- A good workplace has qualities that make employees better and more profitable.
- A bad workplace has health consequences for those that work in them.
- Is it the culture? Is it just you? It’s easy to be fooled—trust your gut.
- Learn what you should expect from a workplace that is good and how to identify one that is bad.
Is your work doing a job on you?
If you’ve been exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke, you know that it’s dangerous. Even if you’re a non-smoker it can lead to heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.
Well, the health effects of a toxic work environment are worse.
Your job doesn’t have be Chainsaw Juggler or nightshift convenience store clerk to be dangerous. It could be an air-conditioned, white collar desk job. It’s the psycho-social environment that’ll hurt you. If your job is shadowed by insecurity, long hours, unfairness, uncertain workflows, or a lack of autonomy, all of these can be stress inducers that will take tolls on your health. While stress affects individuals differently, the connection between stress and your health is clear: it’s damaging and worse. It’s also been linked to a possible 120,000 excess deaths a year in the U.S.
A toxic job can also lead to toxic behaviors. People under stress are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, overeat, take drugs, and less likely to exercise. Stress not only has a direct effect on people’s health, it affects their health-relevant behaviors.
Not that it will make you feel any better, but studies show that stressful workplaces aren’t even good for employers. Stressed people are more likely to call in sick or quit altogether. And after a certain point, long work hours actually hurt productivity.
“People aren’t quitting so it must be me”
You may feel like the all the signs are pointing to “toxic workplace” and yet no one is quitting. You may wonder if you’re being too sensitive or just overreacting: “Is it just me?”
The Magic 8-Ball says: “Don’t count on it.”
Career expert Vicki Salemi says: “Don’t rely on turnover — just because a lot of people aren’t leaving the company, doesn’t mean the environment isn’t toxic. People may be immune to the bad environment and convince themselves it’s worse to leave… Retention may be high even though there’s a poor environment.”
It’s hard to know what the situations or feelings of others are. Maybe they feel they can’t leave. Maybe they’ve tried but haven’t found another position yet. Or, maybe their position is good. Maybe they’ve been there too long and feel they won’t find similar compensation anywhere else. Often, toxic environments are enabled and aided and abetted by others. And, yes, sometimes it is a conspiracy. Salemi says, “Even if you approach human resources about the toxicity with concrete evidence, they still may say, ‘Turnover is relatively low, so clearly there aren’t any problems here.’”
If you see the signs, and despite what others are doing, you may just have to trust your gut on this. Only you know for what’s best for you.
Believe this: To feel devalued or worthless is not a requirement of having a job, even a well-paying one.
Being in a good place: The new work paradigm
Studies on workplace conditions confirm that a positive workplace environment and happy employees are more productive and more profitable. Yet according to Gallup, only one-third of U.S. employees are engaged in their work. People may not feel a strong connection with their company or mission—and often, companies don’t even have one in place. To put this in terms of costs, disengaged employees drain the economy of $605 billion through loss of productivity.
As an employee, how do you know when your workplace is working?
10 signs you’re good
What positive characteristics of a good workplace will look like:
1. You’re communicating:
Everyone is in on what’s going on, from leaders to interns; there’s at least a certain amount of healthy transparency and few surprises. The info loop is generous enough to keep everybody in it. This may include new policies or even new changes or ideas—they’ll be seen as welcome and managers won’t be afraid to hear them. Advice and solutions are welcome. This can also include sometimes difficult feedback—but that’s okay because it’s not the only feedback—and if such feedback is forthcoming, in a positive environment it’s seen as an opportunity for growth, not a trigger for revenge.
2. The company’s objectives will matter:
The objectives are understood and clear. In this atmosphere all will want to contribute because they feel they can. When the company wins, it’ll feel like a win for them too. They’ll look forward to future contributions.
3. You know you’re an important part of the team:
The team will feel cohesive and take pride as the objectives move ahead. People will feel integrated, as if they all matter. They won’t feel like drones shuffling through lengthy task lists. They’ll feel like their talents and skills have contributed to the company and its objectives.
While the economy may have its ups and downs, the company should continue to make their employees feel integral to the team.
4. The mood around you is good and welcoming:
You can often tell when you step through the door of a workspace, what the mood is. It’ll hang in the air. People may be smiling and chatting though still concentrating on their work. The room won’t be silent as a morgue. People won’t feel under siege.
They may appear this way because they enjoy coming to work and feel appreciated, acknowledged, and even rewarded. This mood can’t exist under a cloud of fear, domination, bullying, harassment—sexual and otherwise, and intimidation. As a result, positive attributes like creativity, productivity, and innovation are more likely to flourish.
A good and welcoming mood can also be the font of many other positive things, including an openness to change. The team needs to know their leaders have the ability to manage change, do it well, keep everyone open to new concepts and ideas, and accommodate new trends, skills, and technology. Businesses that don’t do this will become the next Blockbuster, BlackBerry, or MySpace.
5. You feel cooperation with others:
In a positive work environment everybody supports one another. People feel encouraged. The energy is strong and fun.
If someone wants to apply for a promotion, the team leaders and other team members won’t see it as a threat—they’ll support the decision. There’s still healthy competition but it won’t be seen as a survivor contest. And so a collective commitment to excellence can thrive. Initiative isn’t punished and people can take responsibility for their own actions. They know they can ask others for help when they need it—and this point is extremely important. It elevates the entire team.
6. There’s compassion, not fear:
Fear induces stress. It’s not just counterproductive, it’s unhealthy. Employees don’t live in fear of saying the wrong thing or feel they’re being set up to fail. They’re not hesitant to voice their concerns. They feel free to speak up. Objectives don’t shift while they’re on task.
In such a culture, employees will support one another with kindness and understanding when such personal challenges as accidents, illnesses, misfortunes, and natural disasters are encountered. Such challenges are seen as a time to reach out with understanding, compassion, and respect and not see as an opportunity to advance at someone else’s expense.
7. There’s a low tolerance for gossip:
Gossip can be compelling and, often, irresistible. Who doesn’t enjoy a little schadenfreude? And talking trash about supervisors is also hard to resist. And then there’s the fact that while gossip may be toxic, it’s also a glue that binds groups together.
Ultimately, gossip can be hard to stop. Still, in a happy work environment, it won’t be tolerated. The effort has to be collective, not just for team leaders but co-workers too. In a low-tolerance environment for gossip, co-workers will be willing to solve problems openly and not splinter into cliques that may be less cooperative.
8. Well-adjusted workflows:
Lack of control at work is one of the leading causes of employee burnout. And, not ironically, it’s those that do the best work that are often given the most. They’re overloaded and this leads to incomplete tasks, frequent overtime, and reduced innovation. All of this reduces employee control and increases the likelihood of burnout. For the team, this means a decrease of engagement.
9. Props when deserved:
People need props—acknowledgement, appreciation, and gratitude—to be motivated. Genuine compliments are good but then so are rewards, bonuses, raises, promotions, and other huzzahs for achievement. These can be the rocket fuel for high productivity. A company that does this regularly will get it back in performance—it’s an investment all around.
Incorporating gratitude into the company culture pays dividends in other ways too: rewarded employees are more willing to spread positivity to others. This can be expressed as helping out with projects others are working on or paying it forward to other members of the team.
Plus, it’s just the right thing to do: Showing gratitude is something that employees can take home too. It can increase wellness, allows better sleep habits, aids metabolism and lessens stress. Gratitude and positivity in the workplace directly impact work results and employee interaction.
10. Turnover is low:
As noted above, this may not always be the case, but high turnover can be a sign of a negative workplace. Or, if you’re just beginning at a workplace and everyone is a recent hire, even though the company may have a history, this isn’t a good sign. Usually it’s a sign that the staff is unhappy—or one that fears for its employer’s future.
Workers rewarded with excellent benefits, contentment, and growth opportunities tend to stay and be loyal.
5 signs you’re not good
1. Too much stress
As already noted, an abundance of stress can result in lowered productivity and can cause damages to health, both physical and mental. You may not realize that you’re under as much stress as you are because of the way your environment enables it. It could be an assimilated part of your work culture.
Conditions at work that promote stress at work are:
- Overly competitive colleagues
- Too little time for what needs to get done
- Too much responsibility
- Confused or poorly executed workflow
- Poor leadership
- Antagonisms and infighting between cliques
- Ambiguity in roles
- Lack of support, participation, or opportunity
As stress relates to performance, its symptoms include:
- Racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
Left unaddressed and ongoing, stress can cause much collateral damage, both slowly and more quickly: heart attacks, broken relationships, and other tragedies.
2. Too much work
Also noted, overwork can also have diminishing returns after a point. A lack of a work/life balance leads to burn out, anxiety, and despair. These symptoms can also be expressed in self-destructive behaviors including loss of sleep. (The workplace is now the fifth leading cause of death.) Unfortunately, we’re presently working more than at any time in history and in the U.S. more than any other industrialized nation.
Your manager may be a bully, narcissist, know-it-all, oh-so-hard-to-please, and even the odd psychopath. Maybe they have poor social skills or they are unqualified for their jobs due to nepotism or some other advantage of privilege.
They may be complete type A ragers—they deflect blame or do anything to keep from being found out, or they may complete type Bs that are uncommunicative, inaccessible when you need them, and slow to act. Bad bosses can span a whole range of climates and cultures. They can be insensitive and/or conceited or they can be exploitative and/or abusive. For all of the difficulty in dealing with these sorts, there seems to be something very functional about them, or dysfunctional about our society, that seems to allow them rise to the top so often. One in five corporate bosses are psychopaths which is similar to prison populations; this is compared to 1% to 4% in the general population. What this may look like to subordinates is an inability to empathize, superficiality, and insincerity. They also may be inclined to unethical and illegal practices. Beware: They also have an ability to mimic emotion and empathy to ingratiate themselves and manipulate others. They can be pathological liars and have a grandiose sense of self.
People want to be heard. It’s essential to feeling respected and acknowledged. But the toxic boss won’t listen. Harvard psychologist Carol Kauffman says: “It’s a helplessness that comes when employees feel like they've expressed themselves and been discounted, or someone hasn't taken the time to listen to them.”
Keep in mind, your health and happiness shouldn’t depend on the whim of a boss. You have the right to have a job that doesn’t kill you.
4. Mismatched compensation & benefits
According to Gallup, 50% of employees don’t really understand what their job expectations are. About half of professionals feel they’re fairly paid, the other half doesn’t. Do you feel you’re providing more value than is being reflected in your compensation? Most businesses need employees to produce at least 3 times more value than what they’re being paid just for the employer to meet their expenses. (According to this argument, if you produce only 2 times more value your employer is losing money on you.)
However, if you’re working an overlong schedule, have taken on more and more responsibility, have a compromised non-work life, and don’t feel appreciated, you may have earned the right to feel undercompensated. The feeling is also stressful.
5. Your job: Swipe left or right?
So, if this is what a happy workplace culture looks like, does it look anything like yours? If not, it may be time to swipe left on your present job. There are companies out there that do place value in employee happiness. If this is important to you, make today the day you start looking to make a move. You can start here.