The health risks of toxicity at the work place and what to do about it

Toxicity can drain your mental strength, especially when compounded with other work stressors and burnout.

Toxicity can drain your mental strength, especially when compounded with other work stressors and burnout.

What you need to know:

  • Toxicity at the workplace could trigger emotional and psychological torture, to the detriment of your overall health.
  • Your behavior and conduct at the office ought to be a reflection of your employer’s brand.
  • Learning how to psychologically detach yourself from your work during non-work hours is one of the most effective ways of mitigating the mental effects of a toxic work place.

Many people will find themselves in work environments that are neither healthy nor ideal at some point in their careers. You may even find yourself stuck in a toxic work environment or in a web of toxic work relationships.

In the worst-case scenario, toxicity at the workplace could trigger emotional and psychological torture, to the detriment of your overall health. If you work in a toxic work environment for an extended period, you may begin to notice that you are unable to get adequate sleep, you may start to gain weight, or may even start having increased medical issues.

“Workplace toxicity results in workplace stress. People who are stressed are more likely to smoke more, drink more, and are more likely to overeat,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do About It. Stressed workers are also more likely to abuse drugs and they’re less likely to exercise. “Workplace stress affects not only people’s health directly, but also indirectly through its effect on their individual health-relevant behaviors,” he says. According to Pfeffer, other health complications that may arise from a toxic work environment include high blood pressure, heart attack, insomnia, fatigue, and general feelings of sickness, anxiety, and paranoia.

So what can you do to cope in a toxic work environment?

It starts with you

Keep yourself on the straight and narrow and evaluate how your actions and behaviours affect other team members at your workplace. For example, are you constantly in the business of undermining their work? Are you always the one noticing when they have gained weight or have new office wear? “Be professional. Do not be at the centre of every office gossip and unnecessary office chitchat. Get your work done and leave. Do not jump into confrontations with toxic workers. Remember, your behavior and conduct at the office ought to be a reflection of your employer’s brand,” says Perminus Wainaina, the head of recruitment and managing partner at Corporate Staffing Limited, a human resource firm based in Nairobi.

When afflicted by workplace toxicity

If the toxicity is being directed at you, have a candid conversation with its purveyor. This will let them know that you are not comfortable with their dysfunctional interactions. It will also be a form of boundary that will set the standard of how others will treat and interact with you. “Do not assume that the purveyor will wake up one morning and realise how they are affecting you. Most people are usually not self-aware at the workplace,” says Abby Curnow-Chavez, a management consultant and the co-author of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor, and Authenticity Create Great Organizations. She also suggests that while explaining how you are being affected, you should ask for feedback on your own behavior. Avoid a combative and vindictive approach.

Learning how to psychologically detach yourself from your work during non-work hours is one of the most effective ways of mitigating the mental effects of a toxic workplace. For instance, according to the study Workplace Incivility and Employee Sleep published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, workers who are able to detach themselves mentally from their work after their shifts do not suffer work-related sleep deprivation and anxiety.

Consult your seniors

If no resolution is forthcoming, consider bringing the issue to the attention of your manager. Other team members might interpret this as backstabbing or snitching. It will also be going against the norm, especially if the toxicity has been ongoing for a long time and no one in the team has been courageous enough to bring it up. “The key is to remain neutral in the way you raise your concerns. Document what has happened, stick to the facts, and be clear. Don’t issue ultimatums, rather, ask for your senior’s input on the way forward,” says Stephen Makau, a Nairobi-based human resource consultant. Ms. Abby also suggests that you can request your boss to call for a meeting that will address what you feel are the challenging issues in the team’s interactions. “Such a proactive move will provide a session for the team members to gain insight into each other’s perspectives, set behavioural and networking standards, and increase co-worker to co-worker accountability,” she says.

Mind your well-being

Take care not to be lost in the toxicity. Mind your emotional and psychological well-being in order to stay focused on your work goals and targets. “Toxicity can drain your mental strength, especially when compounded with other work stressors and burnout,” says Makau. “Eat well, exercise when you can, and take breaks when necessary. Do not hang on to a matter you cannot influence, and if everything including HR’s input doesn’t help, you could opt to seek greener pastures elsewhere.” A mentor will also help direct you on what options you can go for.

The manager’s takeaway

When addressing a toxic employee, you will do well to handle the toxic behavior itself instead of the employee’s personality. “Don’t tackle their personality as that may result in long-lasting emotional and psychological injuries. Focus on their behavior and make it clear how it is affecting the team’s efficiency,” says Wainaina. Seek out what the root cause of the problem is. “It could be that the employee causing difficulties is dealing with private problems whose stresses are spilling over into the workplace,” he adds.

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