When Nikolina switched from office to work from home in early 2020, as the Pandemic spread across the world, she hoped her company’s toxic culture could improve. “I thought my job would be a lot less stressful without my boss watching my every move,” says the 22-year-old content writer who lives in Prague. “I was so wrong.”
Instead, his supervisor found new ways to monitor the team virtually, using software like TeamViewer and Hubstaff. “I guess not having all of his employees around really affected him, because he became obsessive, managed every aspect of our work hours and criticized even the smallest things,” says Nikolina, who hides the last name for privacy reasons. “Our stress levels were high, knowing that at any moment our boss could control us, and we were going crazy collectively.”
For those employees in toxic office environments, the shift to remote work may seem like a silver lining to COVID-19 – an opportunity to enjoy a necessary distance from a negative atmosphere. But, as Nikolina discovered, unpleasant work dynamics can follow us home and, in some cases, get worse, as isolation can compound the challenges of working with misbehaving bosses or colleagues. Toxic work cultures can have a major impact on the well-being of employees, so it is particularly vital that people understand their options to protect themselves.
Toxic from top to bottom
Toxic workplaces can take many forms, but they share a common thread among employees: negativity and hurt. “A toxic work culture is one in which workers are exposed to psychosocial hazards,” says Aditya Jain, Associate Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Nottingham Business School, who has studied stress, well-being and mental health in the workplace. “They may have little or no organizational support, poor interpersonal relationships, high workload, lack of autonomy, poor rewards, and lack of job security.”
The consequences of work cultures like this, Jain says, are highly varied. They can include impacts on physical health, such as heart disease or musculoskeletal disorders, poor mental health and burnout, as well as organizational consequences, such as less attendance, commitment, productivity and innovation.
Most toxic work cultures stem from mismanagement, whose bad habits can be contagious
“Destructive behaviors at the top seep in,” says Manuela Priesemuth, an assistant professor in the department of Management and Operations at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, USA, who has investigated abusive managers and toxic workplaces. .
“If executives engage in toxic behavior, people in the organization assume that this behavior is accepted and they engage in it too. Very soon, a toxic climate forms, where everyone thinks, ‘This is how we act here.’
Before the pandemic, these toxic behaviors occurred in person, during meetings, presentations, or casual interactions. Now, they happen in calls and messages. And while distance might be expected to reduce some of these stresses, experts say being out of the office makes the opposite more likely.
“Toxic cultures persist in remote settings, so we see similar hostility on Zoom or in email,” says Priesemuth. “Distance or anonymity can increase negative behaviors; sometimes it’s easier to send a rude or threatening message than to say it in person.
Pandemic fatigue is another cause that contributes to misbehavior
“Anguish and psychological exhaustion are some of the main drivers of aggressive behavior in the workplace. People can have a shorter fuse, which translates into less civilized communication and discourse,” she adds.
In Nikolina’s case, when she started working remotely, her boss’s controlling behavior felt more like harassment than supervision. “He would call randomly and demand to share the screen, or ask us to record the screen throughout the day. If you noticed a drop in activity for more than 10 minutes, you had a Zoom or TeamViewer session, even when people were trying to take a shower or cook dinner. She also says he sent messages to employees with urgent requests at midnight and prohibited them from taking days off.
“My entire team suffered under his management,” he says. “Personally, I was in a constant state of anxiety and had a lot of trouble sleeping at night, I stayed up late thinking (about work).”
Experts say having a bully boss can be especially damaging in remote work settings, as many are now experiencing
The worker still needs to interact with the bully, Jain says, but may find that behavior more difficult to handle when at home, suffering from a lack of social interaction, feelings of emotional exhaustion, and an imbalance between work and personal life.
“Working remotely can make the situation worse, as the person may not be able to access informal social support from colleagues or resort to grievance mechanisms through Human Resources because they are isolated and feel less empowered,” she adds. .
Coping with a toxic culture
Getting rid of the toxic work culture, say Jain and Priesemuth, involves companies identifying and addressing the root causes of dysfunction, which is often mismanagement. But that doesn’t mean that employees have to wait for things to improve. Educating yourself about your rights, whether through your company policies or local laws, can be an empowering first step.
“Knowing the employer’s legal obligations is helpful as it can hold them accountable,” says Jain. Many countries regulate working hours, free time and holidays, and the United Nations International Labor Organization guidelines serve as the international reference standard. “Having this awareness can also help push back managers whose expectations have become irrational or unfair since the transition to remote work.”
If you are the victim of bullying or unprofessional behavior, it is a good idea to save those emails or chats, or write down what was said in the calls
“Gathering evidence of hostilities can be a useful tool to substantiate any complaints that may arise through HR or senior management,” says Priesemuth. “In addition, it is beneficial to try to find allies, perhaps colleagues who have similar experiences or have witnessed a violation, who can serve as a support system or help address the problem.”
However, joining with colleagues may be limited in scope if there is no significant human resources department or system to file a complaint, as was the case at Nikolina’s small business. “There was no HR department or leadership that could be reached with problems or complaints,” she says.
“Our boss was our only point of contact and his attitude was that we should be grateful for our work and salary. In the end, I quit, along with many others, once the Pandemic started generating remote jobs. Now I have the creative freedom and peace of mind to develop my own business, a dating and relationships website.
However, if it is not possible to change jobs at this time, steps can be taken to be less vulnerable to toxic behaviors
“Setting stricter boundaries between work and life outside has been helpful for employees,” says Priesemuth. “Research has shown that it can reduce work-related stress and increase employee well-being.”
While this can be very challenging with a toxic boss, you can try taking small steps like turning off your phone after a certain time at night, logging out of email, and simply becoming unavailable.
Still, Priesemuth emphasizes that these mechanisms can only temporarily mitigate the effects of a toxic remote work environment, not permanently resolve them. If the leadership of the company ultimately does not accept the feedback and implements the change from the top down, the toxicity is likely to persist, as will the feelings of anxiety and fear.
Every employee’s situation is different, of course, and not all workers have the same leeway to make changes, if any. Regardless of your circumstances, it is important to remember how damaging toxic work environments can be, whether remote or in person; Ignoring a negative environment can only make things worse.
While strong boundaries, social support, and stress management can help, you may eventually want to consider moving on if things don’t improve. At the very least, these strategies can save you time.