Tackling a toxic work environment

The Healthy Workplace | Wed 29 Nov | Author – Business & Finance

Tackling a toxic work environment is essential: an unhealthy working environment is not only bad for employee health, but also bad for the bottom line.

In our Healthy Workplace series, we’re championing all that makes for a better workplace, a healthy, productive, pleasant workplace. However, some people reading this will instinctively roll their eyes and think to themselves, “That is not where I work.” The opposite of a healthy workplace is an unhealthy working environment and this can not only be bad for employee health, but also, leading on from this, bad for productivity and as a result, bad for the bottom line.

There are many factors that can contribute to a toxic working environment and in this sort of environment, rather than people floursishing, they will fester. They become bogged down in stress and relationships with colleagues and clients may suffer because of this.

A healthy happy company is important because it allows the employees to function and perform at their highest level, not just as workers, but as humans. It makes those employees more pleasant to each other, and to clients and customers, which at the end of the day fosters better relationships and better business.

Toxic environments

In his book “The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People who Treat you Like Dirt”, Robert I. Sutton outlines how a bad working environment can fester and grow: “Bad moods, insults, rudeness, and sabotage spread like wildfire…When places are plagued with hostility and disrespect, there is nowhere to hide. There is malice toward many, and it can be conveyed in multiple directions. Either people don’t realise they are turning mean just like everybody else or they become strategic assholes—returning fire to defend themselves from the creeps that surround them. And because the exposure is relentless, and often more intense, systemic asshole problems are more dangerous and difficult to cope with than isolated pockets of nastiness – or a single jerk – in a sea of civility.”

However, he says it is important not to confuse a company that is rotten at the core, with one person, who needs to be pulled up on their behaviour.

“Be careful, however, not to mistake one or two bad experiences or unpleasant people for a rotten system. This mistake is easy to make when the culprit pretends that treating you like dirt is a corporate policy—but he or she is really just a renegade asshole.”

Hierarchy of needs

How do you diffuse a toxic environment? It takes a top-down and bottom-up approach. Material changes can improve the general environment and should be looked at across a broad range of touchpoints.

When you start to tick off all the checkpoints a person needs in order to be their best, fulfil their needs and operate at their optimum level, you could do worse than start at the old management school favourite of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The big tech companies are excellent at fulfilling the basic needs such as food—indeed Google lunches (or ‘glunch’ as it is fondly referred to) are famed.

Emloyers take note – rest is also on the very base level of human needs. A work/life balance is also important. On a higher level, up the top of the pyramid of needs is self-actualisation. Making sure their employees feel empowered and engaged in their work is also important to fuel a healthy working environment. Continuous learning and training can help here—feeding a person’s brain, if you will.

The ephemeral atmosphere

Material changes can do so much to outwardly improve the ‘appearance’ of a healthy workplace, but ultimately atmosphere is harder to measure. Do employees get along? Do they chat? Are they friends? Do any of them want to see each other socially outside of work or are they dying to get as far away from the place as fast as possible and ducking behind a display if they spot someone from work in the supermarket.

There are myriad reasons a work environment can be toxic – fear-based leadership (the asshole of Sutton’s book!), low productivity, demoralised staff, gossip, bullying, lack of transparency at the top, uncertainty about the future. Every company will have its own unique issues and it may be that it takes someone from the outisde to see them—or perhaps an anonymous suggestion box is the way to root them out.

One thing is for sure, it won’t work itself out, so acknowledging and tackling the problem is key. It takes a team effort and strong communication. Fairness, trust and respect need to be fostered, and team-building efforts made to foster camaraderie (yes, days out on a ‘school tour’, silly though they may seem, will help staff bond which will in turn help them work better as teams).

As we come up to Christmas and New Year, for staff that are stressed out and hanging in there until the Christmas holidays, that Christmas party could be something they are dreading, or a fun night out that helps them overcome the stresses and regain a sense of fun with their colleagues. And hopefully they won’t be adding to the statistics of the upsurge of January jobhunters!