Millions of workers are experiencing a “toxicity epidemic” at work

  • About one in nine Americans believe their workplace is toxic, according to MIT research.
  • According to the research, poor leadership, toxic social norms and unclear jobs lead to toxic work cultures.
  • “It’s really an epidemic of toxicity,” Charlie Shull, a researcher on the study, told Insider.

About 30 million, or one in nine, workers in the US experience their workplace as toxic, according to research conducted by the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“It’s really an epidemic of toxicity,” Charlie Shull, one of the two researchers who conducted the study, told Insider. “This is something that affects tens of millions of people in America alone.”

According to his research, three main factors can create these toxic cultures within organizations – poor leadership, toxic social norms and poorly designed work roles.

To identify these key drivers of toxic workplace cultures, Charlie Sull, along with MIT Senior Lecturer Donald Sull, analyzed 1,000 previous studies and used data from more than four million employee reviews on Glassdoor.

Charlie Shul spoke to Insider to break down how these three factors can play out in a workplace.

Toxic social patterns

Within a company, certain behaviors can become normalized among employees.

A mild example of a toxic social norm, Sull said, is a workplace where employees don’t care about getting to meetings on time.

“If everyone in the organization doesn’t respect people’s time and no one cares about being on time. That’s an unhealthy social norm that can contribute to toxicity,” Shull said.

“An absolutely toxic norm,” he said, “is, for example, employees thinking it’s OK to yell if they disagree with something.”

Social norms in the workplace are often established and maintained by leaders or managers.

But Shull added that his research showed that some social norms in the workplace can take on a life of their own, regardless of the leader who started them.

“Social norms can persist even if the leaders who started them are long gone,” he said.

“We’ve seen cases where a toxic culture was created 10 or 15 years ago and that generation of leaders has since left, but nevertheless, the social norms that helped start them have persisted.”

Toxic leadership

Senior leadership may set the rules for the rest of the organization, but Sull’s research found that middle management can also play a role in creating workplace culture.

“If you have leaders at either of those two levels who exhibit unhealthy social patterns, such as disrespect or abusive patterns, favoritism, or racial and ethnic inequality, that will have a very negative impact on your culture,” he said.

In large organisms, toxic cultures are often present in subcultures. These pockets of toxicity can be created by abusive managers who encourage unhealthy social norms in smaller groups, according to Sull’s previous research.

“The top team doesn’t necessarily have to be toxic,” Shull said. “They can foster a toxic culture out of apathy or ignorance or incompetence.”

Poorly designed jobs

When an employee’s job role is poorly designed, it can lead to excessive workload. This results in uncertainty and an abundance of busy work.

When job roles are not well defined, employees may end up confused about what responsibilities and duties their tasks involve or who their manager is. This can be stressful for employees and lead to burnout.

“If your role is inherently ambiguous, that’s another driver of the kind of work design that leads to toxicity,” he said.

Employees need to feel empowered to manage their work for a healthy work culture to flourish, according to Sull.

“If employees are micromanaged and don’t have the autonomy to do their jobs, that can also lead to anxiety and toxicity,” he said.

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