When Nikolina swapped the office for home working in early 2020 as the pandemic swept the globe, she hoped her company’s toxic culture might improve.
“I thought my work would be a lot less stressful without my boss watching my every move,” says the 22-year-old Prague-based content writer. “I was so wrong.”
Instead, her supervisor found new ways to monitor the team virtually, using software such as TeamViewer and Hubstaff.
“I guess not having all his employees nearby really affected him, because he became obsessive, micromanaging every single aspect of our working hours and finding the smallest things to critique,” says Nikolina, whose is withholding surname for privacy concerns.
“Our stress levels were high, knowing that any moment our boss could check on us, and we were all collectively going crazy.”
For those employed in toxic office settings, the shift to remote work may have seemed like a silver lining of Covid-19: a chance to enjoy much-needed distance from a negative atmosphere.
But, as Nikolina discovered, unpleasant work dynamics can follow us home – and in some cases, get worse, as isolation may aggravate the challenges of working with bosses or colleagues behaving badly.
Toxic work cultures can have major impacts on employee wellbeing – which is why it is particularly vital for people to understand their options for protecting themselves.
Toxic workplaces can take many forms, but they share a common thread among employees: negativity and harm.
“A toxic work culture is one where workers are exposed to psychosocial hazards,” says Aditya Jain, an associate professor in human resource management at Nottingham University Business School, who has studied stress, wellbeing and mental health in the workplace.
“They may have little or no organisational support, poor interpersonal relationships, high workload, lack of autonomy, poor rewards and a lack of job security.”
The consequences of such work cultures, says Jain, are wide-ranging. They may include individual physical health impacts, like heart disease or musculoskeletal disorders, poor mental health and burnout, as well as organisational fallout, like reduced attendance, engagement, productivity and innovation.
Most toxic work cultures originate with poor management, whose bad habits can be contagious.
“Destructive behaviours at the top trickle down,” says Manuela Priesemuth, an associate professor in the management and operations department at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, US, who has researched abusive managers and toxic workplaces.
“If executives engage in toxic behaviour, people in the organisation assume this behaviour is accepted and they engage in it, too. Soon enough, a toxic climate is formed, where everybody thinks, ‘This is just how we act around here’.”
Before the pandemic, these toxic behaviours would take place in person, during meetings, presentations or casual interactions. Now, they occur over calls and in messages.
And although you might assume distance would reduce some of these tensions, experts say being away from the office is more likely to do the opposite