Healthy vs. toxic work environments: understanding the difference

We all have the right to work in a positive working environment, without fear of other people’s behaviour. Unfortunately, our rights aren’t always respected, and there are still plenty of toxic working environments in this country.

In this article, we give some information on what makes up a healthy or toxic workplace culture. We’ve highlighted some ‘red flags’ - these are small examples of worrying behaviour, where you might have cause to raise a grievance.

What’s in a positive work environment?

There are lots of elements that make up an environment where everyone feels happy and supported.


No matter the reputation of a company, they won’t achieve anything if their employees don’t work together. Regular collaboration is crucial to a good work environment - in person or remote. No matter how great we are as individuals, we’ll all need help from someone at some point.

Red flag: No-one ever has time to help you, and no-one asks for your help.

Appropriate staffing

To build a positive company culture, you need to have the right blend of people, as well as the right number. If the wrong type of people are hired — namely those with toxic personality traits — and if there are too many or too few people, this can often lead to unhealthy working dynamics.

Red flag: Everyone is overloaded with work because there aren’t enough staff members. 

Meaningful and well deserved recognition

We all  need recognition of some sort. Even the most independent of us appreciate a ‘well done’ after producing great work. If people show you appreciation, it helps you to know where you stand and to understand what sort of work your employers are looking for. 

Red flag: No-one ever compliments the work you’ve done or comments on how hard you’ve worked.

Effective decision making

As employees, we need to feel as though our superiors are making decisions that make sense. Even if the outcome isn’t always ideal, we need to be able to understand the thinking behind their decisions. 

Effective decision making builds trust. If you can trust your bosses to make good decisions it will help you and your colleagues relax and be more able to focus on your roles.

Red flag: You don’t understand why certain decisions are made, and your boss acts dismissively when you ask.


A healthy working environment must be inclusive. Everyone regardless of their personal characteristics must be welcomed into the company and treated fairly by everyone - otherwise they may have a claim for discrimination or harassment. There are 9 characteristics specifically protected by law, including:

  • gender
  • race
  • sexuality
  • religion
  • disability

What’s in a hostile work environment?

Cliques, exclusion and gossip culture

There will naturally be different working and friendship groups within companies, especially those with hundreds or thousands of employees. This is often a normal part of life. However, it could raise a red flag if it is for a discriminatory reason, or if the company as a whole is not inclusive. 

Red flag: You feel excluded from friendship and working groups because of your race or gender. 

No work-life balance

Your job is only one part of your life, not your whole life. Working too many hours, or often working outside your designated working hours, can contribute to a toxic working environment.

Long working hours can lead to burnout and high employee turnover, which produces its own further negative effects.

Red flag: You’re being pressured to reply to emails on your day off.

Poor leadership

Company culture tends to come from the senior staff and is filtered down through the company. If the leadership from senior managers is poor it will have a negative effect on the rest of the company. They set the standard that others should follow.

Red flag: Your senior managers consistently promote men, when there are women with equal credentials.. 

Why do you hate your job?

Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell if you are being subjected to unlawful treatment - such as being discriminated against - or if you just don’t like your job. There can be a fine line between a job that just doesn’t suit you, and a workplace where you are being subjected to discrimination.

It’s important to have a clear understanding of where a rubbish job ends and discrimination begins, particularly if you proceed with legal action. 

Write everything down

The first piece of advice you’ll often get if you’re worried about your working environment is to record everything. You can always decide later whether to progress to any kind of formal complaint.

If you sign up for a free account with Valla, we’ll give you a secure, dedicated space to store evidence and write down a timeline of events. You can easily share this with friends and advisors, and they can help you decide what you want to do next.

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