THE BLOG
19/03/2015 08:08 GMT | Updated 18/05/2015 06:59 BST

Have You Failed to Spot a Toxic Work Environment?

A culture of fear, unrealistic workloads, bullying, stress and animosity: most of us would probably claim our personal radar was strong enough to pick up on a toxic workplace if it existed. But what if those employees who are most affected are suffering in silence?

Recent research shows how employees can be left isolated in a vicious circle when faced with intimidation. You may pride yourself on an open door policy for employees to report their concerns, but if individuals are left feeling incapable of reaching out for help, keeping the door open in itself isn't going to solve the problem.

Vigilance is key. Here's why assuming "everything's fine" could be a mistake and the telltale signs there may be an issue.

How do employees react in a toxic workplace?

"If you feel something's seriously wrong, let me know". Many an enlightened CEO has extended this open invitation to his or her staff at one time or other. Research released last month by UAE's Norwich Business School highlights a possible difficulty here. The research focused on bullying in the workplace; something that's experienced by as many as seven in ten of us according to one survey. Here's the crux of the problem from a senior manager's point of view: bullying leads to deteriorated mental health and decreased well-being; while at the same time - and possibly because of that 'grinding down' effect, it can reduce the ability of the victim to deal with the situation.

The research shows how this can make victims an easy target for further abuse and make them less likely to get support from colleagues and supervisors.

Especially if it involves breaking the chain of command, the reaction of a severely stressed or intimidated employee isn't necessarily going to be to ask for help - even if the invitation's there. So how do you know if the culture's turning toxic? Here are some red flags:

Chronic absenteeism

Stress, anxiety and depression is the third most common cause of workplace absence in the UK according to ONS figures. We're all different - and the ways in which employees will react to a toxic environment will vary from person to person. Some will come to regard an intimidating and stressful environment as the norm - but others are likely to find themselves increasingly unwilling and/or unable to face turning up. Don't ignore a spike in absenteeism.

Employees feel chained to the desk

The myth: long hours are a sign of a committed and productive workforce.

The reality: excessively long hours, a willingness to take payment in lieu of annual leave, staff giving up their weekends as a matter of course... something's seriously wrong with this picture. Is there undue pressure on your staff to accept this as the norm? Make sure you give your team the tools they need to flourish in a highly demanding environment, without having to sacrifice on work/life balance.

Poor communication

Information is a tool - but it can be a weapon too. A turf war can be fought on many different fronts and a classic tactic is to withhold data from other employees or teams. If you've been in one too many meetings where certain members of your team are obviously out of the loop, it's time to get to the bottom of what's really going on here.

Customer service issues

Your customer retention stats are heading south and you can't put your finger on the reason why. Your all-singing, all-dancing CRM system will tell you many things - but it won't measure the effects on customer relations of an increasingly stressed workforce. These are your brand ambassadors: are they in the best possible shape to represent you?

High staff turnover

The tragedy is that it's the main troublemakers who are least likely to walk. For others, and depending on the situation, the feeling may be to struggle on in a toxic workplace for fear of being fired and left without a reference to fall back on. Most likely, it will be a case of realising that this is not a healthy environment to be in and those who have other options will take them. In a climate where the 'skills gap' means that more than 80% of firms are struggling to recruit, no-one can afford to leak talent needlessly.

What can employers do?

A zero-tolerance approach to unreasonable behaviour is a must - but is it enough to prevent the problem? What exactly goes wrong in a workplace for it to turn toxic?

There can often be a fine line between the cut-and-thrust of a fast-paced office environment and an atmosphere of excessive pressure and intimidation. Focusing on the wider issue of employee wellbeing is a must if those employees are going to flourish - and if they're going to appreciate the difference between what's acceptable and what's not.

If you're serious about educating your team, what should an effective programme cover? Employers are increasingly coming to realise the benefits of a holistic approach. Physical and mental wellbeing, the ability to focus without losing perspective, knowing when and how to switch off, having the wherewithal to deal with stressful situations without turning on colleagues: these should be your priorities for a healthy and non-toxic environment - and our programmes focus on all of this.

Here at Xclusive Corporate Fitness, we've put together a range of solutions that are built around the needs of organisations. Take our 'lunch and learn' sessions for instance. Over a 60-90 minute session we can focus on a range of topics tailored to the requirements of your business - from physical fitness and nutrition through to work-life balance, stress management and leadership development to name just a few. These sessions are a great platform designed to bring people together through innovation, engagement and wellbeing, let's see how we can help your organisation realise its potential.

Is your office due a wellbeing health check? Have you ever found yourself in a toxic workplace? How did you cope? Share your thoughts below...