Lately, a variety of big companies have been dominating the news cycle for the wrong reasons. Reports of toxic culture, executive firings, sexual harassment allegations, unscrupulous sales practices and other negative stories paint the picture of many organizations whose values are more focused on the bottom line than their people.
It’s obvious that working in such an environment would be unpleasant, but research shows that the effects of working in a problematic corporate culture can actually cause significant harm. In fact, working in a toxic organizational culture can have a negative impact on your overall well-being—and even your health.
Here are three potential aspects of your culture that could be harming you.
1. Your coworkers—and your relationships with them
Research has shown that your boss and co-workers can influence your health in a number of ways. For example, one study suggests that being the target of workplace bullying is linked to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Thanks to hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, boosted levels of stress, anxiety and depression can lead to chronic inflammatory diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, among others. Most of us know that keeping stress in check is the key to maintaining good health—and navigating relationships at work with your own well-being in mind is a key thing to keep in mind.
Another study showed higher degrees of emotional exhaustion among employees of abusive supervisors. Again: this isn’t surprising—but it’s an important opportunity for us all to consider the dynamics we experience with our supervisors at work. Do we feel respected and considered? Or do we feel denigrated and taken advantage of? Emotional abuse includes a vast array of behaviors, and many of them can manifest themselves in subtle, but insidious ways.
While the effects of an abusive boss might be easier to recognize, research has also shown that having a boss who is simply ineffective can also have potentially negative consequences. One Swedish study found that employees of leaders who were rated as “less effective” in a variety of areas (such as consideration, ability to manage change, and encouraging employee participation) were more likely to experience heart attacks. Another study similarly found that employees who rated their managers poorly were at heightened risk of heart disease relative to their peers who viewed their bosses more favorably. And, those risks increased the longer the employee stayed at the organization. Needless to say, there’s a reason that recent research has drawn attention to the “brain-heart connection.”
2. The daily grind, and the things you can’t control
While the people you work with can have either a positive or negative impact on your health, so too can your job itself. A 10-year longitudinal study of female workers found that women who experienced high job strain (which was defined as having both high demands and low control on the job) had a 38% increased chance of suffering cardiovascular disease compared to those with low job strain. Chronic stress on the job was also linked to higher BMI in a mostly male sample. While the behaviors at work of those with high or low stress were similar, the researchers suggested that the individuals who experienced chronic stress were more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors at home, perhaps as a way to unwind.
The idea that your entire job description impacts your health may seem like a bitter pill to swallow—as most of us don’t choose the work we do, or the particulars of our work environments, with our health in mind. (And, of course, most Americans don’t feel a great sense of opportunity when it comes to jobs in the first place.) But once again, the thing we can control is the role we play in response to the external stressors we face: can we develop healthier habits at home—before and after work—to counteract the effects of inevitable stress? Can we speak to HR about the way our boss may treat us, and the stress it causes us on the job? With every stressor that arises, there is likely a small step you can take to reframe the situation, and take a little more control into your own hands.
3. The quirks of your work habits
While it might seem that workaholism is an internal quality that is driven entirely by the individual’s personality, research suggests otherwise. It’s been found that having a demanding workload in and of itself can contribute to aspects of workaholism, such as work-family conflict. Knowing that you have to keep afloat with current and future assignments can cause people to work excessively, and in turn, this can negatively impact relationships and job satisfaction. Although the research showed that workload in and of itself did not create all of the symptoms of workaholism, it definitely could play a role.
As you might expect, workaholism is linked to feelings of burnout and increased stress. This, also unsurprisingly, can have physical health implications. A longitudinal study of white collar workers found that people who worked 10 or more hours a day had a 60% higher risk of heart problems relative to their peers. In addition, the workers who spent more time working were more likely to exhibit “Type A” behaviors such as aggression, hostility, and competitiveness.
Even if you wouldn’t define yourself as a workaholic, your work habits—and attitudes—are likely still impacting you. Are you someone who checks your email throughout the day? (Most of us fall prey to this habit.) In a study conducted by the University of British Columbia one group was told to limit checking their email to three times a day, while the other group was told to check their email as often as possible. The study found that those who checked their email less often reported less stress (although they did find that limiting themselves to checking it that infrequently was difficult to do). Another study suggested that frequent multitasking might actually change your brain structure. In particular, people who reported using several media devices simultaneously were found to have less grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain associated with high level functions such as decision-making and emotion. Because the study showed a correlation, one can’t know if the less dense ACC made one more susceptible to multi-tasking, or if multi-tasking affected the density of the ACC. Still, given that we know multitasking can decrease productivity, this certainly gives you something more to think about.
If you realize things like your work relationships or approach to work are draining you of energy, it’s a good time to take a pause and re-assess the factors that are impacting you. Believe it or not, prioritizing your mental and physical health are not “lazy” or “indulgent” things to do, despite the assumptions we make all the time in our can-do culture. In fact, disregarding our well-being can put us at risk for far bigger problems. Each day, it’s up to us to assess how we feel, and make the changes we need to enjoy a happier and healthier life.
Need to get a handle on how you’re managing stress at work? Mindfulness can help. Click here for more details.
The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.”
Unsurprisingly, this is easier said than done.
But of course, it’s also impossible to argue with the wisdom behind these words. Ideally, we would all love to maintain our cool in the face of conflict, irritation, and frustration. Yet, imagining yourself with that colleague that always seems to get under your skin isn’t exactly the recipe for inner peace.
In my experience, some of the most anxiety-inducing interactions and relationships actually take place at work, an environment where stress is more likely to crop up to begin with. Whether it’s the person in finance who seems to derive pleasure from saying “no,” or the micromanaging boss who nitpicks the placement of every comma, workplace relationships can easily become triggers for added stress.
That said, this dynamic doesn’t have to happen. Each of us has more control than we give ourselves credit for, and we can make the choice to manage these relationships with more intentionality. With these tips, you can become more skillful with how you approach stressful relationships at work—and you’ll come out on the other side with greater clarity about yourself, and your strengths.
1. Look in the mirror, and start with yourself.
If you find that you a lot of your workplace relationships are contentious, start by taking a long, hard look at yourself. After all, you are the common denominator in all of the interactions you have—at work, and everywhere!
Think about the people with whom you have difficult relationships. Have you found that other people struggle to relate to these people as well? Or do you think there is something about you that engenders the prickly dynamic?
If you think you may be playing a role, be proactive. Ask for feedback from a close confidant to get a better sense of how you might be having a negative impact on others. Try working with an executive coach to get to the root of the issue. During my career, I’ve seen some people make some truly remarkable transformations, so don’t be afraid to tackle this issue head-on.
2. Reconfigure your frame of reference.
If you’re in a situation where the other person does indeed have difficult relationships across the board, start by seeing if a shift in your perspective can have a positive impact on your interactions.
I once worked with someone who seemed to have challenging relationships with a lot of people. She was impatient and critical, and regularly elicited defensive reactions from others. When they defended themselves, her behavior escalated, creating interactions that were even more unpleasant. It was a vicious cycle.
As someone who truly believes in the Dalai Lama’s quote, I refused to let her behavior irritate me. I made the deliberate choice to interact with her in an even-handed manner, even if it didn’t feel natural in the moment. As a result, I earned her respect and eventually became one of the few people who could actually give her honest feedback. Believe it or not, she actually took a lot of my advice, and learned to soften her behavior (somewhat). The bottom line is that I didn’t have the same difficulty with her that others did due to the choice I made.
How did I do this? The first thing I did was choosing to focus on her humanity—in order to develop a sense of compassion for her. I thought about her as a vulnerable person, and how unpleasant her life must be with so many negative relationships. I pondered why she might be so brittle, and thought about what my life would be like if I, like her, only noticed what was wrong with people. I realized that part of her behavior was a result of insecurity.
I’m not saying this is an easy undertaking (and keep in mind, I have years of experience as a psychologist), but compassion is a practice, and it gets easier to develop as you do it.
3. Dodge bullets by thinking ahead.
If you recognize that your ultimate goal is to improve your interactions no matter what, then another helpful strategy is to think about what’s important to the difficult person in question. If you are able to tap into what the other person values most, what their triggers might be, and what communication styles might soften their edge, you can reclaim your power in your interactions.
In the case of my co-worker, I knew that she took her work really seriously and wanted high-quality output. So, whenever I dealt with her, I made sure that I worked hard and always delivered the best product possible. I knew that if she resisted me for whatever reason, I could stand behind my work from a place of integrity.
4. Confront the issue head-on.
It can also be helpful to be proactive—by meeting with the person at a neutral time (maybe over lunch) to talk about the nature of your relationship. Using “I” statements, you could say something along the lines of “I feel like we’re navigating difficulty in our communication, and I really want to improve it.” Then, listen to what the other person has to say, striving to do so without judgment. Brainstorm about ways that you can work more effectively together.
At this point, you might be thinking, “I shouldn’t have to do that!” If that’s how you feel, reflect on your goal in the situation. If you want to have most positive interactions possible, then think about how you can create the conditions under which that will be most likely.
What if all that Doesn’t Work?
While the aforementioned strategies should certainly make a dent, I can’t guarantee their success. After all, you don’t have control over how someone else chooses to behave.
5. Focus on Self-Protection
In less extreme cases, it can be helpful to keep the principles of Aikido in mind. Aikido is a martial art that has been translated as meaning “the way of harmonious spirit.” When I took a class at the rec center, my instructor stressed that the essence of aikido was to show our attacker the error of his or her ways by “gently” defending ourselves. In other words, it’s not about harming the other person; it’s about protecting ourselves.
6. Breathe into Your Anger
With that in mind, you’ll want to guard against escalating situations by getting angry in the moment. Again, while this can be easier said than done, if you can stay calm by deep breathing and reminding yourself of your goals in the moment, you might be able to maintain a greater sense of inner peace. (For more tips on managing negative emotions click here). As Mark Twain wrote, “Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”
7. Set Boundaries
You’ll also want to empower yourself by setting boundaries. You may try saying something like “I’ll be willing to talk about this later after we’ve both had time to reflect.” This would obviously be more difficult to do with a boss because of the inherent power dynamic, but even something like “I would like to listen to your feedback, but it’s more difficult for me to do so when you raise your voice,” could potentially work.
In extreme cases, like abuse, harassment, or bullying, you’ll obviously want to report the individual to human resources, and/or, if possible, try to find another position. Contentious relationships at work have been found to be linked to stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic inflammatory diseases. Sometimes, it’s just not worth the trouble.
Actor Stephen Moyer said, “Conflict is drama, and how people deal with conflict shows you the kind of people they are.” Keep in mind the sort of person you aspire to be, and act accordingly.