By Marcelina Horrillo Husillos, Journalist and Correspondent at The European Business Review
The link between toxic gap, gender gap and mental health is key to understand the need for real change.
According to an MIT Sloan study during the “great resignation“, millions of employees quit their jobs to find a better work-life balance because of toxic culture being 10.4 times more likely to predict a company’s turnover rate rather than compensation.
In a toxic working culture, employees do not feel psychological safety and, in turn, may not feel they can speak up about incidents of toxic behaviour or unfairness, or perceive that management does not take such concerns seriously. The toxic gap is primarily promoted by ineffective management departments that remain inactive in recognizing and handling the signs of a threatening environment.
Knowledge professionals are especially prone to the toxic culture gap, with attorneys, public relations consultants, product managers, and electrical engineers all reporting higher-than-average toxic culture gaps. Moreover, toxicity is not borne equally by all employees and genders. An analysis of 600,000 Glassdoor reviews from 2020 and 2021 shows that women and men experience corporate culture differently, with women being more likely to experience a toxic culture than their male coworkers..
A “toxic workplace” takes a heavy toll on people’s mental and emotional well-being, as it can create anxiety, burn out, and depression, imposing high costs on organizations and individuals. The MIT Sloan Management Review found that more than 90% of CEOs and chief financial officers in US companies felt that improving corporate culture would also boost financial performance, ranking a healthy working culture as one of the top three factors impacting financial results.
A threatening environment
In APA’s 2023 Work in America workforce survey, 19% of respondents labelled their workplace as toxic. More than one in five respondents (22%) said their work environment has harmed their mental health.
Also, in the Dare to Lead podcast episode on the subject, Brené Brown noted that toxicity affects employees on a deeper emotional level than most other elements of the employee experience. Sustained exposure to a toxic culture increases the odds that employees will suffer from anxiety, depression, burnout, and serious physical health issues.
Even if they don’t quit, employees in toxic environments are more likely to disengage from their work, exert less effort, and bad-mouth their employer to others. They may feel punished, rejected, guilty, defensive, humiliated, and nervous to speak their minds, raise concerns, or share their thoughts because they fear being rejected or reprimanded by a non-receptive management and a non-fully empathetic work environment.
Pinpointing the Toxic Elements
Identifying the elements of toxic culture in an organization can help leaders focus on addressing the issues that lead employees to disengage and quit. Some signs of a toxic workplace are:
Office bias and gossip
Instead of clear communication, people whisper, act subtly, or make snide remarks. This is not harmless, as workplace bullying can lead to depression, burnout, and anxiety. When employees gossip about one another, the negative communication causes drama, distractions, distrust, and hurt feelings. Gossip fuels a toxic environment as employees may turn on one another and spread hurtful rumours.
Endemic lack of trust
Management that does not trust employees and constantly monitors them typically makes employees doubt their abilities.
When fear of mistakes paralyzes employees, this is a sign of a threatening environment. Often blame-heavy, this type of work atmosphere causes employees to fear punishment for failures or mistakes.
Role confusion and chaos
This can cause workplace dysfunction. Conflict can also arise among co-workers about responsibility and who needs to do what. Clear communication on role expectations can prevent this conflict.
Toxic gender gap
While occupations have become more balanced in the last 30 years, women remain underrepresented in much higher-paying management and technical occupations. According to the most recent “Women in the Workplace” report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, women are leaving their jobs at the highest rate ever seen .
Many workplace behaviours and structures are rooted in conscious and unconscious bias, with systems that were designed with the majority (men) in mind, leading to different treatment for women.The exodus of female leaders, which has been dubbed the Great Breakup, is attributable in part to the persistent gap in pay between men and women. The Women in the Workplace report finds that women are significantly more likely than men to experience a toxic workplace environment and leave their employers, with workplace culture commonly cited as a reason for quitting.
The severity and magnitude of the toxic culture gap is very significant and often not properly addressed. Culture and gender gaps slow down companies’ growth by preventing individuals from achieving their full professional and personal potential.
Organizations can address toxic culture, but systematic and sustained improvements require managers and corporate boards to commit to change. Fostering transparent, honest communication and addressing issues promptly is key. Additionally, watching and questioning our own cultural and personal biases is crucial in order to lay the groundwork for changing attitudes and behaviours that, until now, we may have not questioned.
According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, there are three verticals that companies should focus on in turning around a toxic working culture: leadership, social norms, and how work is designed. Companies that succeed in fixing toxic culture identify these conflicts by collecting data frequently, mining responses for hidden insights, and aggregating feedback tied to an individual manager or department. Any changes that have been made are communicated after assessing the findings.
From the individual’s perspective, the enormous toll that a toxic environment takes from us in our mental health cannot longer be ignored. Leaving a toxic workplace seems scary – as if you are throwing yourself in the unknown – but it also sets the stage for personal growth and self-improvement. It additionally offers an opportunity for personal reinvention, redefining your values, passions and goals, and for professional exploration to create space for new possibilities.