HomeLeadershipHow better leaders can reverse the effects of a toxic work environment

How better leaders can reverse the effects of a toxic work environment

  • 7 Min Read

In a working world of constantly changing pressures, your workplace environment is constantly under threat. Find out how better leadership can ensure that your workplace maintains productivity and psychological safety for your employees.

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By Jason Arnold, Director of Leadership Solutions, Inspire Software.


Organizations are facing an employee burnout crisis. The World Health Organization is adding burnout to it’s handbook of diseases, so it is likely that your workforce is dealing with burnout at one level or another. That’s why organizations need to be aware of the effects of a toxic workplace on retaining, engaging, and attracting talent.

Burned out employees are those most likely to leave organizations today. According to Gallup, 23% of employees report feeling burned out very often, while an additional 44% feel burned out sometimes. Overall, 67% of full-time workers experience burnout on the job.

Key symptoms of a burned out employee include:

  • The individual takes more time off than usual — An employee who has historically been punctual and present but has started coming into work later or taking more time off could be a signal that they are unhappy and burned out at work.
  • Confidence in their work wanes — When an employee’s energy level drops it can have an impact on their confidence and commitment. If they think their work is not very good, or appear to reluctantly take on challenging tasks, it is likely that burnout is keeping them from feeling motivated by — and having confidence in — their work.
  • They are sick more frequently — Feeling burnout at work can make you sick. A burned out employee has less energy, a higher stress level, and does not physically recover as well as someone who is not experiencing burnout. Burnout affects workers both inside and outside of work.

What makes a workplace toxic?

A toxic workplace is one wherein an employee experiences a feeling of anxiety or threat of psychological safety at work. Signs of a toxic workplace can show up in a number of ways and can cause long term damage to employees and the organization. The first line of defense against employee burnout from a toxic environment is understanding what contributes to burnout and recognizing whether it is something your organization needs to address writ large.

So, what are some of the most common reasons for employee burnout, and how does leadership development software help make leaders better?

An over-sized workload

When an employee feels overwhelmed, it becomes difficult for them to keep up with their work. Falling behind leads to more work piling up, poorer performance, and their confidence in their work and abilities drops. Even the most high-performing employees can quickly become hopeless as they drown in an unmanageable workload, no matter how optimistic and capable they normally are.

How a better leader can help:

Managers who set goals alongside their employees can both manage the workload and work within the employee’s ability and motivation. When managers can leverage tools to help set, track, and discuss progress with employees in real-time, issues with workload can be resolved before they become a problem. When employees can build an ongoing rapport with their managers, they are more likely to speak up when they feel overwhelmed.

Unrealistic time constraints and pressure

Employees who have enough time to do all of their work are 70% less likely to experience burnout. Time constraints are often imposed by managers who do not know how long it really takes to deliver quality work or are trying to meet self-imposed deadlines. Unreasonable deadlines result in a snowball effect: when one deadline is missed, it puts more pressure on the next, which becomes more likely to be missed, too. It also They can also have a negative impact on other urgent projects.

How a better leader can help:

When managers have a clear view of where an individual’s goals stack up against the goals of the organization as a whole, they are able to provide much more reasonable and manageable timelines and expectations for their employees. Having a single view of both the business strategy and individual workloads in a single place helps managers understand the full context of the work to be done and how individuals contribute. This helps them plan projects and goals appropriately across individuals and teams.

Lack of clarity around their role and responsibilities

Less than half of today’s employees know what is expected of them within their role. When expectations are vague, employees can become exhausted and discouraged trying to figure out what people want from them and have to juggle different expectations from different people throughout the organization. The confusion can lead to frustration, which is breeding ground for resentment and burnout.

How a better leader can help:

Transparency is key. The ability to view and understand an individual’s role and their unique contribution to the organization is key to better management — and for the employee to have a better grasp on the expectations of their position. Managers should check in on those expectations through regular, scheduled one-to-one conversations, based on the employee’s current goal progress and work needs. These conversations provide a safe place where employees can bring up any concerns within their area of responsibilities with their manager, to discuss the best course of action when they receive conflicting expectations.

Lack of support from their manager

A manager who is ill-equipped to meet an employee’s needs leaves employees feeling uninformed, alone, and defensive. Regular team meetings and one-to-ones can undermine the needs of individuals if meetings turn into a laundry list of completed tasks and action items without conversations about the needs of team members.

How a better leader can help:

Manager support and frequent communication are key tools to meeting an employee’s psychological needs in the workplace. Employees who feel supported by their manager are 70% less likely to experience burnout. When managers can view an employee’s workload and goal progress in real-time, they have the ability to offer their help when employee’s need it most, and back them up from a strategic standpoint that aligns the individual with the organization.

What better leaders can do to reduce burnout

Managers are responsible for fostering positive employee experiences and addressing stressors at work. It is their duty to set clear expectations, remove barriers, facilitate collaboration and ensure that employees feel fully supported to do their best work. How employees feel about their job is largely on the manager’s shoulders. The right leadership tools can help strengthen a leader’s ability to:

  1. Set meaningful goals — understanding an objective and how it fits into the wider organization is critical to the individual pursuing it.
  2. Align individual and team goals with organizational strategy — it is crucial to show employees how their contribution is valuable.
  3. Give and receive feedback — make sure everyone is learning and growing, across all levels of your organization.
  4. Listen — seek to understand by being present and tuned in, whether in-person or by progress per-goal.
  5. Facilitate solutions — help find the right resources and learn how to solve problems by encouraging autonomy.
  6. Work with their strengths — maximize what they enjoy and do well by gauging their motivation and ability task-by-task.

Better leaders can prevent — and even reverse — burnout through effective leadership practices: when employees are running low on energy, your organization suffers, too. But with the right leadership in place, and the right tools to help facilitate that better leadership, burnout can be averted and employees can thrive once again.

To learn how leaders can make an impact on employee engagement through proper goal setting and motivation, download our State of Engagement whitepaper.

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