Have you ever stopped to think about the impacts the workplace has on the mental health and wellbeing of your employees? We show up to work every day, see the same people, do the same job, go home or log off, and start it all over again the next day. It doesn’t sound like much to be concerned about, especially if there are no complaints, productivity is running smoothly, and employees are being paid on time. But what happens when the workplace is toxic or perceived as toxic? What are the impacts then?
The effects of a toxic workplace
Work-related stress can have a negative impact on employees and employers alike. According to recent report issued by the U.S. Surgeon General, long hours, limited autonomy, and low wages can affect workers’ health and organizational performance. Research from the American Psychological Association and a Stanford University psychologist state that chronic stress disrupts sleep patterns, increases vulnerability to infection, and has been linked to conditions ranging from heart disease to depression.
Dr. Murthy went on to say that “toxic workplaces are harmful to workers, to their mental health, and it turns out, to their physical health as well.” Further, he says that bad bosses and a cutthroat work culture can take a steep toll on employees’ mental and physical health. What is interesting about this report is, it is the first time the surgeon general has linked work-related factors to the physical and mental health conditions of the workforce.
The reality is employees have been feeling workplace stressors for some time and experiencing the impacts in their personal and professional lives. According to a survey by Mental Health America, 80% of workers said that work stress affects relationships with friends, family, and coworkers, and 71% of workers found it difficult to concentrate at work, impacting their performance and productivity. Toxic workplace cultures, workload demands, and poor work-life balance can lead to larger mental health concerns down the road.
Eighty percent of workers said that work stress affects relationships with friends, family, and coworkers, and 71% of workers found it difficult to concentrate at work, impacting their performance and productivity.
In addition to employees feeling the impact, organizations can see the affects in productivity, creativity, retention, and organizational performance. Employers can no longer expect employees to sacrifice their health, families, self-care, and friends to meet unrealistic demands of the organization. Rather, they must focus on what matters most to employees, hear their voice, and provide an equitable workforce that supports the whole person.
To create a mentally healthy workplace and support the wellbeing of your people, the Surgeon General’s report emphasizes a five-component framework:
The five elements of a healthy workplace
1. Protection from harm
The first step is to consider the physical and psychological safety and security of your people.
Start by evaluating and updating policies and procedures that outline your organization's strategy around protecting your people. Consider the physical environment where your employees work. Do you have practices in place to maximize safety and minimize potential occupational risks? Consider the psychological implications around things such as bias, discrimination, emotional hostility, and bullying and harassment, and your plans to mitigate these concerns, as well as how your organization will ensure job and financial security.
Then, manage schedules to ensure adequate rest periods between employee shifts. This includes length of working hours, overtime hours, and offline rest time. Automating this practice can help organizations ensure they are providing employees with the rest they need.
Next, advocate and support mental health in the workplace. This includes offering benefits, resources, services, and support to employees and clearly communicating this with leaders and employees. Look at the full scope of wellness (mental, physical, and financial wellbeing).
Lastly, operationalize diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility policies and programs that ensure safety. Consider how your organization will confront structural racism, microaggressions, ableism and implicit bias. All workers should feel safe to be authentic and bring their unique perspectives to the workplace. This includes evaluating pay scales to ensure equitable and fair pay.
2. Connection and community
How your organization fosters connections among workers and creates opportunities for community greatly affect employees. Belonging is key to a successful workplace:
- How will your organization support and encourage social relationships across the organization? This should include training up leaders and communicating with employees.
- Consider how your organization will support and protect employees from bias, discrimination, and exclusion in the workplace.
- Create structure and opportunities for workers to build trust and better understand one another as whole people, not just a skill set. Listen to the needs and wants of your workforce and evaluate how communication with leaders and coworkers should be implemented.
- Foster collaboration and teamwork for all employees, regardless of where they work (in the office, remote, or hybrid). Consider equitable tools and technology that will allow your teams to effectively collaborate and be productive.
3. Work-life harmony
The pandemic changed the way employees think about work and priorities. Organizations must balance the lives of employees inside and outside of the workplace.
A key component of this is providing more autonomy over how work is done. Consider how, when, and where work is completed (in office, remote, hybrid) and identify opportunities to adjust work models to accommodate for the needs of your employees.
Make schedules as flexible and predictable as possible to ensure employees have a clear understanding of the hours they are expected work. Consider flexible start and end times and workdays to help employees attend to personal needs. Other options include shift swapping, self-scheduling, and time trades that offer flexibility for employees to better manage work and life demands.
Increase access to paid leave to help minimize turnover, absenteeism, and lost wages. Evaluate your organization’s time-off policies to include paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave, paid parental leave for pregnancy and postpartum care and paid time for vacation. Track and monitor paid time off to ensure employees are not approaching burnout and are taking the time they need to refresh and recharge.
Set clear boundaries around the interaction leaders have with employees when they are off the clock. Consider your organization’s policies on digital communication outside of normal work hours, weekends, and evening hours. Train leaders to be the example around established boundaries.
4. Mattering at work
Employees want to know that the work they do every day matters, is respected, valued, and is making a difference in the organization.
Employers can convey this by providing a living wage for all workers across the organization.
- Evaluate your compensation models, benefit offerings, retirement plans, and workers compensation plans to ensure employees are offered a livable wage.
- Consider how your organization can better support the financial wellbeing of your employees through offerings like financial assistance programs, instant pay to earn wages, legal services, and caregiver support.
- Conduct a pay and salary analysis to understand where you need to adjust to ensure all workers are paid an equitable, stable, and predictable living wage before overtime, tips, and commission.
- Ensure wage increases accurately reflect the skills and performance of your employees.
Positive workplaces equitably engage and empower all workers in workplace decisions. Consider including leaders and employees in developing your organizational mission statement, values, goals, and objectives. Implement tools and technology that provide engagement surveys, pulse surveys, sentiment analysis, and executive analytics and dashboards that regularly measure the wellbeing of the workforce.
Build a culture of gratitude and recognition where employees feel seen, respected, needed, and valued. How do you recognize and reward employees, co-workers, and leaders?
Lastly, connect an individual employee’s work with your organizational mission and the impact their work has on the organization. Consider the individual roles, teams, and department and how their contributions influence the organizations’ purpose and mission.
5. Opportunity for growth
When workplaces support opportunities for employees to learn, grow, and accomplish their goals, it’s a win-win for both the organization and the individual.
Offer quality training, education, and mentoring to improve the skillset of employees. Consider the type of training programs that enhance an employee’s knowledge in their work, skills needed to grow their career, and other interests that are important to them. Evaluate how you encourage, coach, and mentor employees to reach their optimal best.
Foster clear, equitable pathways for career advancement opportunities for all workers:
- Implement resources, tools, and technology needed to support the development of your workforce.
- Ensure equitable and fair distribution of opportunities is available for everyone.
- Consider professional training programs, career navigation support, succession planning, and tuition reimbursement for classes outside of the workplace.
By putting these five principles into action, organizations can help promote inclusion, fair wages, and opportunities for advancements, among other benefits. We can no longer sit on the sides lines when it comes to the investment in the mental health and wellbeing of our workforce. We must be intentional and take steps to ensure that all our people feel like the organization they are working for has their best interests in mind and is proactively looking out for their overall wellbeing.