You see them on the public transportation systems (taxis, buses and trains) as they daily commute to and from work – grim faces representing hearts and minds that are just trying to make it through another day. You find them walking hurriedly, not out of a keenness to contribute skills and talents, but from a need to arrive on time so as not to get a warning. If you looked closely enough, you would notice not only a lifeless, but also perhaps a mechanical processing of what is expected of them – the job getting done, but with little or no innovation or creativity. Absenteeism seems to be rife in these environments – managers struggling to keep a full complement of employees on the floor. The timing of breaks gets legislated and employees are policed to ensure that productivity targets are achieved. For these employees, work has become a burden that they have to carry – they are only working there as they need the income. If they could leave, they would – leave this toxic environment with the hope of finding an alternate empowering one.

Harder, Rash and Wagner, in their publication: “Mental Illness in the Workplace: Psychological Disability Management” (2014), define a toxic work environment as an environment that negatively impacts the viability of the organisation. They state: “It is reasonable to conclude that an organisation can be considered toxic if it is ineffective as well as destructive to its employees” and hold that toxicity arises when employees suffer a breach of psychological contract. This so-called psychological contract sets the dynamics for the employer/employee relationship, is initially derived from the values, mission and strategy of the company, but is entrenched through empowerment and broken through narcissistic leadership. Hence, the psychological contract determines what the parties will or will not do and how it will be done. When the parties’ expectations match each other, performance is likely to be good and satisfaction levels will be high. So long as the values and loyalty persist, trust and commitment will be maintained. If managed effectively, the relationship will foster mutual trust between the parties, matching the objectives and commitments of the organisation to those of their employees. But a negative impact on the psychological contract can result in employees becoming disenchanted, demotivated and resentful of authoritarianism within the organisation. This will result in an increasingly inefficient workforce whose objectives no longer correspond to the organisation they work for. The main cause of disappointment tends to be that middle managers are protective of their status and security in the eyes of their superiors and this can introduce conflicts of interest when they are required to fulfil their obligations to their subordinates. Other causes could include the following:

    • Unfairness – managers or team members deflecting blame and accountability
    • Office politics – positioning, gossiping, spying and tension in the workplace
    • Immoral or illegal activities – lies, manipulation, cover-ups
    • Abuse (emotional, verbal or physical) – expectations that are unrealistic (like having to do two or three peoples’ jobs), belittling comments, rudeness, insults, shouting, swearing at you, etc.
    • Lack of empowerment – an environment with little care, empathy, recognition and appreciation.

As prolonged exposure to a toxic environment inevitably produces psycho-somatic symptoms (like anxiety and stress, stomach problems, back and neck pain, heart issues and depression), taking back control is essential to avoiding illness. Unless you are at executive level or a business owner, however, it is really tough to bring about change to the way the firm operates. If resigning and leaving and securing another job are not realistic options, then you will need to learn to protect yourself within the prevailing environment. Doing something to change your situation, no matter how small, adds to a sense of control (as opposed to helplessness, which leads to depression). Some of the initiatives that may be possible could include:

    • Repairing and developing broken or dysfunctional relationships – positive intent and transparent motives are essential ingredients to achieving growth in relationships. These should not only be stated, but demonstrated. Sincere and well-meaning behaviour usually will not go unnoticed.
    • Making changes to your physical environment – the space provided for your contribution has an immense impact on your emotional and physical well-being. Make it conducive to focus and applied energy, free from negative and emotionally distracting issues.
    • Investing in self-care – make sure that you create space for reading, walking or listening to music in breaks, like tea or lunch. Eat correctly.
    • Avoiding people that break you down – those that are negative and continually moan and bring up the past are not going to put you in a good place. They infect you with their pessimism. Remove yourself from their company as much as possible.
    • Communicating with human resources – be transparent about your difficulties with the environment where possible. Those in the department should be aware of anything that disrupts or destroys the organisational culture.
    • Invest in your relationship with your manager – taking time to have coffee with your boss and speaking about mission-critical objectives are healthy activities. Take time to grow this relationship, but have pure motives – it should be about new ideas, innovation and productivity.
    • Don’t get sucked into the politics – you are there to do a job, so stay with that. Focus on deliverables and not the family and relationship dramas.
    • Empower yourself – come up with innovative ideas and prove, through business propositions, that they are viable. Prepare business cases for all ideas and suggestions.
    • Be yourself – remember that you have unique giftedness and skills – use them wisely, but definitely use them.

Protect yourself in a toxic work environment by being your very excellent self. Don’t expect the environment to pander to weakness, but prove yourself by being the best you can offer. Address issues where you can and demonstrate integrity. Remember, as Martin Luther King noted: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant”.

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