The Age of Burnout: How HR Leaders Can Combat Workplace Toxicity

Workplace Toxicity

The COVID-19 pandemic changed how we work and how we think about life on a global scale. While most people used to go to work and do their jobs without thinking too much about it, now more people are starting to realize how precious life can be, and many people don’t want to spend the rest of their life working, especially if it is for a company that does not appreciate them as human beings. 

When employees are upset, and they aren’t getting the moral and professional support from their managers that they expect, then it can create a toxic workplace, which can lead to burnout. When your employees are burned out, their productivity and ambition can melt away, and that is bad news for your staff and your company’s bottom line. It is up to the human resources department to notice the signs of a toxic work environment and make the necessary changes so your company can thrive. Let’s take a look at the ideas of burnout and toxicity and what HR can start doing today.

What is a Toxic Work Environment?

There can be many definitions of a toxic work environment, but what it all comes down to is having a company that demands results but doesn’t take care of its employees or provide the right tools to succeed. If management and HR do not do their part to create a productive work environment and show that they care, then the company is doomed to fail.

In general, a toxic work environment is a negative space where employees find it hard to work, and there is a dark cloud over the entire organization, from the managers to the coworkers and the company culture. You can break it down even further by comparing a healthy environment against a negative environment.

So, for example, in a productive workplace, the goals of the company and the individual employee’s work are clear and obvious. Everyone knows what they are doing, and they feel confident that their work is actually helping the company, so they put their best foot forward. In an unproductive space, the goals are unclear. People think their work doesn’t matter and so productivity slips, and the staff starts to care a bit less about the job and their coworkers.

Another part of a proper work environment is the ability for everyone to work together, from the top of the organization to the bottom. While upper management doesn’t need to share every detail, they should talk to and accept the feedback of their employees. If the communication is only one-way or decision-making is made from the top-down only, then you may be on the verge of a toxic environment, and your employees will eventually catch on and show their feelings through their work.

What Are The Signs of a Toxic Work Environment?

The HR team needs to learn about the negative trends that can occur in an office and affect the culture and then talk with the managers of the organization to make a change. In order to begin to do so, HR leaders first need to understand the signs of a toxic work environment, of which there are many.

Some of the most glaring signs include a reduction in employee retention and an increase in turnover. As we mentioned, people are looking to get more out of their lives and their work, and if they aren’t getting it from your organization, then they have no issue going somewhere else. Many people will even opt to quit, even if they don’t have a job lined up, just so they can get out of a toxic environment.Another clear sign is that employees are disengaged, and they don’t talk to each other. That can often be the case in the employee-manager relationship. The worker never goes to their manager about their issues or their work because they believe that their boss doesn’t care. Even worse, the employee might be absent more often and call out sick just because they don’t want to be in the vicinity of their manager. Supervisors and HR should be able to detect that disengagement and have a one-on-one meeting with the employee to understand their feelings.

Then there is the possibility of gossip throughout the office. If you start to see many employees coming to HR to complain about their coworkers, then you may have an issue. Many employees will also gossip with one another about their manager, which again shows that there is not enough communication.

How Can HR Leaders Combat Toxicity In The Workplace?

The point is that managers and the human resources team need to work together in order to combat toxicity in the workplace. That means getting out of your office and walking the floor from time to time to see how things look. It also means having an open-door policy so employees can speak their minds and you can learn more about the issues.

Recognize the Signs and Causes of Burnout

While some of the signs of a toxic work environment may be harder to see at first, it is often easier to recognize the signs of burnout and the indications that the employee has begun to mentally check out of their work. Burnout can develop because an employee doesn’t feel like their company cares or it can happen because the employee is overworked. 

HR leaders should check in with their employees regularly to make sure they can identify any early signs of burnout. Let’s talk about some of the common red flags to look out for when considering burnout and a toxic work environment and how HR can encourage the company to make a difference.

Identify Red Flags

There are many red flags that an HR leader can catch that can give them the idea that an employee is burned out or experiencing a toxic work environment. Two of the most obvious are loss of productivity and increased absenteeism due to a failure of management to encourage and reward positive behaviors. If a manager requires that an employee does continuous overtime over the course of weeks or months, then the employee will likely be sluggish at work, and they may call out sick. Sometimes, an employee won’t even call out but will work while showing physical symptoms, like headaches or nausea.

However, while we can look to the employees to catch the red flags, HR should also look at management and the workplace culture in general. For instance, a company needs to start with defined core values, where the key people in the organization talk about what is important to the company and then put it in writing and practice it every day. Your core values may include things like honesty, integrity, fairness, and teamwork. Then, management needs to put those values into practice with their teams. If an HR leader finds that the company does not have its core values set in stone, then take the time to get it done.

Another red flag that HR may catch is that management is not providing valuable feedback to employees through performance reviews and one-on-one feedback. Annual reviews are also another way that managers can gauge if an employee is happy with their work, and if they aren’t, then what needs to change in order to help them be more fulfilled. 

Finally, while we talk about how important it is for everyone in the organization to communicate with one another, sometimes it can be taken too far, and there is the possibility to over-communicate. Essentially, that means that employees are bothered constantly with updates and information that they do not need. Sometimes, an employee can have multiple meetings per day, often with the same repeated information, and if they feel like they are not able to get their work done because of those meetings, then they could start to get stressed. 

Promote a Healthy Work-Life Balance

As mentioned earlier, one of the primary signs that an employee is burned out on their work and their company is that they are tired and overworked. These days, it is essential that a company promotes a healthy work-life balance and encourages their employees to complete their assignments but also to enjoy their life in the process. If your company feels that overtime is necessary during every shift and that employees should work more than 8-10 hours a day, then you need to look at staffing or make a bigger change. Employees will initially be happy about making extra money, but it is only natural to get exhausted over time.

In addition to setting normal working hours, employers can also encourage a work-life balance by allowing flexible schedules when an employee makes a request. So, if an employee needs to give their kids breakfast every day and drive them to school, then consider allowing them to work a later shift. If the work will still get done, then it isn’t causing the company any harm, and the employee will be grateful that their manager cares about their needs. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees also saw the benefits of working remotely from home with a lack of a daily commute and the chance to spend more time with their families. If that is still a possibility, then consider allowing the employee to continue that arrangement. If the nature of your work requires that your staff is in the office at least some of the time, then consider adopting a hybrid workplace, where an employee can work half of the week at home and half at the office.

Providing a work-life balance also means that management allows employees to enjoy the benefits that were provided to them on day one. For instance, your workers are allowed to take two breaks and a lunch during an eight-hour shift, so make sure that they are able to step away from their desks during that time so they can get out and return feeling refreshed. Also, if an employee asks to use some of their vacation time, and it doesn’t negatively affect the company, then allow the request without putting up a fight.

Provide Mental Health Support

Since many employees have begun to realize that they need a better work environment, the world has been experiencing a “Great Resignation” where employees are quitting their jobs in the hope of finding work that is more fulfilling and less toxic. In addition to wanting to enjoy their lives, a toxic environment is also bad for their health. 

When an employee is burned out, then it becomes more than just a physical issue of being overtired. Instead, it also becomes a mental health concern. Overworking can lead a person to feel mentally exhausted and make them feel like they don’t have a true purpose or that their work doesn’t matter. In order to prevent excessive burnout, HR leaders must ensure that the company provides enough support and mental health benefits.

Your corporation can take mental healthcare literally by having open discussions around the office or holding webinars about mental health in the workplace and providing guidance for where employees can turn if they need help. Companies can also offer mental health screenings or provide a perk in the benefits package that allows your staff to talk to a professional therapist if necessary.


As you can see, there is a lot that HR leaders can learn and teach their teams about how to combat workplace toxicity in this new age of burnout. Remember to listen to your employees, identify red flags, and encourage a healthy lifestyle, and your teams will be much happier, and they will thank you for your efforts through their work.

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Article Author Details

Charlie Fletcher

Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer living in the pacific northwest who has a variety of interests including sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more.