The U.S. Surgeon General released a groundbreaking report which identified toxic workplaces as being unhealthy for the overall well-being of employees. For years, I have discussed the impact of toxic workplaces on the confidence, mental, and physical health of employees. The Surgeon General’s report confirms these notions of how work can adversely affect your health. So I am on a mission to end toxic workplaces, which for some seems like an impossible and futile task. However, many aspects of work, once thought impenetrable to change, like offering paid parental leave or creating hybrid work models, were able to be achieved. So I am optimistic in our ability to make an impact on developing healthy workplaces. But in order to end toxic workplaces, we need to understand what constitutes such an environment.

According to an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, the leading elements contributing to toxic work cultures include failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, workers feeling disrespected and unethical behavior, and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover. Such elements of disrespect include bullying, not rewarding hard work, constantly violating boundaries of employees, and consistently discriminating against employees. So in order to end toxic workplaces, the following ten point plan should be implemented:

  1. Center diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as part of your overall business strategy – after the death of George Floyd and the racial reckoning of 2020, there was so much hope that we had turned a corner as it pertains to committing to racial equity, and fully embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Three years later, we understand that many of those commitments were hollow, and we are still dealing with a backlash against DEI and antiracist practices. Leaders need to fully commit to DEI through actual investment and action. Our society will continue to become more diverse, and the organizations genuinely committed to responding to the needs of ALL employees, including increasing equity and inclusion, will be the most successful in the long term.As noted, one primary facet of toxic workplaces is the failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. As such DEI should be fully integrated into a company’s strategy, and work should be done with boards of directors or boards of trustees (often overlooked in DEI interventions) to help them also understand the critical impact of doing this work effectively. Such a focus will involve a robust training program, DEI coaching for key stakeholders, and the development of a DEI strategic plan to guide progress over a specific period of time (e.g. five years), and will not be viewed as something “in addition” to the company’s work, but rather as a central part of the company’s work. And it should influence all aspects of the company, including hiring, promotion, marketing, onboarding, and social media coordination.
  2. Provide consistent, quality coaching and training for managers & senior leaders – managers are key drivers in creating a toxic or a healthy workplace. Unfortunately, so many managers are not given the proper coaching and training to adequately fulfill the duties (e.g. developing and supporting employees) of their role, which results in toxic work behaviors (e.g. micro-managing, bullying, micro-aggressions, playing favorites). Therefore, organizations should invest in skilled coaching and robust training on topics such as inclusive leadership, impostor syndrome, compassionate communication, psychological safety, and burnout prevention to help managers, senior executives, and board members become better leaders and to avoid becoming toxic bosses. And the coaching should not be 1 or 2 sessions, but a more lengthy period (e.g. 8 sessions) to facilitate sustained growth.
  3. Have zero tolerance for all forms of bias, discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, & coercive tactics, and prioritize psychological safety – in addition to centering DEI as part of business or institutional strategy, leaders must demonstrate zero tolerance for all forms of bias (e.g. racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.), discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, and coercive tactics to create a psychologically safe environment, wherein employees will feel that they will not be punished for speaking up or critiquing the organization. Psychological safety is such a crucial part of creating a healthy workplace, and most organizations only pay lip service to it, if they acknowledge its importance at all.
  4. End the notion of “doing more with less,”stop rewarding overwork, and create fair evaluations for productivity – as we encounter a period of economic strain, with many companies downsizing, this is the time where companies will be tempted to overstretch their remaining workforce. Managers will tell them to “do more with less,” an indication that no additional resources (e.g. money, headcount) will be coming but the same workload expectations remain. We must encourage employees to “do less with less,” meaning their work output should reflect the capacity they are given, in order to prevent burnout and overwork. There is no heroism in burning yourself out and organizations need to recognize this reality. Further, performance evaluations must be clear, bias-reduced, and aligned with actual productivity metrics for the organization, so employees can understand how they are actually making impact.
  5. Normalize self-care, taking breaks during the workday, and interruption-free vacations – the pandemic has highlighted the importance of self-care, and protecting one’s energy amidst challenging work conditions. However, as layoffs increase, and companies do not replace headcount, there will be more of a strain on workers to work more, without breaks or time off. And when they do take time off, they may still feel the need to remain connected, taking calls on vacation. Therefore, managers need to normalize self-care, including using PTO (paid time off) liberally, and taking breaks during the day. American workers are notorious for not taking vacations, even though research supports the fact that by doing so, you will be even more productive. And when they do take vacation, managers should not expect them to be available and should not interrupt them, let them be signed off.
  6. Stop the “we are a family” paradigm – so many leaders and organizations constantly state “we are a family” as a means of encouraging closeness, yet it oftentimes, unfortunately, is used to exploit employees, making them feel guilty about setting appropriate boundaries, not allowing them to advance & grow, and forcing them to overwork for the good of the “family.” You can demonstrate care and closeness without the “we are a family” paradigm, allowing suitable distance from work, while enhancing commitment to the organization. So instead of “we are a family,” say, “we are a team,” which can both help with increasing closeness and deepening commitment, without the exploitative connotation of the “we are a family” paradigm.
  7. Outline a clear career development path for ALL employees and provide consistent feedback – far too many employees are unclear about how to advance and excel in their roles, because they are never given feedback about their progress and no one can provide them with a clear career development path. By providing consistent feedback about both strengths and challenges, as well as outlining a career development path, companies can increase loyalty, commitment, and retention among employees, who will feel seen and valued.
  8. Encourage healthy boundaries at work, and discussions of burnout prevention & mental wellness as organizational responsibilities – healthy boundaries mean that employees should not feel the need to be available 24/7 with little balance between work and home. Leaders should also encourage more discussions about mental wellness and how to prevent or recover from burnout, understanding these are organizational imperatives, not just the responsibility of individual employees, but rather issues which must be handled on a systemic level.
  9. Give up the command-and-control approach to management and truly collaborate with employees to create a new, innovative vision of the workplace – the pandemic provided an opportunity for employees to assert more power, including demands to maintain remote work, and the Great Resignation was an indicator of employee dissatisfaction and confidence in finding new options. However, many employers have refused to adjust to the new normal of a partnership approach to management, opting to hold on to the outdated command-and-control style, wherein they bully employees into meeting all their dictates. By giving up such an approach, leaders can improve employee satisfaction, enhance retention, and truly transform the work environment into a healthier one. The future of work will require innovation, not just in technology & algorithms, but in rethinking the holistic design of the workplace, and it must entail a truly collaborative approach between employers and employees to shape a healthy and productive workplace.
  10. Normalize joy and kindness in the workplace – there is not enough joy and kindness in the workplace, I mean genuine laughter, acts of kindness, and general good vibes. We need to normalize work being a place where you can be both productive AND joyful. Some may mock this notion, affirming that work is work, and is meant to be a grind, but my experience has always been that those who feel most connected to their company are the ones who feel seen & heard, valued, fully appreciated and have a good time. Managers should model kindness and positive engagement. Despite the challenge of doing so in a hybrid environment, do not abandon social gatherings, increase informal ways for employees to connect, and constantly take the “joy” temperature of the team.

These past three years have been extremely grueling, traumatic, and challenging for all of us. And the economic downturn has led to even more pain as companies institute mass layoffs. However, there is an opportunity, despite these difficult conditions, to end toxic workplaces. By following this ten point plan, companies can transform the workplace into one which provides psychological safety, joy, and is overall a healthy place for all.

What other strategies do you suggest to end toxic workplaces?