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Workplace Woes

The Underlying Psychology of Toxic Work Environments

By Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)Published 3 months ago 6 min read
Workplace Woes
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A bad system will beat a good person every time. — W. Edwards Deming

Understanding the psychological impacts of a toxic workplace is essential in today’s fast-paced and increasingly interconnected world. The term “toxic workplace” refers to any work environment that negatively affects the mental, emotional, and physical health of the employees (Griffin, Colella & Goparaju, 2000).

The Origins of a Toxic Workplace

In an organizational context, the toxicity often originates from the leadership and management style. One study indicated that authoritarian and unethical leaders often foster a toxic workplace environment (Padilla, Hogan, & Kaiser, 2007). Such leaders tend to be domineering, exhibit favoritism, discourage input from subordinates, and ignore ethical standards, leading to a culture of fear and deceit.

Workplace toxicity can also stem from unmanageable workloads and job demands, resulting in chronic stress, burnout, and job dissatisfaction (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001). Over time, these factors may degrade the quality of relationships among colleagues, further enhancing the toxicity of the work environment.

Symptoms of a Toxic Workplace

The signs of a toxic workplace often include high rates of absenteeism and turnover, poor job performance, low job satisfaction, and an increase in physical health complaints (Nielsen & Einarsen, 2012). Employees might also demonstrate diminished commitment to their jobs, decreased motivation, and lower levels of engagement (Einarsen, Aasland, & Skogstad, 2007).

In addition to these indicators, individuals may experience feelings of constant anxiety, frustration, and helplessness (Hauge, Skogstad, & Einarsen, 2009). They may also exhibit defensive behaviors, including cynicism, withdrawal, and aggression, reflecting their attempts to cope with the toxic environment (Spector & Fox, 2005).

Toxic Workplace Behaviors

Toxic workplace behaviors are manifestations of underlying negative dynamics and attitudes within an organization. Such behaviors include bullying, harassment, discrimination, and incivility. These behaviors not only create a hostile environment but also diminish organizational productivity and morale (Pearson, Andersson, & Porath, 2005).

Workplace bullying, characterized by persistent and systematic aggressive behavior, is a notable form of toxic behavior. It can include verbal abuse, humiliation, undermining work, and spreading malicious rumors (Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2021). Research has indicated that workplace bullying has severe psychological consequences, such as increased stress, depression, and anxiety (Einarsen et al., 2021).

Discrimination, another form of toxic behavior, involves unjust treatment based on an individual’s personal characteristics, such as age, gender, race, or disability. Discrimination not only impacts the victim’s self-esteem and job satisfaction but also negatively influences their physical health (Schmitt, Branscombe, Postmes, & Garcia, 2014).

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The Role of Organizational Culture

Organizational culture plays a significant role in determining the toxicity of a workplace. An organization’s culture, a shared system of values, beliefs, and behaviors, can either mitigate or exacerbate toxic behaviors (Schein, 2010). An authoritarian culture marked by rigid hierarchy, secrecy, and punishment can breed toxicity. On the other hand, a culture emphasizing collaboration, transparency, and mutual respect can prevent toxic behaviors (Schein, 2010). A healthy organizational culture promotes psychological safety, where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas without fear of retaliation (Edmondson, 1999). When an organization fails to foster such safety, it paves the way for toxicity, undermining trust, and collaboration.

The Psychological Impact of a Toxic Workplace

A toxic workplace has profound psychological impacts on employees. It can lead to significant increases in mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2004). Exposure to a toxic workplace can also contribute to burnout — a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion. Maslach and Leiter (2016) pointed out that burnout is often associated with feelings of cynicism, detachment from work, and a sense of ineffectiveness. Furthermore, it has been found that a toxic workplace can impact the personal life of employees, causing strain in their relationships and impairing their overall quality of life (Jackson & Maslach, 1982; Jones & Fletcher, 1996).

Organizational Interventions

To mitigate the impact of a toxic work environment, organizations need to focus on preventive measures and early intervention strategies. Developing a clear organizational culture that promotes mutual respect, fairness, and ethical behavior can help prevent the development of a toxic environment (Schein, 2010).

Organizations can combat workplace toxicity through systemic interventions. Organizational policies and procedures that clearly define, identify, and penalize toxic behaviors are vital (Pearson et al., 2005). These policies should also provide effective channels for employees to report incidents of toxic behavior without fear of retaliation.

Additionally, organizations should promote diversity and inclusivity. They should also provide ongoing training and education about the harmful effects of discrimination, bullying, and harassment (Pless & Maak, 2004).

Organizations can address toxic work environments by focusing on improving leadership competencies. Leaders should be trained to recognize the signs of a toxic work environment and handle such situations effectively (Padilla et al., 2007). Leadership training programs focusing on ethical and transformational leadership styles can also be beneficial (Bass & Riggio, 2006). Such programs can empower leaders to foster a positive work culture, where open communication, employee recognition, and teamwork are encouraged. Additionally, organizations should provide employees with resources to manage work stress effectively. This might include access to counseling services, stress management training, and promoting work-life balance (Bhui, Dinos, Galant-Miecznikowska, de Jongh, & Stansfeld, 2016).

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The psychology of a toxic workplace is a complex issue that requires comprehensive understanding and intervention. The psychological impacts extend beyond the office walls, affecting both the personal and professional lives of employees. However, through a combination of interventions at various levels, organizations can work towards reducing toxicity and promoting healthier, more positive work environments.


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About the Creator

Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)

Writer, psychologist and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, human and animal rights, and industrial/organizational psychology

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