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How to Deal with a Toxic Work Environment

Today more than ever we hear about stress, burnout and job dissatisfaction. We find ourselves in an era of radical changes where, after the pandemic, organizational models and leadership styles are exposed to drastic changes to increasingly respond to people's needs. Much of the discomfort and stress at work is linked to a toxic work environment which can represent a serious obstacle to personal and corporate growth as well as damage the health of workers. A harmful environment not only undermines the mental and physical health of employees, but also negatively impacts productivity and company culture .

In this article, Eleonora Valè, work psychologist at Trainect, specialized in the neuropsychology of well-being, explores how to identify the signs of a toxic environment, how to create a positive environment with the support of colleagues and how to involve human resources to improve company culture .


Prolonged Stress leads to Burnout

One of the most frequent mistakes that I have encountered over the years among executives is to underestimate the fact that the state of stress and excessive pressure must be temporary, or linked to particularly intense periods and particular efforts.

Accepting that it will continue, underestimating the consequences and/or thinking that it is "normal" is not a good idea at all and seriously jeopardizes creativity and effectiveness, which are enormously weakened .

Today 69% of people say that managers influence their well-being more than friends, family and therapists (Source: Workforce institute UKG). On the other hand, Jim Rohn, American entrepreneur and author, tells us, "We are the average of the 5 people we hang out with the most." And by spending 8 hours at work (and even more) it is inevitable that our boss influences us. It seems that those responsible for this influence are our mirror neurons, discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti, an Italian neuroscientist, in 1992. Very particular neurons found in the brain areas responsible for movements that are activated when any gesture or behavior is performed and also when it is observed. If we suffer toxic leadership every day , which makes us feel insecure and continually questioned, we will be more likely to experience a state of prolonged stress and malaise which can lead to phenomena such as burnout .


How to Deal with a Toxic Work Environment

Toxic leadership and related practices can have devastating impacts on both organizations and individuals. It is now clear that such leaders, with their harmful behavior, lead organizations towards long-term failure and seriously compromise the physical and mental well-being of individuals. In this scenario, toxic leadership practices can also trigger and increase bullying behaviors in the workplace. Collaborators may find themselves witnesses to these behaviors and, while attempting to intervene, often find themselves powerless in the face of these dynamics. In the absence of effective change, victims may resort to coping strategies, "survival" strategies to cope with the moment of difficulty, to mitigate the psychological and physical effects of stress. These strategies, while not a solution to bullies' abusive behavior, can offer significant relief from mental health issues and related stress in the short and long term. However, everyone has their own amount of internal resources and coping strategies are not always feasible for people and must therefore be reinforced with work on emotions and psychological awareness.


Identifying the Signs of a Toxic Environment

The first step to dealing with a toxic work environment is recognizing the signs. These may include a high employee turnover rate, poor or negative communication, frequent interpersonal conflicts, lack of transparency and favoritism, general malaise, chatter at the coffee machine, fear of expressing one's opinion.

Another sign can be excessive pressure to achieve goals , often to the detriment of employee well-being. Yet another abuse of power by leaders and managers who - due to their title and role - feel entitled to take over people's entire lives, without limits of time and space. It is still essential to recognize how the relational modality between boss and collaborator can trigger toxic dynamics with consequent effects on the stress perceived by people. Recognizing these signs is crucial to taking corrective action. The theme of micro-management has always existed in the company and clearly speaks of a type of hierarchical and top-down organizational culture. It refers to a managerial approach that involves excessive and detailed control over workers' work, often depriving them of autonomy and trust. However, especially during and after COVID - 19, these behaviors have increased because managers have lost "visual contact" with collaborators. In fact, once the physical presence in the office was removed, some managers felt "the ground fell beneath their feet" as they were no longer able to control their collaborators in person. Not that micro-management didn't exist pre-pandemic, but certainly the loss of visual control has greatly influenced the issues of trust and control towards one's collaborators. The role of managers has been and still is faced with significant change and must be supported in its evolution, also through training programs aimed at strengthening coaching and positive leadership skills.



Create a Positive Environment with the Support of Colleagues

The transformation of a working environment starts from the bottom but cannot ignore a cultural change from the top . Often colleagues, having experienced toxic dynamics for years, are the first to engage in behaviors that are harmful to the teams, wanting in some way to make others suffer what they have suffered. On the contrary, colleagues can play a fundamental role in promoting a positive climate. This can be achieved through creating support networks, encouraging open and honest communication, and supporting each other. Empathy and understanding can significantly contribute to improving morale and reducing tensions.

Only recently have researchers begun to study the negative aspects of poorly managed leadership. It has been found that in the last decade the number of toxic leaders is increasing and almost 75% (Hogan & Hogan, 2002). Different terminologies, such as abusive supervisor, destructive leadership, and toxic leadership, are mentioned by various scholars to study the negative aspects of leadership. In Fizza Naeem's study, "Influence of Toxic Leadership on Turnover Intention: The Mediating Role of Psychological Wellbeing and Employee Engagement", the term toxic leadership is used , defined as a "set of behaviors with narcissistic, self-promoting traits that engage in unpredictable pattern of abusive and authoritarian supervision" (Schmidt, 2008). The findings presented in this study support the effectiveness of two three-dimensional models designed to assess: psychological distress, through loss of self-esteem, social withdrawal and agitation, and coping strategies employed to manage the presence of toxic leaders, such as assertive, avoidant and adaptive coping. These findings open up deeper reflections on the psychological dynamics at play and on possible ways to improve individual and organizational well-being in the face of such challenges.


Involving HR to Improve Corporate Culture

Human resources play a key role in shaping corporate culture. It is essential that HR professionals are actively involved in identifying and resolving issues related to a toxic work environment. This can include:

  • the review of company policies

  • the promotion of training programs on leadership and conflict management

  • creating safe channels for employees to report inappropriate or abusive behavior

  • the inclusion of awareness and training initiatives on corporate well-being and the prevention of stress and burnout

HR has the key role of supporting managers to improve their leadership style by identifying toxic leadership.

In fact, the role of the "boss" is truly influential on people: as collaborators, we often attribute to our boss a role of strong influence on our moods. Leadership figures represent authority within the organization and often influence decisions that affect our career, development and well-being at work. We want to demonstrate to our bosses that we are competent, that we are able to achieve the assigned objectives and that we are an added value for the organization. We want to be recognized for our work and gain their appreciation. Our relationship with our bosses can have a significant impact on our job satisfaction and overall well-being. A good relationship with our supervisor can create a positive work environment, in which we feel supported, valued and motivated. On the contrary, a negative relationship with the boss can generate stress, dissatisfaction and discomfort at work. This is why their role is so influential and delicate for the health of their collaborators. Without healthy leadership there can be no culture of well-being.


Do you want to know if your company lives in a toxic culture and try to improve people's well-being?

Book a free call with Trainect experts who will help you design the most suitable wellbeing strategy for your company.



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