Five signs that your workplace is turning toxic

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It’s not always something as obvious as a tyrannical boss or openly disgruntled employees that create a poisonous workplace atmosphere.
It can be subtle behaviour that turns the place toxic over time and drives out employees – a survey by beyondblue showed that almost half of workers had left a job because it was mentally unhealthy.
Workplace mental health ranked second in importance only to pay as the most important factor when choosing a job, according to the research.
Behavioural scientist and strategist Darren Hill shares his top tips for recognizing workplace toxicity.
  1. Passive-aggressive communication is the norm
“People agreeing on a matter to each other’s faces, then immediately rubbishing it (or you) when out of earshot, runs rampant in the workplace. In its more subtle form, the passive-aggressive method is when people create third-party conversations where an issue between two people suddenly grows into three, then four, then five, when it could easily have been sorted out with a direct conversation between the original two colleagues.”
  1. Lack of discretionary effort
“’It’s not in my job description’ is not a healthy mantra. Whilst union reps might jump up and down about organizations taking advantage of people doing ‘extras’, one common behaviour in a thriving culture is people stepping outside of their responsibility areas to help others. It’s called caring. Avoidance of care and responsibility (other than for yourself) is a red flag that your culture has become toxic.”
  1. Death by committee
“Whether its micromanaging or archaic processes, decisions always needing approval from a committee are not only dysfunctional, but they’re a killer of agility and innovation. Great cultures embrace a principle of ‘seek forgiveness rather than permission’. Cultures that require permission as a first step are cultures where trust has left the building. There’s always room for good governance, but that is distinctly different to distrust.”
  1. People become clock-watchers
“At 4pm the desk starts to get tidied, at 4.15pm, email is shut down. By 4.25pm, all eyes are on the clock, and at the stroke of 4.30pm employees are halfway to the lift. Functional behaviour is when people leave work when they’re supposed to. Constantly burning the midnight oil is ridiculous, but when people can’t stand to be at work a second longer than they have to it’s a sure-fire sign of a workplace becoming toxic.”
  1. There aren’t any quality shared experiences
“Workplaces are social settings and human beings are social animals. So to be our best at work, we must be social. Newsflash: your weekly team meeting is not a high-quality shared experience. Dysfunctional cultures are cultures where people are expected to work together but not actually like each other, and that is rubbish.
“Whilst we don’t expect people to get on like the Partridge family, a team that has each other’s back is a functioning team. Have lunch simply to break bread or perhaps work on a corporate social responsibility project together; but most of all, take time to celebrate success. That’s what great team cultures do.”
What kind of toxic behaviour have you seen in the workplace? How did you deal with it? 
  • Ella on 2014-07-21 10:06:19 AM

    I take exception to the 'clock watching' tip because there are other reasons people watch the clock not just because the environment is toxic. For example, I have kids and those kids have activities in the evening. In order for me to get them to those activities I have to rush like a mad woman through traffic so I am home early enough to feed them then rush through traffic again to get them to their practices. Then after the practice I rush home to pack lunches and get those kids to bed. So, my 8hrs of work have now become 16hrs. This is why I have to be out of the office at exactly my quitting time. I would be over the moon if I could lounge around and leave work whenever I felt like it.

  • Saleem on 2014-07-21 12:58:18 PM

    Ella has a valid point but it may also be a sign that her organization may not have a flex working schedule.

    People also drop pen at the closing minute because they get penalized by their management when they are late by even one minute. Of course no one will tolerate a routine late comer but there are at times genuine reasons for some one to get late e.g. traffic issue, bad weather and even a faulty elevator at the work premises.

  • Christina on 2014-07-21 3:10:39 PM

    Workplace mental health ranked second in importance only to pay as the most important factor when choosing a job, according to the research.

    I would love to see this research, is there any way I can access the report or the data? Are these Canadian surveys and from when?

    Thank you very much.

  • Peter on 2015-06-26 9:30:41 AM

    The comment that people leave because of a toxic workplace, or to put blame squarely on a bad boss rather than pay is well known so I'd query Christina that mental health is "second" to pay. In Maslow's Hierachy of needs salary as a measure of job security is very low on the scale. Salary as a form of recognition of skill or ability may rank higher but if recognition (the elimination of mental health concerns) is monetary then the slide to future health issues mental and physical is already on the radar

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