What do cigarettes, alcohol and the toxic workplace have in common? The surgeon general’s warning that they’re really bad for you.
That’s right, the U.S.’s top doctor says a toxic work culture is potentially as bad for people’s health as misusing nicotine, booze or drugs.
Fortunately, he also believes employers and their leaders can do better. In the new Surgeon General’s Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy outlines the role workplaces can have in promoting employees’ health and well-being – rather than detract from it.
“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities,” Murthy says. “As we recover from the worst of the pandemic, we have an opportunity and the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being.”
But most organizations have some improvements to make. More than 80% of executives admitted their company’s culture wasn’t as healthy as it should be, according to research from Columbia Business School.
The toxic workplace eliminated
Since HR is often the epicenter of employee care, you’ll want to heed the surgeon general’s warning and work with leaders to improve culture.
“It will require organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, foster a sense of connection among workers, show workers that they matter, make space for their lives outside work and support their growth,” says Murthy. “It will be worth it, because the benefits will accrue for workers and organizations alike.”
The surgeon general office’s framework for improving the toxic workplace includes these critical elements:
- Protection from harm: Create the conditions for physical and psychological safe workplaces to ensure employee mental health and well-being in the workplace.
- Connection and community: Foster positive social interaction and relationships at work to help employees connect and improve overall belonging.
- Work-life harmony: Help employees balance professional and personal roles so they can avoid work and non-work conflicts.
- Mattering at work: Ensure employees know how their work matters, and that they matter to the company and those around them.
- Opportunities for growth: Create more opportunities for employees to reach their professional goals based on their skills and growth.
Here are four practical ways to improve culture and eliminate a toxic workplace.
Know your toxicity level
According to the surgeon general, if these five factors exist, you likely have a toxic workplace. The culture is:
- cutthroat, and/or
Of course, all of those things can exist at varying degrees at any given time. The concern is if they’re pervasive and consistent.
In HR, you’ll have to ask the tough questions regularly. That means surveying employees and asking them to rate the degrees of disrespect, exclusion, and ethical, cutthroat and abusive behavior. If employees report high levels of the toxicity, you’ll need to go a step further to identify incidents and employees – as any of those behaviors could be considered harassment.
Also note, you’ll want to do company-wide and individual group surveying. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management researchers found that even companies with healthy cultures typically contain pockets of toxicity, due to abusive managers or dysfunctional social norms within certain teams.
Be clear on behavioral expectations
Make no bones about it to new hires and long-time employees: You have behavioral expectations and employees need to follow them.
The best bet is to put behavioral expectations in writing and have employees acknowledge their understanding of those and commitment to upholding them.
While it’s difficult to dictate exactly how employees behave – especially when it comes to what’s considered kind or toxic behaviors – you can at least guide them.
For instance, if an expectation is to be a team player, give employees examples of what team players do: respond to colleagues in a timely manner, acknowledge good work, encourage growth, etc. Or, if ethical behavior is an expectation, remind employees what’s considered unethical: taking credit for a colleague’s work, falsifying information, cheating, etc.
Focus on healthy social norms
Healthy social norms start and grow at the group level, the MIT Sloan researchers emphasized. People adopt social norms because their colleagues do it. Positive changes come from coordinated efforts.
Here are two keys to moving the needle on social norms:
- Encourage work groups to define their social norms. The Civility, Respect, and Engagement in the Workplace (CREW) of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is the guidepost on this. About 15 employees of any one work group within the VHA meet weekly for six months to brainstorm, test and enact new social norms that improve respect in the workplace. They regularly track progress, log acts of civility or disrespect and call out colleagues who violate emerging norms.
- Get managers to talk about social norms. When they talk explicitly about what’s acceptable and what’s not, employees listen. Even better, employees follow when they see the manager practice positive social norms. HR might even want to initiate training for leaders on talking about and exemplifying positive social norms.
Practice the 3-Cares Rule
At the most basic level, a positive work culture is built on care. People caring about their work, company, colleagues and personal well-being.
Remind employees to follow the 3-Cares Rule: Care for themselves; Care for their co-workers; Carefully communicate with their bosses.