Career Advice, Mental Health

A toxic work culture can still happen remotely

A bad work situation can seep into all areas of your life.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Jun 22, 2022

Toxic workplaces can take many forms, but they share a common thread among employees: Negativity and harm. A toxic work culture is one where workers are exposed to psychosocial hazards. They may have little or no organizational support, poor interpersonal relationships, high workload, lack of autonomy, poor rewards and a lack of job security.


The consequences of such work cultures are wide-ranging. They may include individual physical health impacts, like heart disease or musculoskeletal disorders, poor mental health and burnout, as well as organizational fallout, like reduced attendance, engagement, productivity and innovation.


Most toxic work cultures originate with poor management, whose bad habits can be contagious. Destructive behaviors at the top trickle down. If executives engage in toxic behavior, people in the organization assume this behavior is accepted and they engage in it too. Soon enough, a toxic climate is formed, where everybody thinks: This is just how we act around here.


Before the pandemic, these toxic behaviors would take place in person, during meetings, presentations or casual interactions. Now, they occur over calls and in messages. And although you might assume distance would reduce some of these tensions, experts say being away from the office is more likely to do the opposite.


Toxic cultures persist in remote settings, such that we see similar hostility over Zoom chats or email. Distance or anonymity can enhance negative behaviors – it’s sometimes easier to send a rude or threatening message than say it in person. Pandemic fatigue is another contributing cause of bad behavior. Psychological distress and depletion are some of the main drivers of aggressive behaviors in the workplace. People might just have shorter fuses, which translates into less civil communication and discourse.


After going remote, bosses can already have controlling behavior that starts to feel more like harassment than supervision. They could randomly call and demand you share your screen, or ask you to screen record your entire day. If they notice a drop in activity for more than 10 minutes, you would get a Zoom check-in or TeamViewer session – even when people try to take a shower or cook dinner.


Experts say that having a boss who is a bully can be especially harmful in remote work environments, like many are experiencing now. The person still needs to interact with the bully, but may find the behavior harder to handle when they are at home, suffering from a lack of social interaction, feelings of emotional exhaustion and the work-life imbalance stemming from blurred personal and professional lines.


Working remotely can make the situation worse, as the individual might not be able to get informal social support from their colleagues or take recourse from grievance mechanisms through HR because they’re isolated and feel less empowered.


Getting rid of toxic work culture, involves companies 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.  Being aware of your employer’s legal obligations is useful, as you can hold them accountable. Many countries regulate working hours, time off and holidays, with the UN’s International Labour Organization’s guidelines serving as a baseline international standard. Having this awareness can also help in pushing back on managers whose expectations have become unreasonable or unfair since the transition to remote work.


Here’s our guide to working from home without going crazy.