Some workplaces are great — supportive coworkers! Free coffee! Respectful work-life balance! — while others are, well, less so. Toxic stress at work can be difficult to deal with, let alone get out of, and a growing body of evidence is showing that exposure to toxicity at work can mess with your job by creating a cycle of bad behavior. In other words, being bullied, belittled, or badly treated at your job can make you act out in toxic ways as a psychological coping strategy, a new study from the University of East Anglia has found.
The study, which was published in Personality & Individual Differences, looked at 1,019 employees, and found that while the majority hadn't experienced workplace bullying, 36.6% had encountered some kind of negativity at work. Every one of the bullied people surveyed had shown some signs of "counterproductive misbehavior" in response.
"The greater the intensity of bullying and the more the exposure to different types of bullying, the higher the likelihood of engaging in counterproductive workplace behaviour [sic]," the researchers said in a press release. People who became really toxic coworkers as a result of bullying also tended to do something called "moral disengagement," or turning off their sense of right and wrong at work, and use coping mechanisms like drinking to deal with the consequences.
Science has known about the impacts of toxic behavior at work for a while. A study by the British Psychological Society in 2017 revealed that people who were bullied by their bosses would experience not only mental health challenges, but also a greater tendency to be counterproductive. Counter productivity at work encompasses a lot of different behaviors; there's a 45-question test commonly used for research that involves everything from the benign (daydreaming on the job, trying to look busy when you're not) to the more serious (belittling other coworkers, making it difficult for them to do their work, blaming them for your own errors, starting mean rumors about them, or threatening them). All of the behaviors are counterproductive, but the ones targeted towards making the lives of coworkers difficult are particularly toxic.
Toxic behavior cycles at work also damage the workplace in general. A study from the Harvard Business School found that toxic coworkers and workplace cultures cost companies millions, make workers less connected to their jobs, increases the amount of time people spent sick or not doing their work, and cause resignations to spike. HR expert Abby Curnow-Chavez wrote for Harvard Business Review in 2018 that research indicated high-performing teams at work tend to be loyal and help each other out, while low-performing teams sabotage each other, spread rumors, and undermine everybody — and that Game Of Thrones-esque approach can end up multiplying and passing on to others.
So how do you escape the cycle of a toxic work environment? Research suggests that your own personality can help. A study conducted in India in 2019 found that people with seriously toxic bosses were less likely to become toxic themselves if they possessed a "strong moral identity" — in other words, a firmly rooted sense of right and wrong that helped them to detach from what was happening at work and look at it objectively. That process is called "disidentification," meaning consciously detaching your identity from that of a toxic boss.
If you're in a leadership position, a study in 2014 indicated that you could help break the cycle by being an "ethical leader" — in other words, by trying to listen to the emotional needs of your workers and helping them respond effectively to emotional stress. An interesting piece of research in 2017 also found that conserving your energy — particularly if you turn up to work tired — can also help; if you spread yourself too thinly and help too many colleagues rather than doing your own work, you're more likely to be self-serving and counterproductive when you feel exhausted and worn out.
Surviving a toxic workplace culture without turning into a toxic worker yourself can be rough — but there are ways to do it. And if things are too difficult and HR isn't helping, it may be better for your own performance and your mental health to walk away.