How to tell if you're in a socially distant toxic workplace — and what you can do about it
September 2, 2020
Working from home during a global pandemic has made one thing clear: toxic workplaces don't breed just in brick-and-mortar buildings.
In a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research on the impacts of COVID-19 on the workplace, researchers found that employees in North America, Europe, and the Middle East are working 48.5 minutes longer; they're sending more emails and attending more meetings.
And that's the global average from 16 metropolitan areas, with around three million respondents — meaning that the reality for some is worse.
What's making a socially distant workplace toxic?
Remote working was a savior when lockdowns happened — it was a way for millions to continue their jobs without risking infections.
Five months later, stress levels are running high amongst employees. Employees are feeling pressured to do whatever it takes right now, with economic instability and rising unemployment rates only adding to the worry.
The International Labour Organization has estimated that in the second quarter of this year the pandemic could wipe out 6.7% working hours globally.
Psychologist and political and corporate advisor Dr. Reneé Carr said that the fear of losing a job has been taken advantage of by those in positions of power.
According to Carr, companies that had a positive culture have been more understanding of their employees' concerns, while those that had a toxic culture pre-COVID-19 have become even more toxic.
"If I'm a toxic CEO or manager, then now that I know you need your job and you're going to do anything that I tell you, it's more likely to make me more toxic, more of a bully, more oppressive and more disregarding of your concerns," Carr said.
Signs of a socially distant toxic workplace
Apart from the tell-tale signs of toxicity in an office, such as high turnover, low morale, and a negative, critical culture, there are ways to tell if your workplace is taking a turn for the worse while working remotely.
According to Radhika Gordhandas, sports psychologist and HR at e-commerce website TATA CLiQ, lack of communication can be one sign of workplace toxicity.
Ask yourself these questions: Does your company host virtual meetings to give updates on any company-wide change? Have they discussed the plan of action, asked you about your concerns, or talked about layoffs and pay cuts candidly?
If it's a no, then your company isn't transparent about what's happening and the air of uncertainty is making it an unhealthy environment — resulting in insecurity and stress.
Leadership and life coach Anita Belani said policing by overbearing managers could mean employees are not trusted to do their jobs.
Surveillance is not good for morale. If you're asked to check in multiple times a day, or worse, if you're asked to work with the video camera on so you can be monitored, then the company wants to keep tabs on you — which is detrimental.
No work-life balance
With no commute and no evening plans, employees are being asked to pull longer working hours, and there is no clear demarcation between personal and professional life.
Belani said that employees are finding it hard to switch off because there is no physical distance between work and personal life. And it's not just bosses — clients and other stakeholders are expecting workers to be available all the time, emailing and texting at odd hours.
The pressure to work on holidays and weekends also signals a disregard for an employee's personal life and mental health.
Lack of social engagement
Watercooler talks and smoke breaks have disappeared, and workers can no longer walk across to a colleague's desk to chat. Now work calls are dominated by targets, and people are finding it hard to connect.
If there is no time for informal chats with your boss about how you're doing, if you can't talk to your HR about feeling overburdened or stressed, and if there are no virtual celebrations or engagements with colleagues, then you know that the company cares more about the bottom line than its workforce.
Cyberbullying and harassment
Employees can face virtual bullying by their co-workers, managers, or even subordinates on communication channels like Slack, email, social, and messaging platforms, according to the National Cybersecurity Alliance.
If an organization doesn't take these concerns seriously, then it's another red flag.
What can you do about it?
It's a difficult situation right now and there are many factors that may stop you from quitting, especially if you don't have a fall back option. Experts recommend some things you can do to persevere.
Belani, who has served as HR and an advisor to companies and is one of the founding members of mental health platform Emotionally, suggests that employees have a structure for their day.
Start at a certain time and end at a certain time. Step away from the screen for lunch and have a coffee break. Create a boundary, and don't answer the phone while having a meal.
Of course, there may be days when it's just not possible, and that's okay — but you need to assert yourself, even if it's just once or twice a week.
Make your timing clear
Now that things have settled with the new work from home situation, tell your boss you will return to your previous work schedule, and specify what your timing will look like.
Carr said to use your words wisely and document your availability on email. Let them know that now that summer is over, you'll be unable to give extra hours, "because you want to be clear that you willingly gave it because it was the height of the crisis."
Engage with peers outside of work
According to a Glassdoor US survey, nearly three out of four employees are eager to go back to work to socialize with colleagues and collaborate in-person. While that still may be some weeks — or months — away, you can still take a coffee break with a colleague on video, or call them to chat about things other than work.
Take a time-out
Glassdoor career expert Alison Sullivan recommends using vacation days to unplug this summer because "being a productive person at work and in life means finding time to reset and recharge."
Ask for help
It may be worthwhile to talk to your company's HR if you're feeling overwhelmed. There are also career coaches, psychologists, and mental health professionals who can offer advice online to help you cope.
LinkedIn has made more than 600 courses free across seven languages, and websites like Coursera and Khan Academy offer learning tools for a diverse range of courses, from graphic designing to machine learning.
"Continue working where you are, but build up your credibility, your expertise, and even your connections to go where you want to be," Carr said.
Create an exit strategy
"Take some time to explore who's on LinkedIn that may be able to help you in your professional journey. Nearly 70% of professionals told us they plan to help someone else in their network in their career," Ruchee Anand, LinkedIn's director of talent and learning solutions in India, said.
This means adding people you already know (colleagues, teachers, and acquaintances) to your network; joining groups from your industry; and following hashtags related to your job.
Start looking for opportunities. It may also be worthwhile to explore if you'd like to change industries, depending on your aspirations and goals.
One thing to remember is: a great job doesn't make you as happy as you think, Professor Laurie Santos explains in Yale's The Science of Well-Being course. When you use your signature strengths/personality traits to make a living, you have more work satisfaction, and you're motivated to get out of bed every day because you believe in that idea or company.
So if you are shifting gears in your career, make a list of what you like to do and what you're good at. Notice any intersections? Think about how you can turn these into a job or a financial opportunity, Carr said.
And the very important last step if you're planning to join another company: read reviews on portals such as Glassdoor, or talk to former employees, so you can be sure that the prospective company is more appreciative of its human capital and has a better work culture than the one you're leaving behind.