Coronavirus Gives New Meaning to the “Toxic Workplace”
By: Dr. Helen Ofosu
Coronavirus Gives New Meaning to the “Toxic Workplace”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, most of us had read about, heard about or experienced a toxic workplace first-hand. Being exposed to coworkers who spread poisonous rumours, or interacting with unsupportive or mean-spirited colleagues and managers can make us feel anxious, threatened, or physically sick. These are pervasive problems that I have discussed in previous blogs on workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and knowing when to leave a toxic workplace.
Recently news headlines are highlighting another type of toxic workplace. From offices to hospitals, public transit, grocery stores, and academic institutions, and other workplaces, more than ever people are asking “Should I be here? Should I risk going to work during an outbreak?”
Despite the alarm bells being sounded that this specific virus is rapidly spreading through almost every country, some workplaces have yet to take a position on the potential risk to employees.
A client emailed me this week to say that she just wants her boss to have a plan of action for if and when staff members get sick.
“Normally, I am annoyed when a co-worker shows up to a meeting with tissues and starts sneezing and coughing. There is always someone who decides not to take a sick day despite the risk of infecting others. Now that we’ve reached pandemic status, coming to work while sick seems negligent and potentially dangerous. I want to know that the organization that I work for has some strategy to prevent sick people from coming to work.”
I had to agree with my client. It is absolutely the right time to start communicating a plan of action and risk management with staff, even if to just acknowledge the reality of what is currently going on in Canada and around the world.
Another client who is based in Europe mentioned that “It has been a busy week with a lot of urgent planning and re-adjusting. Starting tomorrow, schools are closing but my boss still expects me to be at work because he seems to think this is not serious …” – This message was sent days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.
Some of my readers might be wondering how I have made the leap from toxic workplaces such as bullying or sexual harassment to a viral outbreak. In my opinion, physical and mental health is essential. Consequently, writing about workplaces that are toxic because of the emotional climate they foster is just as important as talking about organizations that are toxic because of the physical environment that they create for the employees. Both place undue stress and harm to employees.
Before the coronavirus pandemic was declared, countless employees would knowingly go to work when they had a cold or flu that was masked by medication. Even though it’s wrong and bad on so many levels, this has always happened. Many of us know what it’s like to suddenly feel sick and have your boss says something like “That deadline isn’t going to magically disappear,” or “Suck it up Buttercup; just finish your work and then go home.” Well, now you’re dealing with a physically and emotionally toxic environment. Forcing someone who is not well to work while simultaneously forcing others to be exposed is wrong. Period.
Most organizations are used to having a few employees call in sick during the winter cold and flu season but they may have very little idea on how to handle things if an even more harmful virus spreads through their staff.
Four ways your workplace could create a less toxic environment during the Coronavirus outbreak
1. Let sick employees stay home
Some employers and organizational cultures make it difficult for staff to stay home when they are sick. There are subtle and not so subtle messages that say “Come hell or high water, you need to be at work.” When the boss/manager drags himself in when he has a fever or is obviously contagious because of their coughing, sneezing, nose-blowing, etc., it sends the message that people are expected to be at work even when they are sick.
Many employees will come to work and mask their symptoms by loading up on medications because they need the money. Now it’s a physically and emotionally toxic environment. When whatever they are suffering from infects enough people, it can become a business continuity issue or even a liability issue. For example, what if coming to work sick turns into infecting essential staff or clients?
The silver lining is that now that we’ve crossed into pandemic mode. With this new status, governments are taking fast and unprecedented action, encouraging everyone who can stay home to stay at home, closing schools and public recreation centres, and discussing ways to provide support to families and employees who face financial consequences due to the coronavirus. Social shaming will make it harder for employers to be unreasonable. It also helps that high-profile employers like Apple, Shopify, Starbucks and governments are setting good examples. These employers want to prevent illness. Apple has closed stores temporarily while keeping the phone and online options available. Shopify is providing its employees with a $1000 stipend to buy what they need (e.g., ergonomic chairs, lighting, video-conference equipment, etc.) in order to comfortably work from home. Starbucks is “offering to pay employees to self-quarantine at home for 14 days if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, or are symptomatic, or need to care for loved ones, or if they are in a high-risk group.” In Canada, many people who work for various levels of government are being encouraged to work from home whenever it’s possible.
As a Work and Business Psychologist (officially known as Industrial and Organizational [I/O] Psychology), I can say for certain that employers should be approaching the growing fear and anxiety among employees in similar ways they may deal with other moments of crisis. The key to keeping up morale and productivity is presenting a calm, supportive and practical attitude in the workplace, and more importantly one that is willing to make adjustments during unprecedented times. Simply put, “Business as usual” isn’t always the best way to keep one’s bottom line.
Allowing employees to stay home who are sick creates a sense of security and commitment to return once they are feeling well. It can alleviate unease and fear in the remaining healthy employees who may have avoided going to work or been distracted and worried because of potentially getting exposed on the job.
Not to mention the obvious, which is decreasing the risk that your entire staff could become infected.
2. Communication and Self-Care
In past blogs, I’ve commented on the importance of basic communication in the workplace during socially or geopolitically stressful times. I’ve argued that without getting into politics, it can be helpful to discuss human and corporate values. When we’re silent, it can be difficult for staff and colleagues to know where they stand.
Most people fear the unknown. Consequently, this coronavirus has become scary. We don’t know what’s next or when it’s coming. But it is up to an employer to communicate with their staff the possible changes in how work will be done and what happens if/when the virus does affect their employees. Just being armed with a plan of action and or response can be enough to make a workplace less stressful and confused.
Without taking care of ourselves, we can’t be our best at work (or at home).
3. Employers may need to be prepared to halt production, limit travel, boardroom meetings and or make other drastic decisions
It isn’t an easy decision to forfeit making money but sometimes the risks and rewards of pushing ahead don’t play out well. Most employers don’t have the cash reserves that Shopify, Apple or a government does. Regular employers may need to make tough and unprecedented decisions: “Do I shut down my workplace or do I let people work in a modern manner from home?” Of course, this doesn’t apply to all workplaces. You can’t provide retail, public medical or nursing services from home. But businesses that can be run from a laptop should utilize the upsides of remote work. Limiting unnecessary interactions and travel during these uncertain times should be considered seriously.
As one client pointed out, even if these places of work do not change or modify how they operate, the government might make that choice for them. So, management needs to fully be ready to work under these new and rather strict health guidelines and even brace for a possible employee quarantine. Failing to take these measures or prepare for them leaves employees without health and job security.
4. Consider How to Modernize Work and Business Practices
This is a smart time to proactively invest the time and energy required to implement some work-from-home policies and practices. In some organizations, this just isn’t feasible, but in many it is. Start small and test the waters with conference calls, video appointments, logging in from home via VPN, using collaborative tools like Google Drive, iCloud. Re-think your organization’s use of mobile tools. If your staff already use laptop computers, are you sure they can’t take that PC home?
Employees who work from home can be just as productive and sometimes even more productive. In an earlier blog post on modern time management I explained how video and conference calls, and fewer face-to-face meetings can help even companies get more done. Plus, digital monitoring of completed work allows employers to observe productivity from anywhere.
These are unusual and stressful times. By necessity, most people will stop dismissing the quiet, sometimes boring, intellectuals. For the past several years, ‘influencers’ and others with good marketing were given the same legitimacy as actual experts (for more about this, read Do Experts Still Matter?). This crisis should mark a turning point where there will be more respect for facts, expertise, and formal education/credentials. The stakes are too high to accept anything less.
Other Reliable Sources of Guidance and Information:
- Support for employees and employers from the Canadian federal government
- Resources for Canadian businesses (from the Federal Government)
- An excellent article with mini-simulations that show the impact of ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’
We are living in truly interesting times. As a Work and Business Psychologist, I can help both individuals and organizations navigate more effectively.
You may also call me directly at 613-424-8689 or 1-888-878-8861 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss these services.
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