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Poisonous Professions: Toxic Workplaces and Their Impact on Employee Well-Being

In the professional realm, where we spend most of our waking hours, the quality of our work environment has the ability to shape our well-being and happiness. Unfortunately, not all workplaces are a haven for growth and collaboration. Some harbor toxicity that can poison the spirit of even the most dedicated employees. But what makes a workplace toxic?


A toxic workplace is often defined by dysfunction, negativity and the lack of trust. These can manifest in countless ways, from discrimination to microaggression. Research done by MIT Sloan shows 5 elements that poison corporate culture for employees-  disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat and abusive. 

Credit: MIT Sloan, “Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture”; 2022.


Another report by MIT Sloan also shows that a toxic corporate culture is 10.4 times more likely to predict a company's retention rate than compensation, and toxic cultures are the number one predictor of employee turnover in US corporations. A 2019 SHRM report found that 1 in 5 employees had quit due to a company’s culture. Here are some other statistics it found:

  • - 40% of employees say their manager fails to frequently have honest conversations about work topics
  • - 1 in 3 workers state their managers can’t lead a team
  • - U.S. organizations in the past five years have spent $223 billion owing to employee turnover

57% of employees report leaving work exhausted, and say that the toxic atmosphere compounds that stress. However, 25% of employees don’t feel safe voicing their opinions about work-related stress. (Civility Partners, 2021) 


Evidently, toxic workplaces result in absenteeism and financial losses for companies. But this is nothing compared to the cost of the employees' mental health. An APA report shows the following statistics:

  • - 92% of workers said it is very (57%) or somewhat (35%) important to them to work for an organization that values their emotional and psychological well-being.
  • - 92% said it is very (52%) or somewhat (40%) important to them to work for an organization that provides support for employee mental health.
  • - 95% said it is very (61%) or somewhat (34%) important to them to work for an organization that respects the boundaries between work and nonwork time.
  • - 55% of workers strongly (21%) or somewhat (34%) agreed that their employer thinks their workplace environment is a lot mentally healthier    than it actually is, and 43% reported worrying that if they told their employer about a mental health condition, it would have a negative impact on them in the workplace.
  • - 77% of workers report experiencing workplace stress in the past month
  • - 57% indicated experiencing negative impacts because of work-related stress that are sometimes associated with workplace burnout, such as emotional exhaustion (31%), didn’t feel motivated to do their very best (26%), a desire to keep to themselves (25%), a desire to quit (23%), lower productivity (20%), irritability or anger with coworkers and customers (19%) and feelings of being ineffective (18%)

In India, the situation is troubling. With CEOs like Narayan Murthy calling for 70 hour work weeks, overworking employees at the cost of their mental health, is commonplace and even encouraged. Individuals at the top habitually exploit others lower in the hierarchy because employment rules are inconsistently enforced and social structures work smoothly. An article by The Print sums it best “The widely circulated quote “work is worship” suggests that every task carries a spiritual significance that goes beyond the mere transactional relationship between the worker and the employer. In fact, the annual package of Rs 3.5 lakh offered to engineering graduates from distant towns by many multinational companies implies that work may be considered worship, but the ‘prasadam’ will remain insufficient.” 


Credit: McKinsey, 2022

  • Toxic workplaces are, unfortunately, a worldwide phenomena, and so is the social hierarchy that traps workers in this zeitgeist. So, what can we do?
  • People first.
  • Companies and HRs need to understand that the employees are what keeps the company successful. They cannot thrive if they lack the necessary resources. Understanding the employees and their requirements is the first step towards creating a great workplace culture. This entails providing opportunity for meaningful, honest talks with your company's employees and establishing a culture of open and honest communication by conducting wellness surveys or collecting other forms of input. 
  • Talk about it.
  • Solidarity and allyship can be powerful tools when the toxicity affects all employees. People who fear they are being mistreated at work can seek redress through their employee handbook, their union, or an attorney, according to psychologists. David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School, also suggests that they should also assess if their organization's human resources department takes employee complaints seriously.
  • Follow trusted frameworks.
  • The Surgeon General’s framework provides a solid guide for employers who want to foster a healthy work environment, Shoss said. The framework recommends that organizations:
  • 1. Minimize physical hazards, discrimination, bullying, and harassment
  • 2. Reduce long working hours, excessive workloads, and resource deficiencies that hamper employees’ ability to meet job demands
  • 3. Normalize mental health care as a resource for employees
  • 4. Engage employees in organizational goals and mission statements to foster enthusiasm and commitment

A toxic workplace is not irreversible. Taking the employees’ concerns seriously, and recognising the warning signs is the first step towards transformation, allowing workers to recapture their professional joy and organizations to create cultures that inspire rather than suffocate. It is a rallying cry, calling us all to rethink, refocus, and embark on a journey towards workplaces that not only flourish but also nurture the human spirit.


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