The build-up of bad behaviours that create a “toxic” workplace can happen in any type of organisation. Even the most professional relationships can be derailed by a lack of respect or the controlling or undermining behaviours of colleagues.

And it hasn’t stopped with working from home, says business psychologist Clive Lewis, founder of Globis Mediation which specialises in workplace disputes.

Over the last 20 years, Lewis has stepped into the middle of all sorts of conflicts from long-running battles between high-flying medical and scientific teams to interpersonal problems within companies and the public service. Speaking ahead of the publication of his latest book, Toxic, he says that while there have always been toxic workplaces, the increase in employment legislation has brought the problem to the surface.

“Employees have become more aware of their rights and this has changed the tone around conflict conversations,” he says. “Individuals are more likely to reference the law or policy in their disputes while movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too have contributed to people refusing to put up with abusive bosses and entrenched cultures of discrimination.

“Such behaviour is not only simply wrong and damaging to its victims, but it also results in reduced productivity, higher employee turnover and can often leave a stain upon the wider reputation of an organisation.”

Dysfunctional

Lewis points out that, in 2018, “toxic” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year due to a 45 per cent rise in searches on its website. Its original meaning naturally remains, but it has also become shorthand for a set of undesirable working conditions.

From years of resolving conflicts within organisations, Lewis has developed a model to define the main contributors to a toxic workplace. He calls it the “toxic triad” and it comprises employees, line managers and the organisation itself. If one of these is off-kilter, it’s a problem. If two or even all three are dysfunctional, it’s a breeding ground for toxicity.

“The starting point is that employees need to think about their own behaviour, line managers need to nip things in the bud if there’s a problem and organisations need to look at their systems to see if they are empowering a toxic culture to develop or perpetuate,” Lewis says. “Workplaces do not have to be toxic but a collective response is needed in order for them to become more respectful and tolerant.

“A permanently toxic workplace can lead to environments that become anoxic,” Lewis adds. “Workers might describe their surroundings as stifling or even suffocating and seek ways out. That might include sick days, looking for an internal move or leaving the company entirely. All these actions become justifiable as one seeks any opportunity possible to come up for air.”

Difficulty with a colleague can trigger a process of rumination whereby you constantly focus on the controversy and its impact

Toxic organisations typically have low levels of trust, misaligned systems, poor line managers and fearful employees. Managers usually show scant respect for or interest in employees while a toxic employee is often uncivil or furtive and seems to thrive on causing discord.

One of the most insidious problems of being in a toxic culture, however, is that it doesn’t stop when the working day ends. Its impact often spills over into people’s private lives resulting in illness, anxiety, depression and disrupted sleep. People also feel psychologically unsafe at work.

“Difficulty with a colleague can trigger a process of rumination whereby you constantly focus on the controversy and its impact. And with five generations now making up the workforce, each with a different take on work ethic and values, this adds another dimension to be grappled with,” Lewis says.

Difficult colleagues

One of the reported benefits of working from home is being able to avoid difficult colleagues but Lewis says, in some respects, remote working has actually made things worse.

“Many organisations have not allocated enough resources or thought to this new environment to allow people to work from home effectively. For example, they haven’t allowed for appropriate breaks,” he says.

Working from home is also creating a fear of exclusion. The less we feel in control, the greater the levels of distress we may experience

“I know of an organisation that tracks employees by the minute in the office but they haven’t adjusted the software for working from home. This is contributing to a much more difficult working environment. Working from home has also led to a rise in ‘presenteeism’, with people sending emails late at night or early in the morning to give the impression they’re hard at work outside core hours.”

Lewis adds that poor working from home behaviours, such as refusing to be on camera with a colleague or forgetting to end a video call with the customary wave, have become the new triggers for interpersonal narks that have the potential to morph into something bigger.

Fear of exclusion

Working from home is also creating a fear of exclusion. The less we feel in control, the greater the levels of distress we may experience. “Toxic stress happens when we feel unable to cope or are overwhelmed by the events that face us. When people have limited access to a support network [such as when working from home], they can easily find themselves in this situation.”

His advice to organisations that want to avoid becoming toxic is to tackle disputes quickly.

“In 2016, I conducted some research which showed that, on average, it was taking 19 months and two weeks before a conflict went to mediation,” he says. “That means someone could have 589 nights of disturbed sleep before the mechanism and structure is put in place for a resolution to take effect.”