Toxic work environments – this term was first used to describe literally toxic workplaces where dangerous working conditions and chemical hazards put employees at physical risk.
Since then, the term has evolved to represent a different type of toxicity – negative situations at work like poor management, lack of clear company goals, discord among coworkers, and many other things.
In recent years, more and more employees have begun taking stock of how they are treated at work and what’s expected of them. Many people started evaluating whether or not they have been dealing with a toxic work environment, and if their job could actually be impacting their physical or mental health.
This shift in priorities and expectations, triggered by the pandemic, led millions of employees to quit their jobs, and countless others demanding better working situations from their employers.
As an employer, you can see this time as an opportunity to reevaluate your priorities as well, and check in with the atmosphere and culture in which your employees work daily. A term like “toxic work environment” can be relative, so it can be hard to determine what constitutes one. It can also be hard to step away from the daily responsibilities of running a business and check in with how employees are feeling and being treated by their coworkers and managers.
If you knew what your employees considered to be a toxic work environment and what they would like to see changed, would you make those positive adjustments for their wellbeing?
If you knew that making those changes would improve employee retention and give you a happier and healthier workforce, what would you do?
We hope to give you insight with the answers we received in our first Toxic Work Environment Survey, where we asked 500 people across 11 different industries to give us their opinion on their current work environment and what makes it positive or negative.
- Cleaning Services
- Education & Childcare
- Home Healthcare
- Home & Commercial Services
- Hospitality, Recreation, & Entertainment
- Insurance & Financial Services
- Personal Care
- Restaurant & Food Service
What is a toxic work environment?
We define a toxic work environment as a workplace where a negative atmosphere caused by coworkers, supervisors, and/or the company culture, makes it difficult to work or progress in a job. When we asked employees if they have ever experienced such an environment, the overwhelming majority said that they have.
When breaking this down by age group, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference across generations. The majority of employees across all ages claim to have experienced a toxic workplace at some point in their careers.
What makes a toxic work environment according to employees?
We asked employees to provide their own definition of a toxic work environment. The word map below can help you visualize some of the most common answers.
One employee pointed out how a toxic work environment can impact every aspect of your life, in and outside of work: “A toxic workplace is mentally and emotionally taxing. The stress also affects your physical health.”
Here are a few other ways employees described a toxic workplace:
- “Having a boss that does not lead well and makes you feel worthless, not having people you work with be a team that works together, people becoming clique-ish and gossiping/spreading rumors.”
- “Constant negative atmosphere, no positive feedback for putting in effort, going unnoticed by team leads for trying to go above and beyond expectations.”
- “Poor communication between different departments, lack of distinct supervisorial chain, back-stabbing to get promotions, no accountability individually.”
- “A workplace that doesn’t appreciate their team, doesn’t put their employees first.”
- “A workplace that allows negativity or negative people to continue to disrupt other people’s jobs and attitudes.”
We also asked employees about certain negative experiences they’ve had in the last twelve months that could be considered toxic.
Toxic work environments and employee retention
Is a toxic work environment enough to push an employee to quit? Turns out it could play a pretty big role! We were surprised to see that 72% of employees have left a job because of a toxic workplace and 51% said they plan on leaving their current job for the same reason.
This is a pretty big deal considering it can cost from one-half to two times an employee’s annual salary to replace them. Since retention is such an important issue for employers, we wanted to dig a little deeper and see what specific reasons would make this many employees want to leave their jobs.
Out of the 51% of employees that plan on leaving their current job, the majority responded that “lack of opportunities for growth” was the primary factor.
We also found that “unsafe working conditions”, “poor work/life balance”, “unfair treatment by managers”, and “harassment from coworkers or managers” were also pretty prevalent issues.
Which industries have more toxic work environments?
We were also curious about whether some industries struggled with this more than others, but toxic work environments seem to touch every industry.
The majority of employees in every industry in our survey said that they have experienced a toxic work environment:
Some of the highest percentages:
- Fitness industry: 98% reported to have experienced a toxic work environment, with 80% saying they plan to leave their job because of a toxic work environment.
- Automotive industry: 94% reported to have experienced a toxic work environment, with 70% saying they plan on leaving their current job.
The restaurant and food service industry was close behind with 91% reporting they have experienced a toxic work environment. They also had some outlying stats in other areas.
77% of respondents across all industries said that their manager cares about their performance at work and gives them regular feedback on their performance. This makes it even more telling that most of those in restaurant and food service said the opposite:
- 56% of employees in restaurant & food service claimed that their manager does not give them regular feedback on their performance at work.
- 52% of employees in restaurant and food service do not feel like their manager genuinely cares about them/their performance at work.
Education and childcare also stood out a bit from the majority:
- 49% feel like they are not able to voice their needs and concerns at work.
- 42% claim that their manager is not open to receiving feedback/suggestions.
Poor work/life balance also seems to affect a lot of people in the education and childcare industry. 42% of employees said they have experienced it in the last month and better work/life balance was the number one change employees in this industry would like to see their employers make.
One education and childcare employee summed up their experiences with toxic work environments: “Bad morale, overworked staff, and management not treating employees well.”
How employers can create a more positive work environment
Clearly, toxic work environments affect every industry and have a huge impact on retention. It’s not all bad news though. Many employees (84% in fact) are open to sticking it out at their current job if their employer worked to create a more positive environment.
This means that if you can figure out which changes your employees would like to see made, you have the power to not only improve your retention rate, but also to create a more productive and happy workforce.
Every team is different, but we asked the employees in our survey to share which changes they would like their employers to make. The graph below shows their answers.
1. Support employee development
“More opportunities for growth” was the #1 change that employees would like to see made. So if it’s not already, 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.
2. Create more work/life balance
Employees in our survey also wish for “more work/life balance”. Employers should approach this issue as well. 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.
Don’t expect employees to answer their phones outside of working hours or bring their laptops on vacation with them. Let the old toxic workplace culture of hustle-and-grind die down, and instead, help employees embrace a more healthy relationship to work.
3. A positive workplace starts with management
The third biggest change that employees would like their employers to make was “better training for managers/leadership.” This one is pretty straightforward. Question how your leadership is trained and ask employees for feedback on how you can improve.
Here are a few things the employees in our survey had to say regarding how management can contribute to a negative workplace:
- “A negative workplace is one where it’s a top down leadership model and people aren’t allowed to question decisions – they are to just do as they are told.”
- “It’s challenging when there’s no positive feedback for putting in effort, and you go unnoticed by team leads for trying to go above and beyond expectations.”
Properly training your managers and leadership team can help you mitigate these types of negative experiences that create a toxic work environment.
One great thing to note is that the majority of employees do feel that their manager is open to receiving feedback on how to improve the workplace. This is vital as it helps businesses adapt to the news of their employees.
As a manager or employer, it’s up to you to act on the feedback you are given. Being a great place to work is important for so many reasons, and it can help you keep the best people on your team.
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