Toxic Work Culture Can Follow You Home

6 min. read

Workplace culture does’t end at the office doors. It can follow you home and infiltrate every aspect of your daily life.

It is an unfortunate human characteristic that we tend to treat others how we ourselves have been treated. The golden rule of “treat others the way you want to be treated” is often replaced with “I will forward the poor treatment that I have endured on to those who don’t deserve it”.

In this way, dysfunctional corporate culture can seep into our home lives. Imagine for a moment someone being treated with less-than-ideal respect and value at their place of work all day long. The stress and self-doubt that infiltrates their thoughts during their workday add up to a boil and by the time they get home, it all comes pouring out onto their unsuspecting loved ones.

Home is meant to be a sanctuary from the external stresses of life, but sadly, this isn’t the case — and home life can become just as toxic as a work environment if it is left unchecked. Arguments erupt about unwashed dishes, when in fact, the real cause of the upset and stress is sitting (unseen) back at the office. When stress and negative work environments affect our mindset, then the old saying applies: "Wherever you -- there you are."

For those employed in toxic office settings, the shift to remote work may have seemed like a silver lining of the pandemic — a chance to enjoy much-needed distance from a negative atmosphere. But remote work is not a cure to this phenomenon, unfortunately. Working remotely comes with its own challenges, and the way people are treated by their employers and co-workers translates across a zoom call just as effectively as if it were in person.

Unpleasant work dynamics can follow us home — and in some cases, it gets worse, as isolation may even aggravate the challenges of working with bosses or colleagues behaving badly. Toxic work cultures can have major impacts on employee wellbeing, whether they’re working in the office, remotely, or a hybrid version of that.

It is vital to understand the importance and far-reaching effects of a toxic corporate culture. The consequences are wide-ranging. They may include individual physical health impacts, like heart disease or other physical disorders, poor mental health and burnout, as well as organizational fallout, like reduced attendance, engagement, productivity, and innovation.

In most cases, culture originates from the top down. Whether we’re talking about a toxic environment or a great place to work, management sets the standards of behavior, and those habits can be contagious. Behaviors at the top (whether destructive or constructive) will inevitably trickle down into the agreed-upon way of doing things in a business.

Examples of this are all around us. Take Elizabeth Holmes as an infamous example. The dropout-turned-celebrity-turned-fraud case was found to have created an extraordinarily toxic work environment where lying, cheating, deceiving, and isolating was the norm. So much so that employees were jumping ship long before the authorities came knocking. It would make for an interesting study to talk to each of those employees and ask how things were going at home during that period of time.

On the other end of that spectrum, one can find some stellar examples of great places to work that have cultivated and nurtured positive work environments. Listed as number one on a recent list of best Fortune 100 companies to work for, Cisco seems to have unlocked a secret to the work universe by doing something so simple and intuitive that it often goes ignored — treating your employees with kindness and decency.

With a ninety-six percent rate of positive reviews by employees, the company is said to pay attention to the health and welfare of the employees and the surrounding community. The CEO's focus on social justice issues is also a major point of support by employees. Before it became en vogue to do so, he was vested in listening and taking authentic strategic, meaningful actions.

Now, in a company with almost 40,000 employees, you’re bound to come across some disgruntled or even slightly dissatisfied employees. But still, 96 percent of them are singing their employer’s praises. It would be a major accomplishment to get that kind of approval rating in any size business. Again, it would be an interesting study to talk to employees and find out how things are going at home.

As a side note — and one worth pointing out here is that Theranos, the company that Elizabeth Holmes was CEO of, disappeared. Cisco on the other hand is thriving. One would have to be blind to not see the connection there and the effect on one’s bottom line that culture has.

With all of that being said, how can one avoid a toxic work culture and how can one stop it from infiltrating your home life?

Getting rid of toxic work culture involves identifying and addressing the root causes of the dysfunction, which is often bad management. But that doesn’t mean employees have to wait around hoping things will get better. Educating yourself on your rights, whether via your company’s employment policies or local laws, can be an empowering first step.

If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, there are a few things you can do to safeguard your sanity and well-being. Step one is to keep any evidence (emails, notes, voice memos, etc) that can build a case supporting your claim. If enough evidence is brought to the appropriate person in HR or management, it will be an easy case to find in your favor. Also, it’s beneficial to find allies — perhaps colleagues who have similar experiences or witnessed any transgressions — who can serve as a support system or help address the problem.

Until it is resolved, a good policy is to “leave the baggage at the door” when you get home. While this is easier said than done, it is merely a mindset that needs to occur, which is to consciously shift gears from work to home. If that means that you need to decompress for ten minutes, or take a bubble bath, or simply sit and talk with your significant other for a while so that you can feel you’ve been heard — as long as you’re consciously making an effort to separate your own treatment at work, and how you approach life at home, you should be on the right path.

When it comes to addressing toxic work culture, the real trick is to set standards of positive behavior from the top down. Abusive and disrespectful managers should be corrected immediately and effectively. A zero-tolerance policy can be introduced where a strong message is sent company-wide — “we just won’t accept the poor treatment of our fellow professionals!”

If executives engage in toxic behavior, people in the organization assume this behavior is acceptable and they then engage in a form of mimicry, passing this behavior on to the next person, and so on. Soon enough, a toxic climate is formed, where everybody thinks, "This is just how we act around here."

The good news is that the reverse is true as well. When executives treat their employees with kindness, decency, respect, and show that their contributions are valued and appreciated — this too will positively permeate the culture.