What effects can a toxic work environment have on the average worker? Americans are among the most overworked populations in the world. A report cited in Business Insider found that the average employed American adult spends 47 hours per week working, compared to their European counterparts who, in countries like Germany and Sweden, work an average of 35. The fact that the United States’ brand of capitalism has normalized this behavior as necessary in a competitive economy doesn’t mean it’s in line with public health.
This also doesn’t take into account the type of situations that American attitudes about work can tend to create in the workplace. With this much time spent thinking about work and dealing with frequent worry and stress as a result, what are the consequences of a hostile work environment on a person’s mental health, and what steps can be taken to resolve the issue?
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
When people think of the things that make up a hostile work environment, they tend to jump to the extremes: workplace harassment, toxic gossip and enraged managers — and technically, this is true. In order for actual legal action to be taken on the grounds of a hostile work environment, there has to be a violation of a written company rule or an established right in the workplace — discrimination and sexual harassment being two of the most common.
But, just because a situation doesn’t meet the objective standards of a hostile work environment, it doesn’t mean a workplace isn’t hostile. In a more practical sense, a hostile or toxic work environment can be any situation where workplace factors are actively and significantly harming an employee’s quality of life.
With this in mind, what causes a toxic work environment? Factors can include the following:
- Highly demanding hours
- Unrealistic goals and projections
- Harmful social interactions, including harassment and in-group exclusion
- Criticism that’s harmful and destructive
- The absence of positive reinforcement
- Discrimination on the lines of age, gender or race
- Nepotism or favoritism — giving opportunities to certain people for reasons other than merit
Some of these issues are more likely to happen in American workplaces than in companies overseas because of differences in attitudes about work. Foreign workers expect to be able to get more time with their families, enjoying flexible benefits and generous paid time off. On the other hand, 54% of Americans don’t take all their vacation days, and most say it’s because they don’t want to be replaced in their jobs. This type of work environment is one that creates constant competition and high-stress situations, virtually across all industries.
It Can Be Hard to Recognize a Hostile Work Environment
Understanding why it’s so easy for a toxic work environment to arise doesn’t make it any easier to recognize when you’re engaged in one. Many people think of their career as part of who they are, which makes it difficult to see the unhealthy impacts of your workplace when you’re in a situation where you’re overstressed.
Research shows that while you may not realize it, however, your friends and loved ones certainly do. For example, when a person is involved in a hostile work environment, it can also damage their spouse and the bond they’ve worked so hard to build.
The Dangers of Unhealthy Attitudes About Work
What are the consequences of a negative environment at a person’s job? Here are some of the reasons we should be concerned about how workplace trends are affecting public health.
The first reason is the obvious consequence of working long hours in high-stress situations: chronic stress. A study cited by the American Institute of Stress reported that Americans at stressful jobs are experiencing such a high level of stress that they’re likely to experience a range of negative consequences because of it.
- 62% of respondents said they ended the day with related neck pain.
- 19% said they actually quit jobs because of the level of stress they were under.
- 34% said they had difficulty sleeping because of stress.
- 13% said they had stress-related headaches.
The long-term effects of stress are well-documented. Chronic stress can cause people to experience anger issues, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, even when a person had previously not experienced these troubles at all. Stress can also cause people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
What Steps Can You Take?
Many people who do realize they’re working in an unhealthy environment will rationalize it, telling themselves, “I’m only doing this to get ahead now, and later I’ll take steps to work in healthier way.” What we find is that this isn’t always realistic. There will always be another excuse to continue to neglect the other parts of your life — potentially including your mental health — in favor of meeting an unrealistic standard of work quality, performance or time.
Unfortunately, removing yourself from a hostile work environment may be easier said than done. These attitudes about work are harmful, but they’re also endemic to society, and finding a job where you’ll receive the support and balance you need to stay healthy isn’t something that will happen immediately when you find yourself struggling to cope with a toxic work environment.
There are some steps you can take to better prepare yourself to deal with a toxic environment at work and prevent mental health issues from arising or worsening. Living a healthy lifestyle with a proper diet, a consistent daily routine and a healthy sleep schedule is one. Another is to seek certified counseling to learn better ways to manage work-related stress.
When your job is affecting your satisfaction in life and harming your relationships, steps should be taken to resolve the situation. Less extreme resolutions include taking all your vacation days, limiting yourself to certain days of the week when you can think about work and looking for other ways to relieve any financial burdens that may be requiring you to work as much as you are.
Change is difficult, and sometimes your employer may not be cooperative with your plans to improve your mental health. In this case, you may have to find a different job or take a pay cut to achieve the outcome that’s best for your health and the health of people around you.
Occupational Stress and FHE Health
If you or a loved one are experiencing the negative impacts of a toxic environment on your mental health, it’s never too soon to get help. Contact FHE Health today to learn more about your options.