The term ‘toxic workplace’ has been seeing more and more press coverage in recent years, as studies and surveys reveal the hindrances to office workers across the country and globally. According to a recent report, 42% of workers have experienced a knock on their mental health as a result of a toxic workplace. But what is a toxic work environment, and how can you recognize it?

What is a Toxic Work Environment?

A toxic workplace environment can be loosely defined as an office environment or culture which promotes or espouses harmful opinions and practices. There can be a number of causes for a toxic workplace, from colleagues or individuals in positions of authority fostering harmful habits or attitudes to wider, structural impediments to progress for certain marginalised communities or people.

Workplace toxicity has been a hot-button issue for decades, but in recent years has been finding its way into newspaper headlines with increasing frequency. The #metoo movement of 2017 sparked cross-industry conversations over the treatment of women in the workplace, whether inappropriate behaviour from superiors or ingrained discrimination with regard to gender over ability, while exposés in the video game industry revealed a toxic ‘crunch culture’ environment, whereby workers were systemically expected to overwork themselves for little recompense in order to meet unrealistic deadlines. These examples are particularly extreme but demonstrate the breadth of the issue – though some may experience a toxic workplace in simpler, subtler ways.

Hallmarks of a Toxic Work Environment

Instantprint, a professional printing business specialising in flyers and leaflets, conducted a survey of 1000 UK office workers to understand better the experiences they have had with regard to toxic workplaces. Of those 1000 respondents, a telling two-thirds had experienced workplace toxicity. The survey resulted in a ranked list of the most often-experienced hallmarks of a toxic workplace, with bullying behaviour from colleagues or superiors topping the list; just shy of half of all respondents had experienced bullying in the workplace. Passive-aggressive communication ranked a mere half percentage-point lower, while cliques and favouritism were both experienced by a third of those surveyed.

These results reflect the experiences of the average office worker, illustrating the day-to-day in-office indicators of workplace toxicity. The indicators shared in the survey are representative of toxic interpersonal relationships, which make up the majority of tangible experiences; toxic environments stemming from systemic issues are harder to perceive and track, often explaining the historical nature of press allegations and conversations surrounding certain cultures.

How to Address a Toxic Work Environment

If you believe you are currently the victim of a toxic workplace environment, whether you are experiencing bullying or seeing the quality of your work suffer as a result of interpersonal issues, there are several steps you can take to improve the situation – or, at the very least, your situation. Your first step could be to find an ally in your office, someone who has a more positive outlook and may be able to sympathise with your personal position. If you are seeing repeated toxic behaviour from a specific individual, whether against yourself or others, your company’s HR department can be a useful tool for managing the situation. On a personal level, taking steps to leave your workplace-related stress at the door can help reduce your overall stress levels, preventing your workplace from affecting your home life.

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