Addressing toxic culture can boost productivity and staff wellbeing, and could save the UK economy £23.6bn a year.
“I’m now much less of an asset to the company than I could be. I keep my head down and for self-preservation just do my work with little conversation with anyone. Yet the irony is this: in my self-preservation, I’m actually destroying myself. In bottling up my unexpressed feelings, I’m making myself sick emotionally and physically.”
Gary Chapman explains the mentality that thrives in a toxic work culture in his 2014 book, Rising Above Toxic Workplaces. The effect he reports that toxic culture has on productivity, mental health and physical health has been confirmed by numerous studies that prove toxic workplaces can cause far-reaching harm to employees.
And with new figures showing that the effect of workplace stress on productivity is climbing year-on-year, it’s time to overhaul toxic work culture.
We know that it can sometimes be low priority compared to pressing issues like productivity, efficiency and profit. However, culture sets the tone for your workplace environment and frames how you do things. It defines how staff behave, how leaders set standards, and implicit and explicit organisational values – and it’s incredibly important to get it right.
What is a toxic work environment?
A toxic work environment is a workplace with a culture that’s hostile, inefficient and negative.
Typically, it features plenty of disruption, squabbling and drama, and a lack of order. Policies and procedures are applied inconsistently or unfairly, and there are major problems in communication. Management undermine or bully staff, whose behaviour is in turn motivated by fear. Morale is likely to be low, workloads excessive and staff turnover high, which means low productivity.
This could be perpetrated by a small number of toxic employees, or could be a pervasive company-wide issue. Many of us will have had the misfortune to work in an unpleasant workplace at some point in our careers, and will recognise that it’s hard to feel productive, happy and supported in that kind of environment.
The effects of getting office culture wrong are clear, and staff unhappiness is just the beginning of the harm it can cause. Toxic culture is “bad for staff and productivity”. Culture has real economic and health consequences, and there is substantial evidence that a “strong organisational culture drives positive results across the spectrum of business metrics.”
Stress and health in hostile workplaces
Toxic work environments are not just unpleasant – they can be harmful. When cultural norms make staff feel unsupported and overworked, their health and wellbeing are affected. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organisational business at Stanford Graduate School, recently linked workplace stress to 120,000 deaths a year in the USA – and that’s across all industries, not just in physically dangerous workplaces.
Poor company culture can also cause and exacerbate workplace stress. The effect of sustained levels of stress on wellbeing is serious: when the stress hormone cortisol is released over a prolonged period of time, it can damage the immune system and increase the risk of depression and mental illness.
Not only does stress have a real effect on physical health, but also on decision-making. Stressed workers are more likely to “smoke, drink excessively, they are more likely to overeat… they’re more likely to engage in illicit drug-taking behaviours and they are less likely to exercise”, according to Professor Pfeffer.
We know that stress in the workplace is damaging for the individual, but it’s also having a significant impact on businesses and their bottom lines. New figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that 15.4 million working days were lost to work-related stress in 2017-18, rising from 12.5 million the previous year. And of all working days lost in the same period, more than half were caused by stress, depression and anxiety. Poor workplace culture is reported to cost the economy a staggering £23.6bn a year in the UK, with a 2017 survey of British workers revealing that 34% had quit a job due to being unhappy with company culture.
Improving work environments
A now-notorious example of leaders failing to address toxic culture occurred at Nike in early 2018. Complaints of sexism, bullying and exclusion of women from promotions were repeatedly ignored by HR. When three top female executives left simultaneously, the exodus galvanised the remaining women. They distributed a covert survey that revealed toxic culture in the form of widespread bullying and sexual harassment. When the results were shared with the CEO, the shocking revelations led to the exit of numerous senior managers and an overhaul of the company’s culture.
Such a successful reform instigated by a small group of employees is uncommon, but not impossible. Organisational leaders have the most profound role to play in establishing and maintaining productive culture in a workplace. While company-wide culture needs to be addressed, toxic culture can stem from one or two employees. Managers should identify and deal with problematic individuals in a swift, fair and resolute manner.
According to the Chartered Management Institute, effective leadership could improve Britain’s productivity rate by 23% a year. The organisation’s head of research, Patrick Woodman, has emphasised that “the tone is set from the top; management and leadership play a crucial role in creating the conditions for workers to thrive.”
With productivity, staff turnover and wellbeing standing to benefit, creating a healthy workplace culture should be considered a pressing issue for leaders and HR. Integrate culture and wellbeing into business strategy and make positive culture an ongoing priority, not a one-time project. Culture can’t be overhauled overnight, but the cumulative effect of small changes can be significant. Practical steps your organisation can take include communicating clearly, applying policies fairly and consistently, dealing with bullying, considering implementing flexible working, and articulating and upholding company values.
If your organisation can embed a productive and supportive cultural environment, the benefits will be tangible.