • Display visual representations of safety rules and messages. 
  • Have a clearly outlined safety protocol and share it with employees often. 

8. Unpaid or mandatory overtime 

Unpaid or mandatory overtime is yet another factor that can contribute to a poor work/life balance and create a negative work environment. 

In the United States it is illegal to not pay overtime to hourly, non-exempt employees if they work over 40 hours in a week; though, some salaried employees might be required to work more than the traditional 40 hour work week and not be compensated for their extra time. 

And in other cases, employees may be paid for overtime, but forced into working it. Even though they may receive higher compensation, they may value their time more and feel overworked and frustrated with all the extra hours tacked onto their week. All too often, this can lead to turnover.  

As an employer, it’s important to remember that all of your employees deserve to get paid for their time – especially any additional time put in on top of the 40 hour week. If you find that you are requiring a lot of overtime, consider whether or not it’s time to make more hires. 

At the very least, is it possible to make overtime optional so that employees that actually want the hours can load up their schedules? Or can you spread overtime hours out evenly so that employees aren’t working overtime week after week? 

Using the data for good 

A negative work environment puts a strain on employees and can contribute to everything from employee burnout to decreased productivity and turnover. Using the data from our research can help employers evaluate their own work environment and the effect it might be having on employees. Do you think any of your employees are currently dealing with some of these top negative experiences? 

If so, what changes can you make today to create a more positive work environment? Though it may take a little time and effort, becoming a better place to work will only improve your ability to retain your top employees and to make the right hires when it’s time to grow your team. 

Read the Full 2022 Toxic Work Environment Report

Click the button below to read all the findings from our survey. Employees shared insights into what they’re looking for – as well as what they’re not looking for – in employers.


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