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Toxic workplaces increase risk of employee depression by 300%. Here are 4 strategies to repair them.

[June 23, 2021: Josh Shavit]

A year-long Australian population study has found that full time workers employed by organisations that fail to prioritise their employees' mental health have a threefold increased risk of being diagnosed with depression.

And while working long hours is a risk factor for dying from cardiovascular disease or having a stroke, poor management practices pose a greater risk for depression, the researchers found.

Lead author, Dr Amy Zadow, says that poor workplace mental health can be traced back to poor management practices, priorities and values, which then flows through to high job demands and low resources.

"Evidence shows that companies who fail to reward or acknowledge their employees for hard work, impose unreasonable demands on workers, and do not give them autonomy, are placing their staff at a much greater risk of depression," says Dr Zadow.

Internationally renowned expert on workplace mental health, ARC Laureate Professor Maureen Dollard, says the study found that while enthusiastic and committed workers are valued, working long hours can lead to depression. Men are also more likely to become depressed if their workplace pays scant attention to their psychological health.


Due to the global burden of depression, which affects an estimated 300 million people worldwide and shows no sign of abating despite available treatments, more attention is now being paid to poorly functioning work environments which could contribute to the problem.

High levels of burnout and workplace bullying are also linked to corporations' failure to support workers' mental health.

A second paper co-authored by Professor Dollard and published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology earlier this month, found that low PSC was an important predictor of bullying and emotional exhaustion.

"We also found that bullying in a work unit can not only negatively affect the victim, but also the perpetrator and team members who witness that behaviour. It is not uncommon for everyone in the same unit to experience burnout as a result.

The global costs of workplace bullying and worker burnout are significant, manifested in absenteeism, poor work engagement, stress leave and low productivity.


What can employers do to repair a toxic work environment?

According to Heidi Lynne Kurter, Leadership Coach & Workplace Culture Consultant at Heidi Lynne Consulting, employers should enact the following four practices to repair their workplaces.

1. Accept Responsibility

Repairing a toxic culture starts from the top. The mistake most leaders make is asking their employees for open and honest feedback and doing nothing with the information. A culture can only change when feedback is taken seriously.

Monster’s recent survey results reported 90% of employees have been bullied at work. Of those 90%, 51% disclosed they were bullied by their superiors. Furthermore, 71% of employer reactions and 60% of coworker reactions were harmful instead of helpful to the targeted employee.

Danielle Lara, organizational consultant, said in order to repair a toxic culture, leaders must first acknowledge the issues that are present and define how they negatively impact the workplace. By acknowledging toxic behaviors, leaders can take action to cultivate a greater understanding of what’s appropriate and what won’t be tolerated. Some elements of a toxic culture include micromanaging, inflexibility, negative gossip, unhealthy levels of competition, bad attitudes and office cliques.

The leadership and management team are the ones who set the standard and cultivate the culture. Everyone at the top must take the initiative to reiterate the goals and expectations of the company. The unfortunate reality is, sometimes toxic cultures become out of control and they’re unable to be fixed from within.


2. Bring In A Third Party

One of the best investments a company can make is bringing in a third party coach or facilitator to help identify the root cause of a toxic culture. While the role of human resources is to create a safe environment for all employees, very few trust their HR department.

Team Blind, an anonymous community workplace app, conducted a survey across tech companies and learned 70% of employees don’t trust their HR department. In fact, employees are reluctant to report harassment to HR because 41% of respondents have been retaliated against or witnessed retaliation against a victim.

This is why investing in a third party is essential to repairing a toxic workplace. A third party will seek to understand what the desired culture is for the organization. From there, they’ll identify toxic behaviors and attitudes that negatively impact the workplace culture and overall employee morale. As they assess the culture and identify recurring patterns, they’ll develop a plan that will help dismantle and repair the toxic behaviors.

Outside parties are able to see toxic individuals for who they really are instead of who they try to portray themselves to be. After careful observation, the third party creates a solution to address negative behaviors and hold those accountable for contributing to the toxic culture.

Laura Handrick, careers and workplace analyst at Fit Small Business, explained the two-sided personality of a bully. She said most managers are nice and agreeable in the presence of their manager or leadership team. However, when their equals are not around, they return back to abusing their employees.

Reviving a toxic culture takes time and it may require removing high-level individuals who are deemed problematic. This is the greatest challenge CEO's and founders face because they favor the knowledge and experience the toxic individual brings to the company. As a result, they turn a blind eye to how the individual is poisoning the culture because all they care about are the results the individual produces.


3. Institute New Policies And Hold Everyone Accountable

To repair a toxic culture means stakeholders, CEO's and founders need to acknowledge that they have one. Co-owner and COO, Matthew Ross, admitted to once having a toxic workplace at My Slumber Yard. He said the problematic individuals were insubordinate, combative and their personal attacks against others damaged the morale.

Ross and his co-owner took action and instituted new policies and rules to dis-empower the bullies and change the culture. He emphasized, the important part is “to not let anything slide no matter how big or small it is.” Ross added “once a manager or leader lets one thing slide, the employees won’t take the new changes or policies seriously.” Consequently, they’ll continue and their toxic behavior will spread.

It’s vital leaders remain consistent in communicating and reinforcing the goals and a clear vision in everything they do. Those who are aligned will stay while those who are misaligned will filter themselves out. Leaders are the ones who set the example and the tone of the organization's culture through what they allow and what they model. Their actions must match their message.


Cultivate A Safe Environment

An anonymous whistle blower hotline is a key component that encourages employees to come forward with information. Leadership and the management team can ease the stigma of using the company hotline by creating a positive tone around internal reporting. To increase effectiveness, companies should make it a priority of promoting the hotline with posters, email reminders and via the company newsletter.

Regular and consistent messaging of the anonymous whistle blower hotline makes employees aware and encourages them to use it. Most employees don’t report information because they’re unaware of the hotline, how it works, the procedures involved, the confidentiality as well as the ramifications of calling.

Harvard Law School reported employees are fearful about reporting into a hotline because they don’t believe they have the same shared values with the company. Additionally, they don’t perceive the “tone at the top” among the board of directors and management to be one that promotes or rewards ethical behavior.

Many employees fear coming forward to report something because they believe they’ll face retaliation and lose their job. A 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute survey revealed 65% of targets lose their jobs after trying to stop harassment. Therefore, “29% of targets remain silent about their experiences” and 22% of coworkers turn a blind eye.

Leaders are responsible for creating a safe work environment and taking responsibility for the workplace culture. It starts with taking a pledge to act with integrity and taking all anonymous calls, reports and feedback seriously. The key to repairing a toxic culture is acknowledging there is one and holding toxic individuals accountable despite their seniority.


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