From The Straits Times    |

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In my first full-time role working in social media and marketing, I had a workaholic boss who demanded our team give our heart and soul to the company. This meant being on standby 24/7 and having meetings and content discussions after working hours.

Of course, I understood that sometimes, this is the expectation of working with social media platforms and their never-ending nature, but it started becoming excessive when he expected replies and discussions to occur past office hours and in the wee hours of the morning. This led to many of us hiding our after-work activities posted on social media to avoid scrutiny when we showed up to work. Over time, the lack of boundaries bled into other areas – from insensitive comments about our appearances to uncomfortable communal venting sessions of employees he was unhappy with.

But to maintain the peace, none of us spoke out or voiced our concerns for fear or retaliation. At the time, it felt more beneficial to keep mum and to seek solace in our shared experience amongst ourselves instead. However, it made me wonder about all the workplaces where people have done the same just to increase their chances of climbing the career ladder. For instance, being told we’re a “family” as a way to falsely foster relationships, while simultaneously expecting top-level performance at the expense of the employees. Or burdening them with the responsibility of bad mismanagement and foresight.

Research from The Adecco Group found that 35.7 per cent of the studied employees left their jobs due to a toxic or negative work environment, and it’s also the top reason for people leaving their jobs. Toxic workplaces impact many of us severely, even when we do not notice its effects on our lives because we believe it could be the norm.

It begs the question: How many of us are stuck in toxic workplaces?

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What is a toxic workplace, really?

As defined by the American Psychological Association, a toxic workplace has “infighting, intimidation, and other affronts that harm productivity”. Some of these attributes include failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, leaving workers feeling disrespected by rampant and unethical behaviour displayed by their co-workers.

Such toxic work behaviours can manifest through the gossip culture between coworkers, favouritism from managers, additional workload that might not be compensated, or even emotionally volatile managers or co-workers whom employees need to tiptoe around. 

Toxic workplace environments are not just created from questionable actions or remarks but also by the way coworkers create toxic relationships with one another, says Mr Calvin Yeo, a Co-founder and Principal Consultant of Cadence Culture and Executive Coach for workplaces with 28 years of experience. “It results in people experiencing a lack of psychological safety, where they might not have a choice or voice, but have to conform like a minion in the system in place”, he continues. Such culture is not synonymous with a single notion but with many contributing factors.

Psychological safety is when employees feel comfortable and safe to share opinions, take risks and admit their mistakes without fear of negative consequences. While this is something organisations should actively promote, unfortunately, most businesses tend to prioritise high performance over anything else, which can lead to a complacency when it comes to cultivating a healthy work environment. 

As author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek says, businesses end up unintentionally promoting toxicity by rewarding high performers in the workplace, who might not be the most trustworthy individuals outside the workplace. This shows how culture can be informed by the worst behaviours that are accepted by leaders in an organisation and have a trickle down effect.

Who’s responsible for preventing a toxic workplace from arising? 

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In a different company within the media industry, I started disagreeing with, Evelyn*, a seemingly ‘friendly, thoughtful, and kind’ coworker that everyone gravitated towards. At the time, she had committed a workplace violation which I had spoken out about and she was unhappy with the action I took, and took to badmouthing me to other co-workers. I immediately saw my colleagues distancing themselves from me as a result, likely due to the emotionally tense environment that Evelyn had created due to her shifts in mood in the office. 

Jocelyn Luw, the office manager at public relations firm Tate Anzur, shared that some telltale signs in a toxic workplace include a lack of psychological safety among employees that creates an environment where employees are unable to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask questions or make mistakes without consequences. This could result in employees not voicing out their ideas or frustrations in the workplace – opening a Pandora’s Box of rampant hushed conversations and gossip. 

“Toxic culture can start from anyone, be it the leadership, middle management or junior team members. It can also arise if there is a misalignment, where the employee may not share a similar value fit as the company culture,” elaborated Jocelyn. Wrong hires could also overload the current workload of other employees and lead to burnout.

There is an added responsibility on companies and management to ensure that the company culture is healthy enough for all current and future employees to thrive in. Jocelyn commented that with the Human Resources (HR) department being the first point of contact for new hires, it is important to discern the cultural fit and value alignment with stakeholders before hiring. The HR department must also create and enforce practices that promote respect, inclusivity, and fairness for all parties. 

And from the POV as job seekers, we need to ask the right questions during the interview process to ensure the company culture fits our personality; particularly ones that gives insight to the work culture, company values and employee expectations An introverted person would struggle in a work environment that encourages a high amount of collaboration across teams or participation in after-work social activities. In their interview, they should be asking questions such as the importance of teamwork required in this role, especially if they are more suited to a role in silo. 

The woke-ification about work 

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Since Evelyn and I were in teams that worked closely together, it was essential to ensure that the relationship was healthy between all of us. Evelyn was microaggressive and would stomp all around the office, rattling the wooden floors whenever she was upset, or behave standoffish when we had to talk about work so I found comfort in bonding closely with my team and utilised them as a support system that helped me to focus on my work. 

This gave me the concentration I needed to make my projects a success, and at the same time muted Evelyn’s behaviour by remembering that we were all working towards a common, rewarding goal. I also learnt to create boundaries that protected me psychologically and emotionally such as skipping out on optional gatherings if I knew she would be present and sharing less of my personal life at work. 

While Evelyn was observed by managers and coworkers as one of the more self-aware individuals within the company due to her friendly and thoughtful nature, many were still treading on eggshells around her because of the tense environment she would create whenever she got emotional at work. 

Despite the progress we are making in the workplace to be more mindful of ourselves and others around us, toxic workplaces persist because we don’t stop to question that we could be the ones perpetuating it. Even if we create an entirely friendly workplace where we’re nice to one another instead of giving critical feedback, that could be the start of a toxic culture that keeps company outcomes at a mediocre level. 

The way forward for our work culture

On the flip side, is the modern workforce less “hardy” than its older generations by perceiving a conventional working culture as toxic? We’ve seen endless complaints on Linkedin and Reddit about Gen Z being coddled or labelled as “fragile”. According to Roberta Katz, a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, younger folks like Gen Zs receive unfair negative judgement from a misunderstanding by their elders about what it is like to grow up in today’s world. This rings true when we remember how hard it is now to even secure an interview for a position and go through multiple long and redundant processes for even entry level postions, let alone get a job. 

Mr Yeo remarked that while there are multiple studies available for management to understand the different needs of each generation, there needs to be further conversation for this understanding to be customised and contextualised for their teams. In these conversations, each individual should express their hopes, the contributions they desire to make, and how they wish to be engaged to create a healthy and purpose-driven culture. 

For example, Mr Yeo shares that in intergenerational conversations, Baby boomers and Generation X individuals are told that they do not embrace new learning opportunities; however, older staff members are not resistant to change but worry about the pace and level of support provided for learning. Gen Zs in the workplace may sound picky, but in reality, they are seeking meaning and purpose in their work before diving in. 

Managers should first acknowledge the existing toxic culture and hold people accountable for their actions, even if it results in conflict and discomfort. Additionally, Mr Yeo explained that an organisation should have a supportive work culture which helps with sustainable productivity – derived from recognising and valuing employees through regular appreciation of their work; and providing growth that is attainable and aligned with their aspirations. Managers need to genuinely believe in the importance of it too, and not just for show, as the latter will lead to their team’s disillusionment. 

Because of the changing work environment influenced by technology advancements, new generations of the workforce and industry transformations, supportive work cultures can only continue if managers are intentionally connected to people’s changing needs, “Managers need to have regular dialogue and check-ins with their team to be present in their work life and provide the necessary support for their thriving”, says Mr Yeo.

Toxic workplaces might never go away, no matter how much self-awareness and policies are put in place. But we can prevent them from becoming a foundation in an organisation’s work culture.