Male Coworkers Whispering Behind Back Of Unhappy Businesswoman
No quick fix: it can take years to change an organisation’s culture © Getty Images/iStockphoto

A toxic workplace can be hard to define. According to a 2022 MIT Sloan business school study, the ingredients may include disrespectful, discriminatory, unethical, ruthless, or abusive behaviours. But what is clear is that they have the potential to cause employees a complete mental breakdown.

Health professionals and organisational development specialists warn that toxic workplaces tend to produce multiple victims and that the fallout can affect not only workers’ personal lives but also an employer’s entire organisation.

The consequences span mental and physical health, according to the MIT study on toxic cultures. Aside from stress and burnout, such a workplace can result in elevated odds of suffering a serious illness, such as coronary disease or arthritis. All of this can lead to higher employee turnover; greater healthcare costs; disengaged and less productive staff; and the risk of reputational damage — or even legal liability.

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

“Changing organisational culture takes years,” says Steve Hearsum, an organisation development consultant based in Brighton in the UK.

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He recalls being called in to work with a dysfunctional team in the UK health service more than a year after a bullying manager had been removed. “One or two people were still talking as if [that person] were still there — as if it was still as unsafe as it was 18 months previously,” Hearsum recalls.

One of the difficulties, according to Jonny Ward — who is a watch manager for the Manchester fire brigade as well as a psychotherapist and organisational coach — is that people are misguided about the way 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 isn’t the way it works. Our body responds to the external environment.”

He says that if someone works in an environment where they don’t feel supported or, perhaps, are even being harassed, it will make them feel anxious and unable to focus on their tasks. “Your body is not interested in completing a spreadsheet for your organisation,” explains Ward. “It’s interested in self protection — that’s what our bodies do.”

He has worked with a wide range of organisations — including banks, law firms and hospitals — but finds that the problems tend to be similar. And, without a change in approach, the anxiety can deepen, and spread. A person might become unable to sleep, feel out of control and unable to function at all inside or outside work. That can lead to elevated anxiety levels across a team or organisation, which can add to what makes it toxic.

Peter, who asked that his real name be withheld, experienced his first dark days after more than two decades as a senior manager for a big-name insurance company.

His fortunes changed when a new line manager joined from outside the company. A disagreement over how he had been running his division suddenly mushroomed out of Peter’s control. His new manager accused him of running unacceptable risks — allegations that Peter says were later judged to be unfounded — and confronted him in front of staff.

“I felt like everything was imploding and, some days, he also managed to make me feel like a failure because I made mistakes in the ways I reacted to the situation,” he says.

“You are there pretty much on your own because, when you’re fighting with your boss, all the other people start distancing themselves from you,” he adds.

Peter was fortunate in that the company’s head of human resources brought in an expert in corporate conflict, who was also a psychotherapist. The expert told Peter that while he could not change the situation, he could change the way he reacted to it and began teaching him how.

The toxic boss, who had also upset other people in the organisation, 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 that he was held accountable for,” Peter says.

The factors that led to Peter’s nightmarish experience come as no surprise to Simon Cavicchia, a psychotherapist, coach and consultant in London.

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

He, like Hearsum, says that when he is called in to help with a dysfunctional team he does not suggest solutions. “The first thing I’ll get interested in is: what is this behaviour, these emotions? What are they communicating about the context? What in the system is giving rise to this discomfort?,” Cavicchia says.

“When teams are full of anxiety they tend to look for somebody who will come in and write the prescription. But, in my experience, that doesn’t work. It might bring some temporary relief — a bit like taking a paracetamol — but it won’t deal with the underlying systemic causes of that anxiety which drives that behaviour.”

Instead, both Cavicchia and Hearsum emphasise the importance of working with a whole 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, a commitment can be sought from all to bring that change about. Follow-up is then needed — often for a long period afterwards.

But they both deride traditional interventions, such as sending a manager on a leadership programme.

“You can have the most wonderful leadership development programme . . . but if you don’t attend to the environment, it doesn’t matter how good the programme is, the behaviour will revert,” says Hearsum.

“Most organisations are still very much — in spite of the changes that are taking place slowly — in the grip of leadership as based on the patriarchal, masculine, lonely-hero archetype,” says Cavicchia. “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 moulds people to being followers. We don’t have compliant workforces any more.”

Ultimately, says Hearsum, if companies really intend to change a toxic culture, there needs to be high-level buy-in that supports those trying to bring about change: “If you don’t have sufficient permission and protection, you might as well not bother.”

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