Over the past three decades, China has witnessed tremendous industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth. This growth has partly stemmed from the rapid development of small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) within China. Currently, small and medium-size enterprises employ 80% of the workforce in China [1
]. One reason why SMEs have flourished this way is that small and medium-size enterprises have fewer regulations imposed on them as compared to large enterprises. However, employees belonging to SMEs have to suffer from a lower pay and a high level of toxic workplace environment, such as workplace harassment, workplace bullying, and workplace ostracism [3
]. Such an environment is a significant detriment toward employee motivation and engagement, and prior studies have shown that a toxic workplace environment in small and medium-size enterprises plays a negative role toward employee engagement [2
Employee engagement, which refers to a commitment demonstrated by employees toward their job and organization, has become an important asset for small and medium-size enterprises that seek to adapt to an uncertain environment [5
]. Therefore, there is increased attention among organizational behavior theorists toward the personal and situational factors that influence employee engagement [6
]. Such research has increasingly focused on personal factors, in a social or a group context, that tend to influence engagement levels [7
]. Other variables, such as organizational culture [8
], relationship with bosses, and job features [9
], are also routinely researched.
In this regard, the overall organizational environment is a matter of great concern. A toxic workplace environment refers to the cruel and often violent treatment of persons, and it jeopardizes employee safety and health [10
]. The impact of a toxic workplace environment is perhaps felt within every organization, but due to personal reasons, very few of the workers are willing to lodge formal complaints against such behavior [11
]. This avoidance and silence by victims of a toxic workplace environment make such incidents difficult to be noted and studied by researchers [12
]. However, it is unanimously acknowledged that victims of violence suffer from a lack of well-being. Employee well-being here refers to a feeling of happiness felt by people based on a sense of security and satisfaction [13
]. According to Maslow’s theory of needs, security is the main concern for people, and insecurity is not applicable to other higher-level needs [14
]. A toxic workplace environment, however, is a climate factor that demolishes a person’s sense of security and, thus, is bound to have a negative impact on well-being. In addition, organizational support is an important source of employee engagement. Although a lot of studies have investigated the psychological processes that promote employee engagement [15
], there has not been a clear distinction of organizational characteristics that contribute to cognitive processes that are supportive of innovation and individual development [15
]. To explore these factors of employee engagement based on this research gap, this study proposes an empirical model that tests the negative effect of a toxic workplace environment (i.e., harassment, bullying, and ostracism) on employees through individual emotional processes, which include employee well-being and organizational support.
This proposed model advances several theoretical perspectives. First, by assessing the relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement, considering negative effects, this research studies the factors of a toxic workplace environment that are not found in small and medium-size enterprises operating in the vicinity of China. Such kind of research has not been conducted in previous studies. Previous studies have only focused on positive environmental factors and have ignored negative environmental factors. Second, the use of conservation of resources (COR) theory to understand employee engagement is used for the first time in the literature. COR theory covers two basic principles involving the protection of resources from being lost. The first principle is called the primacy of resource loss. This principle states that it is more harmful to individuals to lose resources compared to when there is a gain of resources. What this means is that a loss of pay will be more harmful than the same gain in pay would have been helpful. The second principle is known as resource investment. This principle of COR states that employees tend to invest in resources in order to protect against resource loss, to recover from losses, and to gain resources. So, when employees’ resource bases become depleted through their exposure to adverse work situations, such as harassment, bullying, and ostracism, they may avoid positive behaviors, which negatively affects employee engagement [19
]. Similarly, according to the second principle of COR theory, employees invest in resources to prevent future resource losses, which positively enhances employee engagement [19
]. The study also eliminates employee engagement on the basis of organizational support theory, which pays significant attention to the psychological process of employees [20
]. Finally, this study examines the mediating effects of employee well-being and organizational support on the relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement, and the findings of the study suggest that employee engagement is not an absolute utilitarian behavior and also arises out of an unconscious organizational citizenship activity. Hence, on the basis of the above discussion, we generate the below-mentioned three research questions (RQs):
How does a toxic workplace environment influence employee engagement?
How does organizational support intervene between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement?
How does employee well-being intervene between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement?
This paper is organized as follows. In Section 2
, we present a literature review. Section 3
presents hypotheses development, while Section 4
presents the research methods, and Section 5
explains the statistical analysis of this study. Section 6
presents the discussion, and Section 7
explains the concluding remarks. Finally, the last part of this study presents the limitations and future research directions.
4. Research Methods
In this study, we used a quantitative research approach. The online survey method was used for data collection. The reasons for online data collection were, first, it is a low-cost method to collect data [65
]. Second, the response rate is usually higher than manual distribution of a questionnaire. Third, most of the data collection was done during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the majority of employees were observing the lockdown period or were working from home. Hence, an online survey was the most appropriate strategy to collect responses. The study was cross-sectional in nature and was conducted from April 2020 to August 2020 in China based on a convenience sample approach. Hennessy and Patterson [66
] suggested in their study that for survey analysis, authors first design the research instrument [67
]. So, in this study, first, we developed a research instrument to collect the data.
4.1. Instrument Development
In this research, first, we designed a questionnaire for data collection, and the base was provided by the constructed hypotheses [66
]. The questionnaire comprised 21 items scored with a 7-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). A pilot study checked the instrument’s reliability and validity: 30 drafted questionnaires were distributed to the stakeholders, which included 10 academic professors, 10 PhD students, and 10 professionals, all of whom had sufficient knowledge of the research objectives. After a little fieldwork for the pilot study, some recommended changes were made to modify the instrument to meet the objectives. This action was considered a necessity before collecting information from the targeted population.
4.2. Data Collection and Sampling
Data were collected from workers working in small and medium-size enterprises within the Guangdong Province of China. A cover letter explained the purpose of the instrument, assured the respondents of the confidentiality of their responses, and informed them that the information collected would only be utilized for research purposes. Before data collection, we tested the reliability and validity of the questionnaire through a pilot study. Furthermore, through WeChat (a social network application) and emails, we distributed 500 questionnaires among senior managers, middle-level managers, and administrative staff and received a total of 324 filled responses. After further refinement, the completed sample size was 301.
4.3. Variables and Measures
This paper included three dimensions of a toxic workplace environment: workplace harassment, bullying, and ostracism. The independent variable toxic workplace environment consisted of eight items, and these items were adapted from Anjum, Ming [68
] and Rasool, Maqbool [67
]. The score was measured on a 7-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). The detailed information about all items of the questionnaire is presenting in Appendix A
. Cronbach’s alpha of the toxic workplace environment was 0.935. The items used in the study were considered valid because of their alpha value above the standard value of 0.70 and higher. So, the items we used in this research instrument are valid.
The scale for measuring organizational support was adapted from Wang, Zaman [32
]. The scale included seven items and measured the responses on a 7-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). The detailed information about all items of the questionnaire are presenting in Appendix A
. Cronbach’s alpha of organizational support was 0.784. The standard value of alpha is 0.70 and higher. So, the items we used in this research instrument are valid.
The scale for employee well-being was adapted from Ahmed, Zehou [69
], which also measured the responses on a 7-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). The detailed information about all items of the questionnaire is presenting in Appendix A
. Cronbach’s alpha of employee well-being was 0.843. The items used in the study were considered valid because of their Cronbach’s alpha value above the standard 0.70.
The items of employee engagement were adapted from Saleem, Shenbei [70
], and all items of this variable were measured on a 7-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). The detailed information about all items of the questionnaire is presenting in Appendix A
. Cronbach’s alpha of employee engagement was 0.759. The standard value of Cronbach’s alpha is 0.70 and higher. So, the items we used in this research instrument are valid.
4.4. Respondents’ Summary
The questionnaire was distributed to 500 employees working for SMEs located in Guangdong Province, China. A total of 324 responses were received in return, of which 301 were used for this paper. In this study, we used descriptive statistics. The majority of the respondents in this research were male, i.e., around 54.44% males and 45.51% females. The proportion of respondents with a work experience above 15 years was 26.57%, with more than 10–15 years was 33.88%, and 5–10 years was 39.53%. Similarly, the positions from whom we collected data were senior managers (26.91%), middle-level managers (35.88 %), and administrative staff (37.20 %). Finally, the respondents’ education levels included post-graduate (29.90%), undergraduate (48.17%), and others (21.92%). The detailed sample demographics are presented in Table 1
5. Statistical Analysis
We used structural equation modeling (SEM) through SmartPLS 3.2 to assess the relationships in the research model [71
]. We selected SmartPLS for our analysis because it follows the variance-based SEM approach, which is comparatively less sensitive to sample size than other applications that use covariance-based SEM approaches, such as AMOS (Analysis of Moment Structures) [72
]. In this study, we tested the relationship between a toxic workplace environment, organizational support, employee well-being, and employee engagement. Therefore, before testing the hypothesized relationships, the reliability and validity of each construct were examined.
The construct reliability and validity values are presented in Table 2
. The factor loading of each item was greater than the threshold value of 0.70. Similarly, Cronbach’s alpha, rho_A, and composite reliability measures for each of the constructs were higher than the recommended value of 0.7. Moreover, the average variance extracted for each construct was higher than the recommended value of 0.5 [73
]. We also measured the reliability of all used constructs and quantified the convergent validity. The discriminant validity was tested. The square root of the average variance extracted for each construct should be higher than the shared variance among constructs. Hence, the scale fulfills the reliability and validity requirements.
Recently Henseler, Ringle [74
] criticized the Fornell and Larcker [75
] measurement standard and suggested that it is not reliable to measure discriminant validity. Henseler, Ringle [74
] suggested another approach, based on the HTMT (Multitrait-Multimethod Matrix), to measure discriminant validity. It is a new technique to measure discriminant validity. In this study, we used the HTMT for the measurement of discriminant validity. The HTMT is defined as the mean value of the item correlations across constructs relative to the (geometric) mean of the average correlations for the items measuring the same construct. Henseler, Ringle [74
] proposed a standard value of 0.90 for the HTMT. So, an HTMT value above 0.90 would suggest that discriminant validity is not present. Table 3
presents the HTMT value of each construct. The results indicat that the HTMT value of each construct is less than 0.90. So, the scale fulfills the discriminant validity requirements.
We used SmartPLS 3.2, with a bootstrapping technique, to calculate the path estimates and corresponding t
-values, and confidence intervals [71
]. The direct, indirect, and total effects of various relationships in the conceptual model, along with t
-values, and confidence intervals, are presented in Table 4
. The results indicate that a toxic workplace environment has a significant and negative relationship with employee engagement (β = −0.097, p
< 0.05). So, hypothesis H1 of this study was accepted. Furthermore, a toxic workplace environment had a significant and negative relationship with organizational support (β = −0.145, p
< 0.05). The results supported hypothesis H2a. Organizational support had a significant and positive relationship with employee engagement (β = 0.376, p
< 0.05). Thus, hypothesis H2b was accepted. Organizational support mediated the relationship between a toxic workplace environment (TWE) and employee engagement (EE) (β = −0.062, p
< 0.05). Hence, hypothesis H2c was accepted. Moreover, a toxic workplace environment was negatively related to employee well-being (β = −0.152, p
< 0.05). Consequently, hypothesis H3a was also accepted. Employee well-being was positively related to employee engagement (β = 0.467, p
< 0.05). Accordingly, hypothesis H3b of this study was also accepted. Lastly, employee well-being mediated the relationship between a TWE and EE (β = −0.061, p
< 0.05), and the finding supported hypothesis H3c. Hence, the overall results of this study supported the hypotheses listed in Table 4
. Moreover, the detail information of path coefficients of the research model is also present in Figure 2
A toxic workplace environment and employee engagement have attracted the attention of many researchers. Previously, such kind of studies were conducted in advanced nations. This is the first study to be conducted in an emerging nation like China. Moreover, it is also the first study to be conducted amongst workers in small and medium-size enterprises of Guangdong Province, China.
First, the direct impacts of a toxic workplace environment on employee engagement were determined, and the findings of this research show that a toxic workplace environment has a negative influence on employee engagement, which support hypothesis H1. Prior studies also confirmed that a toxic workplace environment is negatively associated with employee engagement [76
]. Similarly, a large-scale survey was conducted by Rasool, Maqbool [67
] that was related to China’s banking sector. The results of their study confirmed that a toxic workplace environment has a negative connection with employee engagement, which reduces the individual worker’s productivity. The findings of this research are also supported by COR theory [55
]. Furthermore, it is also noted that the workers’ health is affected by high job demands and work pressures; as a result, effects such as headaches, personality disorders, anxiety disorders, insomnia, burnout, and depression occur. So, it is suggested that some possible solutions could become the source of reduction in a toxic workplace environment for the workers in SMEs, which will ultimately increase employee engagement. Small and medium-size enterprises need to identify bad employees who are the root cause of the toxic workplace environment and then provide him/her with training on soft skills [68
]. Second, SMEs should communicate with all functional heads, including supervisors, that the employees are the backbone of small and medium-size enterprises. So, they should be treated like an asset of the organization. These actions will reduce the toxic workplace environment and enhance employee engagement among the workers in small and medium-size enterprises in China.
Second, we inquired about the negative relationship between a toxic workplace environment and organizational support. The finding of this study confirms the negative relationship between a toxic workplace environment and organizational support, which supports hypothesis H2a. Wang, Zaman [32
] suggested in their study that workplace violence reduces the support from organizations. The findings of this study are also supported by organizational support theory [78
]. Moreover, in this study, we tested the positive relationship between organizational support and employee engagement. The finding of this investigation endorses that there is a positive relationship between organizational support and employee engagement, which supports hypothesis H2b. Tremblay, Gaudet [79
] examined 115 business units of an international retailer, and the findings of their research showed that organizational support is positively linked to employee engagement. These findings are also supported by organizational support theory [53
]. We also investigated the intervening role of organizational support in the relationship between at oxic workplace environment and employee engagement. The finding of this research confirms that organizational support mediates the relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement, which support hypothesis H2c. Past studies also support our results [80
]. Organizational support theory also supports our results [82
]. Organizational support theory suggests that people trade their time and effort at work for valued outcomes. So, if Chinese small and medium-size enterprises provide market-based compensation and benefits, then workers will be satisfied and engage with the vision of the organizations. Similarly, Chen, Hao [83
] demonstrated that organizational support is the degree to which workers think that their organization values their contribution and cares about their well-being.
Third, we investigated the negative relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee well-being. The results of this research confirm the negative relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee well-being, which supports hypothesis H3a. Samma, Zhao [2
] examined 254 workers employed at small and medium-size enterprise (SMEs) located in Pakistan, and the outcomes of their study indicated that a toxic workplace environment negatively influences employee well-being. Specifically, in this relationship, COR theory confirms that most of SMEs are facing workplace violence, which brings about a negative attitude among the workers, which negatively affects the balanced and emotional well-being connection with the vision and mission of the organization [55
]. Moreover, in this study, we tested the positive relationship between employee well-being and employee engagement. The findings of this paper confirm that there is a positive relationship between organizational support and employee engagement, which supports hypothesis H3b. The evidence of Shuck and Reio Jr. [84
] suggested that a worker’s well-being goes hand in hand with worker engagement. When employers provide health and financial support, employees give their full attention at work. The findings of this study are also supported by organizational support theory [78
]. Furthermore, we used employee well-being as a second mediating variable in the relationship between at toxic workplace environment and employee engagement. The outcomes of this research confirm that employee well-being positively and significantly mediates in the relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement, which supports hypothesis H3c. Zhou, Rasool [55
] examined 336 workers employed at small and medium-size enterprises, and the results of their study confirmed that employee well-being reduces workplace harassment, mobbing, and sabotage. As a result, it improves innovative work behavior, which increases employee engagement. Similarly, previous studies also support our results [85
]. This relationship is supported by organizational support theory [88
]. So, the above discussion proves that organizational support and employee well-being reduce a toxic workplace environment and increase the level of employee engagement. Additionally, it is also proven that employee well-being is more significant than organizational support.
In this study, first, we checked the direct relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement. So, the results of this study confirm that there is a negative relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement. Similarly, we tested the indirect relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement using two mediating variables, i.e., organizational support and employee well-being. The results also confirm that employee well-being and organizational support significantly mediate the relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement. The negative relationships are supported by COR theory, and the positive relationships are supported by organizational support theory.
The conclusions of this paper are as follows: First, the direct relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement confirms that if employees are working in a toxic environment, they will spread negative feelings among other co-workers. The feelings that come with a toxic workplace environment, i.e., harassment, bullying, and ostracism, can be detrimental and lead to unnecessary stress, burnout, depression, and anxiety among the workers. Second, employee well-being will affect employee behaviors that enhance employee engagement with the work as well as with the organization. Employee engagement creates harmony in the organization. Moreover, employee well-being increases the workers’ work performance. Furthermore, when an organization works for the well-being of the workers, it reduces the toxic workplace environment and brings sustainability to organizational performance. Third, organizational support also increases employee engagement with the work as well as with the organization. Finally, this study also noted that workers want to contribute to their organizations. It is usually a matter of agreeing on a vision, finding the right fit for their particular contributions, and being open to feedback. So, organization custodians listen first and then work with management teams to develop goals and expectations that can be celebrated when they are achieved. It is a four-step process: engage, enlighten, empower, and evolve together. Moreover, employee engagement aligns employees’ personal goals with the vision of small and medium-size enterprises, which increases the productivity of small and medium-size enterprises’ employees and sustainable organizational performance. An engaged employee is well balanced and emotionally connected with the vision and mission of the organization, which portrays and governs the involvement of the employee in the organizational objectives.
8. Limitations and Future Research
The study had certain limitations. First, the sample size was small. A larger sample size will provide a more diversified sample that ought to be used to test the proposed model in future research for a further extension of the validity of the end results. Second, this study only investigated small and medium-size enterprises located in China. In the future, such kind of research can be conducted in another country or can be conducted in another industry such as healthcare, automobile, construction, and information technology. Third, in this study, we did not consider the gender effect in the relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee enjoyment. So, in the future, gender effect as a mediating variable or moderator can be tested. Lastly, in this research, we used COR theory for negative relationships and organizational support theory for positive relationships. In the future, researchers can use a resource-based view (RBV) or knowledge-based view (KBV) in the present framework. As a result, future research could be exploratory toward the relationships amongst these factors and workplace violence and sustainable organizational performance using job anxiety or job burnout as a mediating variable.