Is your workplace ‘high performance’, or simply ‘toxic’?

There has been a lot of talk of ‘high performance’ cultures recently, especially within the tech and finance sectors. A recent article in the New York Times describes Amazon’s culture as one where white-collar workers are encouraged to “tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late” and actively encourages colleagues to “provide critical feedback” on one another. The article suggests that among other factors, these practices bring about greater levels of productivity and creativity, helping realise “moonshot” goals of innovation and financial success.

But is there a dark side to these cultures? Businesses, like people, have the capacity to do both good and evil. Within some businesses, personality types which are goal-driven and sometimes even psychopathic (lacking in basic levels of interpersonal attributes like empathy and kindness) are often sought after by results-seeking bosses. The combination of cultures that relentlessly focus on growth and personalities that aren’t naturally empathic, can collectively lead to disturbing workplace practices. The term toxic work environment is used by researchers to describe organisations where such cultures and practices have a negative impact on employee wellbeing.

How we experience a workplace, whether high performance or toxic, is contingent on environmental factors, but also an individuals own personality. An environment may feel competitive, challenging and rewarding to one person, but uncomfortable, fearful or even toxic to another. In some cases the effects of a workplace aren’t noticed: especially where cultural forces encourage us to continue to strive, or not show “weakness”.

Most important is to consider the impact a workplace is having on you as an individual.

How can I tell my workplace is toxic?
There are a number of tell tale signs that signal, either through design or a kind of cultural neglect, a workplace might be toxic.

  • When management is deceitful, frequently changes direction or is unable to adequately answer questions about the future.
  • Colleagues once open and friendly, begin to act in a hyper-competitive, closed or underhanded manner.
  • Management or colleagues begin to dis-include you from meetings, social events or discussions, which were once or logically form part of your job.
  • When responsibilities you used to have are taken away, or management begin to micro-manage aspects of your job.
  • Higher levels of staff turnover, sickness and absenteeism.
  • When inappropriate interpersonal behaviour takes place, such as being inappropriately or ridiculed publicly, bullying or personal attacks.

Some responses to a toxic workplace you might experience within yourself – although a partner or close friend may notices them before you do:

  • Stress responses, which might feel like anxiety and may manifest as a difficulty in sleeping or focussing on work tasks.
  • Feelings of being trapped, or that life provides no-meaning, which might feel like depression.
  • Increased reliance on substances such as tobacco, alcohol or other drugs, in an attempt to mediate the feelings associated with stress.
  • Withdrawing from work relationships; either deliberately because you no longer trust, or because you are experiencing paranoia.

Some workplaces operate with toxic cultures for long periods of time. In other cases, they emerge during periods of change such as shifts in business strategy, new management teams or difficult economic times.

I’m in a toxic workplace, what should I do?
Taking good care of yourself is an important first step. This will help reduce the emotional effects of the toxic workplace and improve decision making. You might consider:

  • Starting a meditation practice to help manage difficult emotions and to strengthen self-esteem. Using an app or podcast is an easy first step. To deepen practices consider joining a mindfulness or meditation group. There’s evidence that gratitude practices can enhance well-being and some suggestions meditation could effect neurological structures.
  • Manage lifestyle factors such as diet (eating fruit and veg is shown to reduce stress, as is avoiding sugar and caffeine) and moderating the use of alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs.
  • Making sure you get enough sleep and sufficient exercise.
  • Talking to a trusted person, who can help you see the situation more objectively. This could be a friend, partner or a colleague you can trust. Seeing a counsellor or psychotherapist with experience in workplace issues can be helpful, especially as they can be more objective and have specific skills to help unearth and manage feelings.

If you feel that your employment is at risk, it is wise to begin taking notes of what is happening on a day-to-day basis, especially conversations with managers. Writing notes can also be a good way to process the situation you are in, helping to moderate stress. It may help to talk to an employment lawyer to help understand your legal rights and options.

Leaving a toxic workplace
In some cases, the best solution might be to leave a workplace which has become toxic, especially if the impact on lifestyle and well-being outweighs any reward. Such a decision could obviously be an important life decision and ought be considered carefully.

Businesses that become toxic often experience repercussions: including negative publicity, high employee turnover and difficulty attracting and retaining new people.

When difficult situations lead to psychological growth
As a therapist, I see a lot of people in crisis, often related to work. While these situations can be seen as “bad” it most often the case that a lot of “good” can come from change. Practically, a new job comes or the workplace gets better.

On a psychological level, learning to manage stress, regulating feeling and disrupt negative thought patterns are helpful skills. In a sense, difficult situations help make us bigger, better people. In this way, a toxic workplace might help encourage, both internally and externally, just the change you’re looking for.