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Career & Work 376 views Jan 07, 2020
Toxic Work Environments and Mental Health

Most jobs imply some level of stress and we can all look back and remember days when we felt overwhelmed by the workload or anxious about how we come across professionally. There are few career options that can be described as relaxing. 

But in recent years, more and more companies are looking for ways to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of their employees and finding corporate euphemisms to replace the word “exploitation”.  

We’re “strongly encouraged” to be “agile” through our “power lunches” because it’s “crunch time” or our bosses will start “smart-sizing” the team and “optimize resources” so we could get “streamlined” into “rethinking our future”.

What they’re doing is actually paying three employees to do the work of five and this sort of excessive demand leads to an unhealthy level of competition. If they feel under constant threat of unemployment, people’s flight or fight instinct kicks in which increases “workplace incivility” among colleagues. 

A recent study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology examines the link between workplace toxicity and signs of deteriorating mental health such as rumination, insomnia, anxiety and depression. 

What Does Workplace Incivility Mean?

This term refers to a pattern of low-intensity behaviours that are vague enough to be open to interpretation so that the offender cannot be accused of attempting to harm the target even if they're violating workplace norms for mutual respect and courtesy. 

In our day to day lives we would call it passive aggressive behaviour.

Some common examples are:

  • Back-handed compliments – disguising criticism through compliments – “I didn’t expect you to get it done… Congratulations! See what happens when you make an effort?” or how about “you’re really professional for your age”
  • Excluding the target from group activities such as going out to lunch or planning to meet at a bar after work
  • Silent treatment
  • Interrupting 
  • Sarcastic remarks
  • Asking for the target’s opinion and then ignoring it 
  • Neglecting to give credit for collaborative work
  • Giving “dirty” or hostile looks
  • Making insinuating remarks related to the target’s professional competence
  • Undermining the target’s credibility in front of others
  • Public reprimands

Sometimes, this kind of actions is just a way for employees to blow off some steam when they are unhappy with the workload and can’t find a way to express their frustrations to the managerial staff. Other times, it’s a way of reducing the productivity of the target in order to hurt their professional image in the eyes of their bosses and perhaps get them to quit.

How Does a Toxic Work Environment Impact Productivity?

Researchers Christine M. Pearson and Christine L. Porath gathered data from over 2,400 people across the United States and Canada and concluded that workplace incivility does, in fact, affect productivity. Not only that, but it also undermines organizational values and depletes resources. 

Targets will waste work time worrying about various incidents and planning how to avoid or deal with future hostile interactions with the instigator, it reduces commitment to the company, 20% of persons interviewed declaring they intentionally reduced their work effort as a result, and 10% reduced the time spent at work. 

Companies with high levels of incivility among members of the staff experience higher turnover rates, loss of productivity because employees will avoid going to work by calling in sick, lower quality and quantity of work and lack of confidence in the leadership.

The good news is that a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that individuals who felt that their company was able to offer them emotional and social support reported higher job satisfaction and lower negative impact on their psychological well-being compared to those that didn’t. This suggests that the adverse effects of incivility can be buffered through feelings of organizational trust. 

What About Mental Health?

Well, a toxic work environment doesn’t impact only your emotional wellbeing but your overall health. So, let’s start by mentioning a weakened immune system, gastro-intestinal issues, high blood pressure and lower sex drive just to get them out of the way.

These are just some of the most common ones since it depends on how healthy the individual was before starting to be affected by workplace stress. Plenty of people find themselves having to go to a Medical Centre and get a prescription just get them through the long days at the office.   

When it comes to mental health, the first symptom is a reduction in the quality of sleep since the employee is ruminating over what happens during work hours and how to mitigate their conflicts which results in higher level of anxiety. After a time, the lack of sleep and chronic stress start to manifest as more serious medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and depression. Research has also linked toxic work environments with substance abuse. 

What Can Employees Do to Protect Their Health? Coping Techniques.

If you’re unfortunate enough to work in a toxic environment with high levels of incivility, there are some coping techniques which may assist you in mitigating some of the negative effects it has on your well-being. 

The most important one is developing the ability to detach yourself psychologically from work, at least during your free time. You can measure how successful you are in this process by counting how many times you think about work while you’re trying to enjoy the rest of your day or your weekend. It should be as close to zero as possible. 

Employees who improve their capacity to relax after work can sleep better and are more adept at coping with the stress associated with this kind of behaviour. We mentioned earlier that it’s a common strategy to become less engaged in the workplace which leads to a reduction in productivity for the company. That may be so, but at least it helps people avoid burnout.

This sort of detachment can be achieved through planning positive distractions such as vacations, going out with friends and family, physical exercise and enjoyable hobbies. 

The relaxation that comes with prioritizing work-life balance results in lower levels of exhaustion and fewer health complaints. If you find yourself unable to do that because you are forced to stay at the office beyond the designated hours, “until the work is done” you may want to consider looking for a more fulfilling job.