Toxic workplaces are a threat to employee health—how to make yours ‘antitoxic’


By Tamara Myles

Toxic workplaces aren’t just bad for morale—they’re a threat to human health. This year the U.S. Surgeon General made history, calling out toxic workplaces in connection with one of the worst mental health crises the U.S. has ever seen.

“The link between our work and our health has become even more evident,” Vivek Murthy writes in his report, Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being. “The pandemic sparked a reckoning among many workers who no longer feel that sacrificing their health, family, and communities for work is an acceptable trade-off.”

That trade-off is profound. More than 80% of respondents to a recent survey said workplace conditions contributed to at least one mental health challenge. Gallup found that employees who experience burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room. Our workplaces might have more of an impact on our health than any other aspect of our lives.

Toxic cultures are partly to blame. Researchers recently set out to define what makes a workplace toxic, analyzing 1.3 million Glassdoor reviews to do so. They found the following attributes—referred to as the “toxic five”—to be the top predictors of workplace toxicity:






In toxic cultures these behaviors are tolerated and often rewarded. But simply eliminating them from workplaces isn’t enough to turn what Murthy calls “a moment of crisis into a moment of progress.” Here’s why.

‘Antitoxic:’ Why non-toxic is not enough

As a Positive Psychology instructor and researcher, I approach my work from the perspective that “neutral” is a radically different state than “thriving.” Positive Psychology is rooted in the idea that wellbeing is more than the absence of ill-being.

Toxic workplaces are a threat to employee health—how to make yours ‘antitoxic’

Similarly, striving for nontoxic workplaces will only bring them to neutral. A non-toxic workplace is one that doesn’t actively harm employees, but doesn’t actively promote their wellbeing either. These workplaces are breeding grounds for complacency and quiet quitting. 

Here’s my metaphor: If you want a flourishing vegetable garden, it’s not enough to just pull weeds. You must also take an active role in creating the conditions your plants need to thrive.

What end-state should leaders strive for? How do we describe workplaces that simultaneously eradicate toxicity and promote wellbeing? As I was doing research for this article, I couldn’t find language that adequately described this state of being. “Healthy,” “harmless,” and “safe” didn’t quite fit. And if a word doesn’t exist in a language, the behavior doesn’t either.

And then it dawned on me: In casting a vision for workplaces to be engines of wellbeing, the Surgeon General is calling for “antitoxic” workplaces. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb created  “antifragile” to describe things that don’t merely withstand shock but benefit from disorder. Similarly, “antitoxic” describes workplaces that actively fight toxicity while creating cultures of radical inclusivity, respect, integrity, collaboration, and fulfillment.

As we move out of a pandemic that had a profoundly negative impact on our wellbeing, I believe that 2023 will be the year of antitoxic leadership.

How to be an antitoxic leader

Leaders have an outsized impact on culture. Research shows that toxic leadership is the most powerful predictor of toxic workplaces. Follow three steps to become an Antitoxic Leader:

1) Weed out toxic behavior

It is often said that culture is defined by the worst behaviors tolerated in a group. Start detoxing your workplace by taking an honest assessment of your culture. Are results prioritized over relationships? Are disrespect, abuse, exclusion, and unethical decisions tolerated? Are people rewarded for selfish, cutthroat actions that generate results but leave a trail of destruction?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, commit to a zero-tolerance policy against toxicity and provide coaching to employees who need to detox their own behaviors. To help everyone get on the same page, clarify your organization’s values and the behaviors associated with each one. This can become your operating system for your culture.

Double down on your commitment to bring positive behavior to life through your own actions. Some of the worst stories about toxic cultures are when leaders violate their own principles. In my research, leaders who “walk the talk,” or model the behaviors they expect, are one of the strongest predictors of a healthy culture.

2) Build a culture of thriving

A recent Gallup analysis found that people with high career wellbeing—those who like what they do every day—are more than twice as likely to say they are thriving in their life overall. In other words, work doesn’t stand in the way of wellbeing. Work that energizes us can be the foundation of a flourishing life.

I, along with my research partners, have spent the past three years researching how leaders can enable their teams to thrive. The practices we uncovered fall under three main categories, which we call the “Three Cs”:

    Contribution: Help employees understand how their work adds value and why what they do every day matters.

    Community: Create opportunities for employees to feel cared for, connected, respected, and included in a community of shared values and authentic relationships.

    Challenge: Help employees reach their full potential by providing challenging assignments that stretch their capabilities and allow them to grow.

3) Track and report progress

It’s difficult to improve something if you don’t measure it. As such, becoming an antitoxic workplace requires giving employees an open line of communication to share anonymous feedback that you can track over time. 

Transparency is a key element of antitoxic workplaces, so it’s crucial that honest feedback is openly rewarded and acted upon. Keeping up with external workplace review sites like Glassdoor and Fishbowl can also provide useful information about your culture. You can use this feedback to create a benchmark to set goals against along the journey to becoming an antitoxic workplace.

A vision for antitoxic workplaces

There is no institution with more power to change the world than our workplaces. Toxic workplaces have the power to negatively impact our health and wellbeing, but the opposite is also true. Social contagion tells us that improving a single worker’s wellbeing has the power to increase the wellbeing of coworkers, customers, families, friends, and more–creating a cascading effect on community wellbeing.

It is only when we can name something that we can tame it. May 2023 be the year of antitoxic workplaces.

Tamara Myles is an author, speaker, meaningful work researcher, and positive psychology instructor at the University of Pennsylvania.

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