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How to foster a healthy work climate?

April 11, 2023
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

“Work is killing me!” is a commonly used turn of phrase. But did you know that one could actually die from work-related stress? The Japanese even have a term for it: karoshi.

Identified first in Japan in the 1970s and gaining coverage internationally since 1992, the phenomenon of karoshi literally translates as “death by overwork”. 

An increasing number of karoshi deaths resulted in Japan making active efforts to reduce work stress. Since then, several other countries and global companies have introduced policies to deal with karoshi-type casualties, especially karojisatsu (suicide from overwork and stressful working conditions) and other issues related to organisational culture and workplace environment. 

However, in spite of the evident need to focus on a healthy work climate, studies show that most organisations around the world still have a single focus on “profit” but ignore the ones driving the profit—its “people”. 

The recent layoffs by tech giants only prove that further. Research shows that the likelihood of developing health disorders, mainly stress-related conditions, increases by 85% in the first 15 to 18 months after a layoff, even for employees with no pre-existing health conditions.

The world of work is, however, now witnessing a new trend: an increasing number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs mainly because of worsening work-life balance or toxic workplace culture. This phenomenon, coined as the Great Resignation in May 2021, involves a record number of people resigning from their jobs since the start of the pandemic.

In the US, employees are quitting their jobs in droves because of toxic workplace culture, as per an MIT Sloan Management Review. Moreover, according to the organic marketing platform Conductor, Google searches for “toxic work environment quiz” increased by 700% in April last year. 

So, what exactly is a toxic workplace environment, and how can you deal with it to foster a healthy work climate?

A toxic workplace environment describes a negative relationship between the worker and the workplace. As opposed to a collaborative or healthy work environment which is a friendly place that offers the right mix of pleasure, involvement and organisational behaviour, a toxic work environment is defined by:

  • narcissistic behaviour
  • offensive and aggressive leadership
  • threatening behaviour from managers and co-workers
  • and harassment, bullying, and ostracism   

Work-related stress could also have psychological effects. A toxic or hostile work environment can cause intense psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression, loss of concentration, as well as poor decision-making.

Moreover, work-related stress also negatively impacts a company’s performance and not just its employees, as it is a cause of occupational ill health, poor productivity, and human error. 

Researchers compare a toxic environment ‘to cancer that damages all the stakeholders of an organisation, as it creates a toxic culture and toxic leaders and toxic employees that ultimately create a toxic organisation’. Studies show that toxic workplace behaviours could increase the organisational cost because of the negative impact on a company’s image, low self-esteem, poor employee morale, work-life balance conflict, increased absenteeism, deteriorating employee health, and reduced employee productivity.

In short, a “toxic workplace environment” negatively impacts the overall organisational outcome.

Fostering a healthy workplace climate 

An average person spends around 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. Hence, while most businesses have understood the responsibility to provide physically safe work environments, it’s time they take steps to promote their employees’ mental health and foster a healthy workplace

Moreover, as Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman highlights: “Positive work environments outperform negative work environments.” 

The World Health Organization (WHO) proposes the following definition of a healthy workplace:

“A healthy workplace is one in which workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace by considering the following, based on identified needs:

  • Health and safety concerns in the physical work environment;
  • Health, safety, and well-being concerns in the psychosocial work environment, including organisation of work and workplace culture;
  • Personal health resources in the workplace;
  • Ways of participating in the community to improve the health of workers, their families and other members of the community.”

Based on this definition, researchers believe that an organisation can cultivate healthy workplace initiatives in four spheres of influence: 

  1. Physical work environment: Dealing with physical hazards at the workplace that can threaten the physical health and workplace safety of employees.
  2. Psychosocial work environment: Addressing psychosocial hazards, also known as work stressors, that deal with the psychological and social environment of the workplace.  
  3. Personal health resources: Providing health resources such as health services, information, flexibility, and opportunity that motivate and support its employee’s efforts to improve their health practices and monitor and support their mental and physical health.   
  4. Enterprise community involvement: Supporting the social and physical well-being of the community in which it operates and making efforts to positively impact the safety, physical, and mental health and well-being of its workers and their families.

Let us take a closer look at addressing “Psychosocial hazards” or work stressors related to the psychological and social conditions of the workplace, such as organisational culture and attitudes, values, beliefs and daily practices. In fact, studies show these type of work stressors can be more harmful to the mental and physical health of workers, leading to two to three times greater risk of mental illness, back pain, injuries, and workplace violence and conflict.

Examples of psychosocial hazards include:

  • Poor work management (challenges with work demands, time management, decision latitude, reward and recognition, assistance from supervisors, job clarity and design, and poor communication)
  • Organisational culture (lack of policies and practices related to dignity or respect for all workers, harassment and bullying, gender discrimination, intolerance for ethnic or religious diversity, lack of support for healthy lifestyles)
  • Commanding and controlling management (absence of consultation, respectful performance management, negotiation, healthy two-way communication, and constructive feedback)
  •  No work/life balance support

Dealing with a toxic workplace culture 

Researchers Anjum, Ming, Siddiqi and Rasool suggest the following steps to minimise, if not eradicate, the toxic workplace culture:

On an individual level: 

  1. Carry out a self-assessment by asking if your actions or performances contribute towards a positive environment?”
  2. Make intentional efforts to disconnect from negative interactions.
  3. Try to turn an unpleasant situation into a positive learning experience, as often, the most personal growth comes from thriving in the most trying situations. 
  4. Make a habit of communicating positive messages, especially appreciation to others.
  5. Make a conscious effort not to add to the toxicity of a work environment and instead try to help remove toxic factors from the workplace. 

On an organisational level:

  1. Organisations should develop and implement policies, communication and reporting mechanisms that tackle toxic workplace factors, such as bullying and harassment. 
  2. Once a policy is in place, organisations must ensure they train all managers and employees to identify, respond to, and report toxic behaviours. These trainings must also highlight the challenges and fears of employees who struggle to report these types of behaviours.

If you or someone you know needs help to deal with workplace stress and a toxic workplace and foster a healthy workplace climate, reach out to a mental health professional. You can browse our directory of treatment centres across India here.


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Takashi, Haratani (2011) Karoshi: Death from Overwork ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health & Safety

Anjum, Amna; Ming, Xu; Siddiqi, Ahmed Faisal; Rasool, Samma Faiz (2018) An Empirical Study Analyzing Job Productivity in Toxic Workplace Environments Int J Environ Res Public Health

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One third of your life is spent at work