A four-step approach to prevent and respond to a toxic work culture


HR’s efforts to build strategies and programs to create an engaged and productive workforce can all be undone by the slightest inkling of a toxic work culture. 

For all the great things that work can provide – such as satisfaction, meaning, the opportunity to think creatively and contribute and meaningful relationships – a toxic work culture can undo these positives and harm organisation and employee wellbeing.

Poor wellbeing at work can be the result of a number of worrying organisational factors such as high workloads, ongoing role and communication issues, the nature of the work itself (e.g. ongoing exposure to highly stressful situations that increases the risk of vicarious trauma), staff conflict, insufficient supervision and support, and detrimental leadership behaviours.

A recent Fair Work Commission ruling, which awarded an employee $1.1 million in workers’ compensation, acts as a timely reminder that employers need to remain aware of, and proactively respond to, the existence of workplace stressors. In this particular case, the employee was dealing with organisational stressors including managing an unreasonable workload and working excessive hours.

These factors have an even greater impact on employees who are simultaneously dealing with personal issues. In the aforementioned case, the employee was also living with a pre-existing mental health issue.

While the FWC found the workplace stressors affecting this particular employee should’ve been very apparent to the employer, many organisations remain unaware that their employees are struggling. They often have difficulty in knowing what signs and symptoms to look for, and are unsure how to ‘take the temperature’ of a workplace.

My advice for HR and senior management is to follow a four-step framework to support the wellbeing of your staff

Four steps to address workplace stressors

Patterns of negative factors harming employee wellbeing can often be hidden in plain sight. It’s therefore vital for management and HR to recognise any worrying signs and take necessary steps before problems begin to snowball.

Organisations can follow these four steps to assess job satisfaction and wellbeing levels in their workforce.

  1. Monitor for changes: Be on the lookout for any wellbeing issues via regular monitoring. This should be an ongoing process that forms part of managing and overseeing an organisation. It’s important to remember that workplace wellbeing issues can go undetected by senior management and HR for a long time. This may be because employees, for a variety of reasons, are hesitant to step forward and express their concerns, which could signal issues with the psychological safety issues.A responsibility is therefore with management and HR to keep its eyes open and take note when certain behaviours are present (some of the key indicators are covered below in this article).
  2. Don’t ignore the signs: If there are signs of poor organisational wellbeing, dig a little deeper. These identified situations may only be isolated and minor, or have reasonable explanations. On the other hand, they may be markers of a problematic workplace pattern that’s having an ongoing impact on employee wellbeing, as I have previously written about for HRM.Don’t assume the problem will disappear once a challenging deadline is met, or a team project is complete. That may well be the case, but it’s important to remember that these things are often exacerbated during times of stress, but they can still lurk beneath the surface at other times. Act as soon as a problem comes to your attention.
  3. Collect further information: If there are issues of concern in the workplace, it’s prudent to take further steps and investigate. An informal inquiry may include looking at the most recent staff surveys; comparing observations and notes with HR and other managers; and checking-in with line managers, supervisors and employees.Staff surveys, also known as climate surveys, are a primary tool used to gauge employee satisfaction levels and, by extension, the health and wellbeing of your people.These surveys are typically administered online and can provide an indication of overall company wellbeing, as well as the satisfaction level of particular teams. However, they may not always provide an accurate indication of the workplace’s true status. This is because, despite assurances of confidentiality, employees may harbour a reluctance to state their views (or even participate) out of concern that they could be identified.

    This is why it’s essential to create a culture of psychological safety in the workplace, so employees feel safe to share their honest feedback without fear of repercussions.

  4. Decide on a formal approach. Depending on the results of informal inquiring, the organisation may need to consider setting up a formal review process. Such a process would involve anonymously interviewing staff, including employees, supervisors and manager, to gain a broad understanding of a workplace’s wellbeing status.This would need to be set up very carefully to navigate any potential trust issues. This can be conducted internally by HR and/or senior management, or it may involve organising an external practitioner to conduct the process, if issues of trust are at play. Either way, this should lead to a full understanding of the status of employee wellbeing, identify the causes of any issues and generate a plan for addressing underlying problems.

The red flags of a toxic work culture

The objective indicators of low job satisfaction and potentially poor wellbeing can include higher than usual rates of:

    • staff turnover through resignations and transfers out of certain teams (combined with feedback from exit interviews); 
    • absenteeism; 
    • workcover claims; and 
    • unusually high uptake of the employee assistance program (EAP).

These indicators probably turn up when a problem already exists, however poor company wellbeing may be lingering before these issues arise.

From my experience of conducting reviews of organisational wellbeing, there are a number of additional signs of poor employee wellbeing and stress levels. These are more subjective, and their presence are often ‘red flags’ for bigger problems that could emerge down the line. They include:

    • Increases in staff conflicts, tension, or gossip
    • Chronic miscommunications between individual employees, or between teams
    • Increases in operational errors
    • Decreasing attendance at the organisation’s social events, such as the annual Christmas party
    • Overheard comments such as, “I’m just working for a paycheck”
    • Employees mentioning that they’ve been thinking about leaving
    • Displays of emotional upset
    • Foregoing exit interviews upon leaving the organisation, which could potentially be a sign that there is mistrust regarding the organisation and whether their feedback will be genuinely used to make future improvements
    • Reduced participation in the annual staff climate surveys
    • And finally, there may just be a felt emotional climate if one were to walk around the work area. This can be seen in facial expressions, demeanours, behaviours (eg, staff eating lunch alone), or a noticeable absence of social chat or laughter.

An organisation would be remiss to not consider all of the available indicators when assessing a workplace’s health status.  It’s important to look as broadly as possible, and indicators should be considered collectively.

Realistically, there are issues within every workplace and just a couple or so of these may not necessarily mean that the organisation’s staff wellbeing is of significant concern.

However, if there are a number of these indicators present, or if there is a pattern of concerning markers, there may be underlying issues and causal factors that are producing negative impacts. These will need to be addressed because it means organisational and individual wellbeing and functioning are at stake.

David Hall, PhD is a consulting psychologist and director of DRDH Pty Ltd.


Learn how to prevent a toxic work culture and put the wellbeing of your people first with this short course from AHRI on Mental Health at Work.
Sign up for the next course on 3 May 2022.


guest
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
CJT
CJT
3 months ago

A great article that identifies relevant points. Surprisingly, and after having some 35 years HRM experience, my experience has identified that some HR departments have also demonstrated the above points all too frequently. My conclusions are that poor recruitment processes, employing of unqualified personnel lacking the required experience and who possess ineffective people management skills appear to be the main culprit/s. The points I mention especially to recruitment etc, relate to all departments within an organisation and not just to HR.

More on HRM
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.

A four-step approach to prevent and respond to a toxic work culture


HR’s efforts to build strategies and programs to create an engaged and productive workforce can all be undone by the slightest inkling of a toxic work culture. 

For all the great things that work can provide – such as satisfaction, meaning, the opportunity to think creatively and contribute and meaningful relationships – a toxic work culture can undo these positives and harm organisation and employee wellbeing.

Poor wellbeing at work can be the result of a number of worrying organisational factors such as high workloads, ongoing role and communication issues, the nature of the work itself (e.g. ongoing exposure to highly stressful situations that increases the risk of vicarious trauma), staff conflict, insufficient supervision and support, and detrimental leadership behaviours.

A recent Fair Work Commission ruling, which awarded an employee $1.1 million in workers’ compensation, acts as a timely reminder that employers need to remain aware of, and proactively respond to, the existence of workplace stressors. In this particular case, the employee was dealing with organisational stressors including managing an unreasonable workload and working excessive hours.

These factors have an even greater impact on employees who are simultaneously dealing with personal issues. In the aforementioned case, the employee was also living with a pre-existing mental health issue.

While the FWC found the workplace stressors affecting this particular employee should’ve been very apparent to the employer, many organisations remain unaware that their employees are struggling. They often have difficulty in knowing what signs and symptoms to look for, and are unsure how to ‘take the temperature’ of a workplace.

My advice for HR and senior management is to follow a four-step framework to support the wellbeing of your staff

Four steps to address workplace stressors

Patterns of negative factors harming employee wellbeing can often be hidden in plain sight. It’s therefore vital for management and HR to recognise any worrying signs and take necessary steps before problems begin to snowball.

Organisations can follow these four steps to assess job satisfaction and wellbeing levels in their workforce.

  1. Monitor for changes: Be on the lookout for any wellbeing issues via regular monitoring. This should be an ongoing process that forms part of managing and overseeing an organisation. It’s important to remember that workplace wellbeing issues can go undetected by senior management and HR for a long time. This may be because employees, for a variety of reasons, are hesitant to step forward and express their concerns, which could signal issues with the psychological safety issues.A responsibility is therefore with management and HR to keep its eyes open and take note when certain behaviours are present (some of the key indicators are covered below in this article).
  2. Don’t ignore the signs: If there are signs of poor organisational wellbeing, dig a little deeper. These identified situations may only be isolated and minor, or have reasonable explanations. On the other hand, they may be markers of a problematic workplace pattern that’s having an ongoing impact on employee wellbeing, as I have previously written about for HRM.Don’t assume the problem will disappear once a challenging deadline is met, or a team project is complete. That may well be the case, but it’s important to remember that these things are often exacerbated during times of stress, but they can still lurk beneath the surface at other times. Act as soon as a problem comes to your attention.
  3. Collect further information: If there are issues of concern in the workplace, it’s prudent to take further steps and investigate. An informal inquiry may include looking at the most recent staff surveys; comparing observations and notes with HR and other managers; and checking-in with line managers, supervisors and employees.Staff surveys, also known as climate surveys, are a primary tool used to gauge employee satisfaction levels and, by extension, the health and wellbeing of your people.These surveys are typically administered online and can provide an indication of overall company wellbeing, as well as the satisfaction level of particular teams. However, they may not always provide an accurate indication of the workplace’s true status. This is because, despite assurances of confidentiality, employees may harbour a reluctance to state their views (or even participate) out of concern that they could be identified.

    This is why it’s essential to create a culture of psychological safety in the workplace, so employees feel safe to share their honest feedback without fear of repercussions.

  4. Decide on a formal approach. Depending on the results of informal inquiring, the organisation may need to consider setting up a formal review process. Such a process would involve anonymously interviewing staff, including employees, supervisors and manager, to gain a broad understanding of a workplace’s wellbeing status.This would need to be set up very carefully to navigate any potential trust issues. This can be conducted internally by HR and/or senior management, or it may involve organising an external practitioner to conduct the process, if issues of trust are at play. Either way, this should lead to a full understanding of the status of employee wellbeing, identify the causes of any issues and generate a plan for addressing underlying problems.

The red flags of a toxic work culture

The objective indicators of low job satisfaction and potentially poor wellbeing can include higher than usual rates of:

    • staff turnover through resignations and transfers out of certain teams (combined with feedback from exit interviews); 
    • absenteeism; 
    • workcover claims; and 
    • unusually high uptake of the employee assistance program (EAP).

These indicators probably turn up when a problem already exists, however poor company wellbeing may be lingering before these issues arise.

From my experience of conducting reviews of organisational wellbeing, there are a number of additional signs of poor employee wellbeing and stress levels. These are more subjective, and their presence are often ‘red flags’ for bigger problems that could emerge down the line. They include:

    • Increases in staff conflicts, tension, or gossip
    • Chronic miscommunications between individual employees, or between teams
    • Increases in operational errors
    • Decreasing attendance at the organisation’s social events, such as the annual Christmas party
    • Overheard comments such as, “I’m just working for a paycheck”
    • Employees mentioning that they’ve been thinking about leaving
    • Displays of emotional upset
    • Foregoing exit interviews upon leaving the organisation, which could potentially be a sign that there is mistrust regarding the organisation and whether their feedback will be genuinely used to make future improvements
    • Reduced participation in the annual staff climate surveys
    • And finally, there may just be a felt emotional climate if one were to walk around the work area. This can be seen in facial expressions, demeanours, behaviours (eg, staff eating lunch alone), or a noticeable absence of social chat or laughter.

An organisation would be remiss to not consider all of the available indicators when assessing a workplace’s health status.  It’s important to look as broadly as possible, and indicators should be considered collectively.

Realistically, there are issues within every workplace and just a couple or so of these may not necessarily mean that the organisation’s staff wellbeing is of significant concern.

However, if there are a number of these indicators present, or if there is a pattern of concerning markers, there may be underlying issues and causal factors that are producing negative impacts. These will need to be addressed because it means organisational and individual wellbeing and functioning are at stake.

David Hall, PhD is a consulting psychologist and director of DRDH Pty Ltd.


Learn how to prevent a toxic work culture and put the wellbeing of your people first with this short course from AHRI on Mental Health at Work.
Sign up for the next course on 3 May 2022.


guest
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
CJT
CJT
3 months ago

A great article that identifies relevant points. Surprisingly, and after having some 35 years HRM experience, my experience has identified that some HR departments have also demonstrated the above points all too frequently. My conclusions are that poor recruitment processes, employing of unqualified personnel lacking the required experience and who possess ineffective people management skills appear to be the main culprit/s. The points I mention especially to recruitment etc, relate to all departments within an organisation and not just to HR.

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.
More on HRM