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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

What is a toxic work culture?..

A couple of weeks ago, Wise Wednesdays focused on the importance of psychological safety to create high performing teams and healthy work environments – referencing Project Aristotle – and suggesting that “people don’t leave jobs, they leave toxic work cultures”. The post received over 150,000 reactions on LinkedIn (likes, comments and shares) which indicates that a number of people must agree… One of the questions that came up in the responses was: what’s the definition of a “toxic work culture”? This took me back to basic pharmacology including dose-response relationships and toxicity thresholds: toxicity is the harmful effect a substance can have on a human or living organism. In other words, it’s bad for your health. But in a toxic work culture, what is it that substance exactly? Science needs to be able to measure things to work and illuminate causal relationships. In project Aristotle, a lack of psychological safety was the toxic substance examined i.e. people didn’t feel safe to be vulnerable in their work teams. But it was the impact of this on productivity and performance that was measured. What about the effect on health? Is lack of psychological safety toxic in that sense? While we may not have the research linking psychological safety to health, we can look at related factors that we know create psychological stress at work, and their impact on health. [Read on or watch the video]

Three work-related psychosocial factors are well known in the research to be linked to death, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness and other health harms: Job strain:

You have a high work load with little control over it i.e. a lack of autonomy under stressful conditions. This has been shown to lead to “learned helplessness” and linked to several mental and physical illnesses. Effort-reward imbalance: You work hard and put a lot of energy and commitment in, but the salary, promotion prospects, job security, esteem and recognition don’t match up. Again, that eventually causes stress and illness. Rigid hierarchy: While rigid hierarchies (measured as graded inequality in status) can be useful on battlefronts or in industrial era production systems, they are less helpful in the volatile and complex world we live in today where innovation, creative ideation and collaborativeness are the more adapted qualities. Hierarchies also happen not only to harm the health of everyone below the top of the pyramid, but the group in general seems to do worse. The harm to health (i.e. the toxicity) of these factors has been extensively documented including in the long-term Whitehall studies. Of course, you could argue that these factors – and their toxicity - are necessary for efficiency, and this may have been true in the past. But not today. Research around empathy and vulnerability is beginning to link less measurable psychosocial factors directly to team performance. In project Aristotle, psychological safety (above all others), dependability, clarity and structure, meaning and impact were the key positive factors of a healthy work culture that creates high performing teams. A cultural shift around how we work is hopefully upon us. But it’s only the beginning. After all it’s only in the last 200 years or so that we collectively decided that humans have sovereignty over their own physical bodies and that using physical aggression against one another to meet our own needs is not acceptable. Perhaps it’s time we also start seeing each other as psychologically sovereign over our own minds and that psychological aggression against each other is no longer acceptable either. Perhaps it’s time to revisit our cultural myths around work and performance, and meet the 21st century. Have a great week,


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