Mental Health as a subject is of crucial importance in all different scenarios and circumstances. With a slow yet steady rise in awareness about mental health issues, people all over the world are comparatively more accepting and open to acknowledging the existence of mental health illnesses, albeit they are still viewed as subpar to physical illnesses and there is no denying that we have a long road ahead towards universal acceptance that they are both equally fatal. But despite increasing recognition towards mental health issues, we still have a huge blind spot when it comes to mental health in the workplace. Most of us have become complacent and consistently fail to recognize the red flags in our work settings, a place where we spend the maximum number of hours each day (some to the extent of calling it their ‘second home’).
You might be victim to this toxic work setting or you might be the perpetrator, but whatever title you hold, it’s high time to start having discussions around emotional & mental health of your employees and colleagues to ensure that your boat stays afloat and doesn’t sink underwater due to all the baggage your people are carrying around.
Toxic work culture can be associated with a range of things, right from visible lack of professional boundaries in terms of work allotment and working hours, to the more subtle things such as covert prejudice against particular employees, which often goes unnoticed by the others.
Majority of the problems faced by the employees have nothing to do with their own work tasks (which, in fact, is the easiest part). It’s the other negative aspects namely office politics, bullying, harassment, discriminatory policies etc. that makes the job much more difficult and induces unnecessary stress.
The corporate world has seen a huge operational and work style shift due to the recent pandemic, and majority of the companies have shifted to working remotely, which was supposedly a ‘win-win’ situation, but has in fact led to further anguish among people as the boundaries between professional and personal life have become blurrier than ever (thanks to modern day technology - a blessing and a curse), and any semblance of balance has begun to fade. Moreover, due to the remote working style over-time has become the new normal, with no sense of fixed working hours that accompanies in-person working style. This has led to additional stress among the workforce, more so for the ones stuck in negative work spaces. Studies have indicated an additional rise in the number of mental health issues while working remotely and declining work-life balance. Some studies have also shed light, yet again, on the existing gender disparities, as working women are recording highest levels of stress, with having to handle both family and professional requirements equally, and a lack of contribution towards family needs by their partners. With a boom in the number of virtual meetings, a lot of anxiety and mental health discomforts are also notably being associated with the multiple video calls, which now has an official term called ‘zoom anxiety.’ Noting this concern, ‘Sound the Excuse’ went a step ahead and came up with a brilliant and super creative tactic to splash some humour into the situation by creating fake but totally believable soundtracks to escape meetings if they get overwhelming, while simultaneously spreading awareness regarding Mental Health issues associated with working remotely.
It is the need of the hour to re-define our company cultures. The remote working style along with a toxic company culture is a recipe for disaster, for both the employees as well as the organizations as the employees lack productivity in negative set-ups.
Consequences on Mental and Physical Health of the Individual
A toxic work culture is like a ticking bomb, which when not diffused on time, will inadvertently result in the blow up and destruction of the entire organization. It is not only the organization’s growth that takes a heavy blow, but the employees within the organization are the biggest victims due to this explosion. The dire consequences of toxic work cultures do not just end at the office, but also follow the individual’s home and makes them more prone to irritability, stress and consequent mental and physical health issues. Researches have indicated that a primary cause for the majority of the working population’s mental health problems or illness is the stress associated with negative company cultures, with depression and anxiety disorders being reported as the top two issues. Recognizing this relation between work and associated psychological issues, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also included mental disorders in its list of work-related illnesses. The main culprits of work-related stress include deadlines (55 percent), interpersonal relationships (53 percent), staff management (50 percent), dealing with issues/problems that arise (49 percent), all of which can be overturned by inculcating a more positive company culture. Unhealthy culture is a major cause of occupational ill health, poor productivity and human error which in turn results in increased sickness absence, high staff turnover and poor performance in the organization and a possible increase in accidents due to human error. It has been rightly stated by Thomas Ogilvie, “Repeated negative experiences in the workplace can lead to social isolation and a sense of estrangement from one’s own work, which only strengthens the negative impact on health and well-being. A vicious cycle can quickly take hold.” In the long run, this chronic stress and emotional burdens have a fatal impact on the individual’s health and can manifest physically as heart diseases, back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances or various minor illnesses; as well as psychological effects such as anxiety and depression, loss of concentration and poor decision making are noticeable.
Having mentioned the negative impacts of unhealthy work culture on the individual, we cannot ignore the other concern which is often shoved into the shadows. It’s time we acknowledge the covert prejudice or unhealthy attitudes of the colleagues/supervisors within corporates towards individuals coping with mental illnesses. The inability to express concerns with regards to their mental health due to unwelcoming work environments, acts as an additional stressor. Conversations around supporting mental health at work need to become more normalized within the corporates to ensure that it becomes a priority of the policy makers.
Building a More Inclusive Culture
It is imperative for a company’s culture to constantly evolve to be more inclusive and beneficial for its employees. A few ways in which you can work towards progress is by redefining the processes within the company in terms of policies and operational changes, promote and appreciate creativity among employees, get rid of toxic employees and undertake regular cultural activities. A lot of researches have also indicated emotional intelligence as an important soft skill to look for in the employees and leadership to boost company culture. Staying informed about the work cultures of various companies, more so of the ones that are recognized for having a good company culture such as Facebook is one thing to add to your to-do list. Additionally, look up for the various companies that actively promote the importance of mental health for their employees, such as Unilever. It’s really important to stay inspired to bring about a positive change in your own workspace. Most importantly, make the promotion of mental health an integral part of your Occupational Health and Well-being Program. Mental health problems affect many employees - a fact that is usually overlooked because these disorders tend to be hidden at work. Studies have also indicated that people struggling with mental health issues are more productive when their superiors are open to talking about their condition and that the employees are happiest when their leaders take the effort to talk about mental health.
“Companies that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.”
In fact, despite the recent association of work stress with rise in mental illnesses, it has previously been proven that work can actually be a source of mental strength and positively contribute to overall mental health and well-being. With good leadership and a supportive work environment, work serves as a “health resource” that can help prevent mental illness or make it less common. Additionally, while the onus is on management to ensure a more inclusive work culture, in terms of attention to gender disparities, mental health, physical limitations etc, there’s a greater possibility for success if the employees actively voice their concerns by providing management with timely and essential feedback. “Toxic work culture is not an accident, it can always be traced to the point of view that’s being expressed by an individual or group of individuals who possess high social status in your organization.” Hence, there’s a possibility to overturn this in the long run, if everyone comes together to make a difference.
People, after all, make the culture. It’s time to take charge and prioritize your mental health! It is high time we shift our work culture to a more inclusive and enriching environment for everyone.
If you feel like you’re stuck at a workplace breeding toxic culture, here are a few ways to move on
Before you leap into another mistake, here are a few questions you should be asking your interviewer to understand their company culture
Some proven methods that help to cope with the negative effects of toxic work cultures, in case moving option is not an immediate option. - Practice mindfulness, relaxation other similar techniques - Practice psychological detachment (avoidance of work-related thoughts, actions or emotions)
Ask yourself these questions if you are currently in a leadership position. It’s common for individuals in leadership positions to unintentionally and unknowingly breed negative cultures. Try to take the time to introspect and understand your professional values and behaviours.
Aditi Singh (she/her) is a Research Assistant and former Human Resource Coordinator at Nolmë Labs. She is an avid reader, a thrill-seeker and is extremely passionate about improving the current Mental Health scenario. She also believes that volunteering towards relevant causes is a great way to make a positive impact in the world.