Addressing toxic work culture for better well-being and inclusion

By Anna Eliatamby

Is a toxic culture in your organisation causing stress? How to address it to enhance well-being and inclusion.

We have become too used to toxicity being part of our organisations. It is rare that significant action is taken to address it beyond conducting research to confirm its presence and impact despite the well-known adverse effect it has on people and the wider organisation. Understanding its impact and addressing it is vital. It is part of our duty of care and responsibility.

Does it cause stress?

There is so much substantial research to confirm the many detrimental consequences of toxicity such as stress and a lack of inclusion. From the impact on the psychological well-being of people, to lower productivity and performance, the inability to think, decide and function. Women, among other diverse groups, are more vulnerable. They are 41% more likely to report that they are working in a toxic environment, regardless of seniority. Being a leader does not insulate you from toxicity. Two female directors are likely to quit, even if another one is appointed.

These behaviours become triggers for the stress response. And if they are persistent, they can lead to cumulative stress and, at worst, PTSD, or other mental health problems. Even physical health can be affected. Working in a toxic environment can also have long-term effects. Arlene Geronimus found that being continually discriminated against had psychological and, for some, physiological long-term effects. People’s bodies, emotions and minds ‘weathered’- meaning that they were adversely affected.

People, including diverse groups, spend their time preparing for the next time and will structure their work around the behaviours rather than on their assigned responsibilities. These behaviours do not need to be severe in intensity to have an adverse impact. Low-level actions that are frequent can be as damaging as a few intense ones.

Toxicity impedes inclusion and efforts at improving well-being. These behaviours are disrespectful, often cutthroat, abusive, and downright unethical. Their use and presence lead to increased levels of stress and vulnerability to mental health problems.

When we investigate the toxicity and the lack of inclusion, we will find the same core behaviours are responsible. A select group of people who have usually carried them out somehow felt it was acceptable to use these behaviours for their own gain, regardless of the pain and damage that they cause. Often, those who engage in these actions use them to gain power over vulnerable individuals whom they have selected. Perpetrators will have their own reasons for utilising these actions, such as being bullied themselves or not knowing what else to do. But this does not excuse the choice to behave negatively. We all have the potential to be positive or negative. Most of us decide to be positive, and so can we all.

Addressing toxicity to enhance well-being and inclusion.

The first step is to admit and acknowledge the fact that we know about toxicity and that there has been limited support for well-being and inclusion. As leaders, we need first to examine the extent to which we have supported or hindered progress. This can be especially difficult if you have experienced toxicity or have used some of these actions as a means of self-defence to fit in and succeed. Robino privately criticised the serial mobbing of a fellow global leader in the organisation. But failed to recognise that they used similar behaviours of intimidation, specifically with more competent colleagues. Self-exploration is and should be a continuous journey. We never know the extent and depth of our biases.

Second, think about how brave you and your colleagues are. To what extent are you prepared to grab this mantle and lead and encourage others? How can you create the conditions for change? Sometimes all it needs is for someone to name the awful. But it may be wise to wait until it is the right time.

If it is, then think about how far you are prepared to go to address the issues impeding well-being and inclusion. All the way or just half-way. Addressing toxicity requires courage and trusting that you can. Encouraging inclusion and well-being means you are prepared to put the needs of all your constituents centre stage as they want you to.

Create a set of principles for this work and then develop a set of questions that allows you to examine all aspects of the organisation: people, culture, and structure. Select questions from the many tools and guides that exist, e.g. the recent WHO guide on mental health at work and ISO 45003. Make sure you don’t overwhelm yourself with the questions.

Involve diverse groups in all aspects of the investigation and the subsequent planning. Obtain and keep the support of the most senior leaders and sufficient resources. Ensure that you place the subsequent initiative at a senior level and promote it.

Place the staff on notice that it is time to address toxicity, limited well-being, and inclusion. Expect and plan for some sabotage and push-back. People don’t like change, especially if they perceive it as a threat.

When planning the change, recognise that this is a long journey to healthy and decent leadership and organisations. There will be many steps forward and sometimes backwards.

This is an imperative and collective journey, one that people have been waiting for. Most individuals know their needs, but they often face obstacles in accessing their basic rights to decency, health, inclusion, and respect.

We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.”

– Heather McGhee.


About the author

Anna Eliatamby is Director of Healthy Leadership, CIC and co-author with Grazia Lomonte of Healing-Self Care for Leaders and their Teams, out now and available on Amazon.

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