How Can You Deal with a Toxic Workplace?
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That dread you feel in the middle of your chest on Sunday nights?
The cutthroat work environment that ties your stomach in knots?
The disrespect that masquerades as banter in office meetings? Unfortunately, it’s a lot more common than you think.
According to a new report from the U.S. Surgeon General, some work environments are hazardous to our health. And while this federal office usually tackles more traditional public health problems — most recently, the low rates of Covid vaccination — this campaign, the first of its kind, aims to draw attention to societal factors that can affect our health.
Stephen McLeod-Bryant, M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of Miami Health System, is not surprised by the report, however. He says workplace malaise that has contributed to the catchy titles of “Quiet Quitting“ and “The Great Resignation“ has been simmering for a while. The pandemic worsened an already bad situation.
“Covid-19 resulted in a lot of significant changes that accelerated what many people have been feeling for a long time,” says Dr. McLeod-Bryant. “With Zoom meetings and working from home, the boundaries between work and personal lives blurred significantly, increasing stress across the board.”
Yet, it’s precisely these changes that offer an opportunity to improve the workplace environment.
“As we recover from the worst of the pandemic, we have an opportunity and the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in a statement.
The report urges employers to change how they run their operations. It recommends five “essentials” to ensure employee mental health and well-being: protection from harm, connection, and community, work-life harmony, mattering at work, and opportunity for growth.
For some businesses, these may sound like fantasies, but the suggestions align with research that details why American workers leave their jobs. Low pay, lack of opportunity for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work are the top three issues for quitting, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
What’s more, a healthy, happy employee is a productive employee.
“We know that chronic stress affects not only people’s mental health but also their physical health,” Dr. McLeod-Bryant says. It increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.
Of course, not all workplaces qualify as truly toxic, Dr. McLeod-Bryant says. Long work hours, heavy workloads, and other challenges can affect employees at any time, particularly during the labor shortages of the past year.
So, how can you tell if you’re laboring in a toxic workplace?
The report cites five factors that lead to that kind of environment: The culture is cutthroat, disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, or abusive. There are also signs of how these factors can affect you, adds Dr. McLeod-Bryant.
“An employee will exhibit some overt signs. The not wanting to go to work, sleeplessness, having insomnia the night before, a general sense of anxiety,” he explains. An employee may also experience unusual fatigue, high blood pressure, even a racing heart.
However, these symptoms may also occur for other reasons.
“It’s important to differentiate between a toxic work environment and being unhappy in a career or job,” he says. “That’s a whole other conversation.”
While the surgeon general’s report advocates for employer-led reforms, Dr. McLeod-Bryant offers suggestions for the employee navigating a stressful work culture:
- Take care of yourself. Rest, get enough sleep, exercise, and eat properly. These are behaviors you can control.
- The job is not you. So, try to separate yourself from work as much as possible. Don’t pin your self-worth on the job; try to limit after-hour work communications.
- Reach out to a trustworthy colleague. The likelihood is that your co-workers feel the same way you do. In addition to moral support, you can also brainstorm with them about how to change your experience.
- Take breaks during the workday. Leave the premises. Take a walk. Go out to lunch.
- Consider your alternatives. “What can you do to change the experience?” Dr. McLeod-Bryant asks patients who are going through job-related problems. “Typically, I don’t recommend getting another job. Rather, I ask if they have considered getting another job. If not, why not? If not a new job, what can be changed about the current job? The goal is for the person to identify as many options as possible to find the best solution.”
- Seek professional help before the stress causes serious health problems.
Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Columnist
Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.