Help, I’m in a toxic workplace

A toxic workplace can be difficult to pin down. According to a 2022 MIT Sloan Business School study, ingredients can include behavior that is disrespectful, discriminatory, unethical, callous, or abusive. But what is clear is that they have the potential to cause employees a complete mental breakdown.

Healthcare professionals and organizational development specialists warn that toxic workplaces tend to produce more fatalities and that the fallout can affect not only the personal lives of workers, but also the entire organization of employers.

Enlaces Patrocinados:

The consequences span mental and physical health, according to the MIT Toxic Crops study. Aside from the stress and burnout, a job like this can carry a high chance of suffering from a serious illness, such as coronary heart disease or arthritis. All of this can lead to higher employee turnover; higher health care costs; disengaged and less productive staff; and the risk of reputational damage or even legal liability.

Compounding the problem, say change consultants, is that workplace interventions are often ineffective or counterproductive. Even removing the person who appears to be the main source of the toxicity may not fix it.

Changing organizational culture takes years, says Steve Hearsum, an organization development consultant based in Brighton, UK.

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He recalls being called to work with a dysfunctional team in the UK NHS more than a year after a bullying manager was removed. One or two people were still talking as if [that person] they were still there as if it was still as dangerous as it was 18 months earlier, Hearsum recalls.

One of the difficulties, according to Jonny Ward, who is a foreman for the Manchester Fire Brigade as well as a psychotherapist and organizational coach, is that people are misled about how anxiety and depression arise.

There’s still a narrative that depression and anxiety are things that just happen to people: They walk into work one day and bam!, says Ward. But that’s not how it works. Our body responds to the external environment.

He says that if someone works in an environment where they feel unsupported or, perhaps, even harassed, it will make them feel anxious and unable to focus on their tasks. Your body isn’t interested in completing a spreadsheet for your organization, Ward explains. He’s interested in self-protection, that’s what our bodies do.

He has worked with a range of organizations including banks, law firms and hospitals but believes the problems tend to be similar. And, without a change in approach, anxiety can deepen and spread. A person may become unable to sleep, feel out of control, and unable to function at all on or off work. This can lead to high levels of anxiety in a team or organization, which can add to what makes it toxic.

Peter, who has requested that his real name be withheld, is having his first dark days after more than two decades as a senior manager for a major insurance company.

His fortunes changed when a new line manager joined from outside the company. A disagreement about how he had handled his division suddenly spiraled out of Peter’s control. His new manager accused him of taking unacceptable risks, allegations which Peter says were later found to be unfounded, and confronted him in front of staff.

I felt like everything was imploding and, some days, it even managed to make me feel like a failure because I made mistakes in how I reacted to the situation, she says.

You’re there pretty much alone because when you have an argument with your boss, all the other people start distancing themselves from you, she adds.

Peter was lucky because the HR manager of the company brought in a company conflict expert, who was also a psychotherapist. The expert told Peter that while he couldn’t change the situation, he could change the way he reacted and began teaching him how he did.

The toxic boss, who had also angered other people in the organization, ended up leaving. I don’t think the story with me was the only killer for him, but it was one of the bad performances he was held responsible for, says Peter.

The factors leading up to Peter’s nightmarish experience come as no surprise to Simon Cavicchia, a psychotherapist, coach and counselor in London.

Often, performance anxiety trumps any well-meaning wellness agenda, Cavicchia notes. Managers will inevitably worry about productivity even if the company publicly states its support for, say, longer lunch breaks or flexible working.

He, like Hearsum, says that when called upon to help with a dysfunctional team he doesn’t suggest solutions. The first thing that interests me is: what is this behavior, these emotions? What are they communicating about context? What in the system is giving rise to this discomfort? Cavicchia says.

When teams are filled with anxiety, they tend to look for someone to come in and write the prescription. But, in my experience, it doesn’t work. It might bring some temporary relief a bit like taking an acetaminophen, but it won’t address the underlying systemic causes of that anxiety driving that behavior.

Instead, both Cavicchia and Hearsum emphasize the importance of working with an entire team so that suggestions for change arise from team members. By discussing what is causing problems and what change is needed when everyone is together in the same room, you can ask everyone for a commitment to make that change happen. Follow-up is therefore often necessary for a long time thereafter.

But both mock traditional interventions, like sending a manager to a leadership program.

You can have the most wonderful leadership development program…but if you don’t take care of the environment, no matter how good the program is, the behavior will return, says Hearsum.

Most organizations are still very much, despite the slowly occurring changes, in the grip of leadership based on the patriarchal, male, lone hero archetype, Cavicchia says. We don’t need managers who lead from the front because you can only lead from the front in a system like the military that psychologically molds people to be followers. We no longer have a compliant workforce.

Ultimately, says Hearsum, if companies are truly going to change a toxic culture, there needs to be a high-level buy-in that supports those seeking to make the change—if you don’t have sufficient permissions and protection, so might as well. do not worry.

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