When Natalie* first started working, she felt lucky to have found a job within the industry she had trained for, in a workplace which seemed “pretty friendly”.
“I suppose it seemed like a good workplace when I first joined,” Natalie said.
“My boss has a lot of micro-managing tendencies … work is her baby. She works early in the morning to late in the evening, and the same is expected from her employees.
“There is always an expectation that I should be doing more than 8:30am – 5:00pm.”
Natalie’s negative workplace experiences range from “dealing with unrealistic expectations” from her boss, to not being granted sick leave to attend a specialist appointment “despite being entitled to it, as a full-time employee,” to the overall office environment feeling stressful and pressured.
“Because of the nature of my work, I also get a lot of feedback directly from my boss, and it’s often quite brutal,” Natalie said.
“It’s all done in public, I’ve had other people ask if I was ok afterwards.
For Natalie and many office workers like her, working from home during the coronavirus pandemic been the silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud.
The physical distance between her and the office has protected her from being influenced by what she calls a toxic workplace culture, and has provided a buffer between her and her boss.
“It gives me the chance to debrief with family more,” Natalie said.
“If I were at work and had a bad performance review, I felt like I had to pretend to go to the bathroom, so I could call my mum and burst into tears.
“It’s easier being able to leverage family connections.”
Working from home also “reduces the public factor” of the way Natalie receives feedback.
“Having one-on-ones over a video call is easier from home; no-one can hear what’s said,” Natalie added.
“It tones down the embarrassment.”
What is a toxic workplace culture?
Natalie is not alone in her experience of being in a negative work environment.
This year alone, the New York Times, Refinery29, and The Ellen Degeneres Show have made headlines over allegations of a toxic workplace culture — and Australia is no exception.
A study by Beyond Blue into the “State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia” found that “one in five Australians have taken time off work in the past 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy”.
Psychologist and anxiety expert Catherine Madden said she has “had a lot of people come to see me over the years about toxic workplaces,” and their experiences are varied.
“What constitutes a toxic workplace is going to differ from person to person,” Ms Madigan explained.
“Those are all pretty strong drivers that make people, and workplaces, toxic.”
A toxic workplace can also be influenced from the top down — Ms Madigan said that, if the employer was toxic, it could be “quite difficult to change” the workplace culture.
“It could be that your manager is bullying you in one-on-one meetings, so it’s just your word against theirs,” she said.
“You could be bullied by exclusion, not invited to meetings, starved of work, or you could be getting all the crappy, tedious jobs.
“If your boss is a very insecure person and you are doing positive things … that can be a trigger too.”
A workplace that does not consider the mental health of employees can also be a toxic environment — researchers at the University of Tasmania found that, in order to keep productivity and retention rates high within a workplace, employers must make mental health a priority.
One in five workers in Australia are affected by mental health issues, and factors that indicate the mental health and wellbeing is not being prioritised within an organisation include “high levels of turnover, absenteeism and sick leave, and conflicts in the workplace such as bullying”.
Toxic workplace impacts ‘every aspect of my life’
The World Health Organization (WHO) believe that “work is good for mental health, but a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health problems” including depression, anxiety “harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity”.
It can also affect sleep and personal relationships — a survey by the global organisational consulting firm Korn Ferry Institute saw three-quarters of respondents state that stress at work had a negative impact on their personal relationships, and 66 per cent said they had lost sleep due to work stress, with bosses being the biggest source of stress at work.
One of the hardest things for Natalie has been the way her workplace’s toxicity impacts “every aspect of my life”.
“I have a lot of trouble switching off after hours — it might be three hours later and I’ve done heaps of things in between, but I can feel that racing heart and the tightness in the muscles,” she said.
“I have that ‘always on’ mentality.”
Unfortunately, while it makes some things easier, Ms Madigan said working from home was not a catch-all solution for dealing with a toxic environment.
“If you’re the object of workplace bullying and a toxic environment you might be somewhat relieved working from home — it can be an out,” Ms Madigan said.
“But while it may be a relief from some kinds of bullying, there are still meetings and phone calls, and you could still be experiencing exclusion and various other things.
“A toxic workplace is a toxic workplace.”
Working from home ‘has taken the pressure off’
What does make working from home beneficial is the greater work-life balance it can provide — Natalie said working from home meant she could “be offline for a little bit” and not spend as much time thinking about workplace politics.
These last few months have also well and truly “debunked” the argument that employees are not as productive when they work from home, Melissa Donnelly from the Community and Public Sector Union said.
In the Australian Public Service (APS), just under 60 per cent of employees were asked to work from home at the beginning of the pandemic in March, and did so with great success.
“Working from home has taken the pressure off people in some ways, which does positively influence productivity, and there are a range of benefits in terms of personal life, other responsibilities, and work engagement,” Ms Donnelly said.
“The work APS employees have undertaken in recent months has proven how effective and productive people working from home have been.
“Having everyone in the office in a meeting in a boardroom isn’t necessarily the best option.”
So what if you do have to re-enter a toxic workplace?
Natalie is already worried about returning to the “rigidity of the workplace” once the pandemic lifts.
“I’ve definitely become accustomed to a more relaxed workplace in working from home,” she said.
“I feel like things will be like what they were beforehand, or that things that have been instigated while at home will be carried into the office.
“We’re still having meetings every day at home via video chat in the morning, but we’ve added an evening now, and I think stuff like that will be carried on, so we’ll end up having more contact.
“I do not want to go back to work for as long as I can.”
If you are nervous about going back to work in a negative environment, there are some things you can do to manage your return and protect your mental health — starting now.
“Engage in stress management with exercise, or meditation, or yoga,” Ms Madigan said.
“Bring in your running shoes and get out together around the block at lunchtime.”
If there are instances of bullying within your workplace, Ms Madigan suggests documenting what happens day-to-day and taking it to your manager, union or the HR department.
“You should also see a mental health professional, you can end up traumatised,” she said.
“In some workplaces it might be so toxic that you don’t feel safe to discuss what’s going on, so talk to your doctor, get a psychologist or counsellor so you know that they’re on your side,” she said.
“They’re out of the environment, they’re there to support you and keep your eye on mental health.”
Ms Madigan also suggested “limiting your time at work as much as possible” until the situation improves.
“Look at how you’re working, and maybe go sit in the courtyard with a laptop for a bit,” Ms Madigan said.
“At lunchtime you could sit in the staff room with the demoralised workforce, or you could go for a walk, or institute a lunchtime meditation.
“Use your sick leave, use your holiday leave, look at what you can do to minimise the impact of your work.”
You could also negotiate continuing some working from home arrangements, such as doing a day a week from home, or having an early finish once a fortnight.
Finally, if your work environment simply becomes unbearable, Ms Madigan suggested looking for a new job.
“Maybe you have to go, even if financially, it is terrible. It’s just not worth the mental health impact,” she said.
“Sometimes people stay too long in a toxic workplace.
“If the workplace is making you depressed and anxious, maybe you just have to leave. There’s no point being worker of the year for an organisation that’s not supporting you.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity