Psyche logo

Workplace Woes

The Underlying Psychology of Toxic Work Environments

By Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)Published 3 months ago 6 min read
2
Workplace Woes
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

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).

By Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

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).

By Proxyclick Visitor Management System on Unsplash

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.

References

Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. E. (2006). Transformational leadership (2nd ed.). Psychology Press.

Bhui, K., Dinos, S., Galant-Miecznikowska, M., de Jongh, B., & Stansfeld, S. (2016). Perceptions of work stress causes and effective interventions in employees working in public, private and non-governmental organisations: a qualitative study. BJ Psych bulletin, 40(6), 318–325.

Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied psychology, 86(3), 499.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383.

Einarsen, S., Aasland, M. S., & Skogstad, A. (2007). Destructive leadership behaviour: A definition and conceptual model. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(3), 207–216.

Einarsen, S. V., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C. L. (Eds.). (2020). Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Theory, research and practice. CRC press.

Griffin, A. E., Colella, A., & Goparaju, S. (2000). Newcomer and organizational socialization tactics: An interactionist perspective. Human Resource Management Review, 10(4), 453–474.

Hauge, L. J., Skogstad, A., & Einarsen, S. (2009). Individual and situational predictors of workplace bullying: Why do perpetrators engage in the bullying of others?. Work & Stress, 23(4), 349–358.

Jackson, S. E., & Maslach, C. (1982). After‐effects of job‐related stress: Families as victims. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 3(1), 63–77.

Jones, F., & Fletcher, B. (1996). Taking work home: A study of daily fluctuations in work stressors, effects on moods and impacts on marital partners. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 69(1), 89–106.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103–111.

Matthiesen, S. B., & Einarsen, S. (2004). Psychiatric distress and symptoms of PTSD among victims of bullying at work. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 32(3), 335–356.

Nielsen, M. B., & Einarsen, S. (2012). Outcomes of exposure to workplace bullying: A meta-analytic review. Work & Stress, 26(4), 309–332.

Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(3), 176–194.

Pearson, C. M., Andersson, L. M., & Porath, C. L. (2005). Workplace incivility. In S. Fox & P. E. Spector (Eds.), Counterproductive work behavior: Investigations of actors and targets (pp. 177–200). American Psychological Association.

Pless, N., & Maak, T. (2004). Building an inclusive diversity culture: Principles, processes and practice. Journal of Business Ethics, 54, 129–147.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (Vol. 2). John Wiley & Sons.

Schmitt, M. T., Branscombe, N. R., Postmes, T., & Garcia, A. (2014). The consequences of perceived discrimination for psychological well-being: a meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 140(4), 921.

Spector, P. E., & Fox, S. (2005). The stressor-emotion model of counterproductive work behavior. In Counterproductive workplace behavior: Investigations of actors and targets (pp. 151–174). American Psychological Association.

supportworkselfcareadvice
2

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

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights

Comments

There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.