Surbhi*, 28, worked at one of the best law firms in the country. But behind the veneer of the tag, the environment of her office was extremely negative. “There was always yelling and screaming”, she says, “and if you did mess up even a teeny bit, instead of criticising you for your mistake, they’d start getting personal.” Surbhi’s workplace affected her to the extent of her developing anxiety. She eventually quit without a job in hand. “No amount of money is worth it, if you are in a toxic job,” she says.
“The people who bullied us were never confronted because they were high performers; always achieving targets. No one cared that they made us, their juniors, bright legal minds, cry.Surbhi, 28
Anisha*, 24, was quickly adapting to the ways of her high-pressure job. But her workplace, she says, had no respect for boundaries. “One day, when my team strength was very lean, I had to come even though I had mild fever.”
Nitika*, 28, was bullied in her CA firm by a senior with whom she didn’t get along, and later by their coterie. “They would pass lewd comments at my attire, ostracise me, and when I complained to the head office, even pressured me to take the complaint back.” Nitika eventually had to quit her job.
Meanwhile, Shikhar, 29*, who teaches at an educational institute, is frustrated by his manager’s behaviour towards him. “There are days when he (his manager, who incidentally was also his senior in college) behaves extremely friendly, almost like a buddy, and then there are days when he acts so distant and cold, that my mind goes into an overdrive, wondering why he is acting this way.” Shikhar is now reasonably sure that the emotional abuse is a form of exercising control.
But are these experiences aberrations or are they the office versions of the word that’s become all-too common now? Toxic.
After all, it was one of the most used words of 2018.
I must confess that until a year or two ago, I seldom used the word ‘toxic’. It was too vicious, and demanded to be used with extreme caution. But since then, the word has come to be recognised as one of the biggest enemies of mental health. Toxic relationships, toxic friendships, toxic marriages... even toxic workplaces.
But therapist Sonali Gupta says she wouldn’t use the word ‘toxic’ loosely. Toxic is too strong a word, she says, to be used like that. What doesn’t help matters is that there is no clear definition of what ‘toxic’ really is.
Dr Sameer Malhotra, Director of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Max Hospital, Delhi, adds that before using the term, one has to understand things like the personality profile of both the leader and the employee, and even the dynamics of the relationship between them. But here’s what toxic workplaces look like, according to the doctor:
A toxic work environment would be one where there is negative emotional talk like anger, aggression, personal vendetta, or a situation where the superiors don’t get along well, and the employee feels sandwiched between the two. There would also be abusive language, leg pulling and negative body language.Dr Sameer Malhotra
Sonali Gupta adds, “A negative workspace is one where bullying has not been recognised, or its concerns have not been adequately addressed.”
A work environment in which yelling, screaming, threatening, demeaning and comparisons are used as driving forces to make the downline staff perform better creates a toxic work environment.Dr Sonali Gupta
But no one willingly wants to make their company’s work culture ‘toxic’, right?
Why then, do employees, the most valued assets of an office, begin to struggle with low morale when they experience this so-called toxicity?
Dr Sonali says that environments which are not supportive (she refrains from using the word ‘toxic’) can cause the following in an employee:
1. Massive anxiety
2. Low self-esteem
But she says a one-off incident does not point to an unsupportive environment; it is when it happens consistently, that it becomes a problem.
“The larger debate is about how can leaders be firm about what needs to be done and still be empathetic.”Dr Sonali Gupta
When Does It Begin to Show?
Corporate trainer Namrata Jain says that recurrent sick leaves, taking unscheduled days off and dropping enthusiasm/productivity within a department can sometimes be the signs of a toxic work environment.
Dr Malhotra adds that while in a competitive workplace, an employee would get positive reinforcement, in a toxic workplace an employee will feel demoralised and demotivated.
Why Is It so Hard to Speak Up?
I spoke up. But later, I was told that my seniors had complained to the management I was too complaining.Nitika*
When I went to the head of the HR, she told me she wasn’t understanding what I was saying. Plus, when I told a senior about my mental health condition, he joked about it behind my back.Surbhi*
Even though the HR is mandated to maintain ideal work conditions for employees, they often don’t confront the management and tend to toe the line instead.
An article in Harvard Business Review too, goes on to talk about the threats of speaking up.
Challenging the status quo threatens people’s status and relationships with supervisors and co-workers, research shows. Speaking up can also result in negative performance evaluation, undesirable job assignments, or even termination. Most people are aware of these potential costs; as a result, most stay quiet about bias, injustice, and mistreatment.HBR
Meanwhile, the friction between the employers and employees just deepens!