By Hannah Hickok
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’s particularly vital for people to understand their options for protecting themselves.
Toxic from the top down
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 assistant 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.
“Toxic cultures persist in remote settings, such that we see similar hostility over Zoom chats or email,” says Priesemuth. “Distance or anonymity can enhance negative behaviours – it’s sometimes easier to send a rude or threatening message than say it in person.” Pandemic fatigue is another contributing cause of bad behaviour. “Psychological distress and depletion are some of the main drivers of aggressive behaviours in the workplace. People might just have shorter fuses, which translates into less civil communication and discourse,” she adds.
In Nikolina’s case, after going remote, her boss’s already controlling behaviour started to feel more like harassment than supervision. “He would randomly call and demand you share your screen, or ask us to screen record our entire day. If he noticed a drop in activity for more than 10 minutes, you would get a Zoom check-in or TeamViewer session – even when people tried to take a shower or cook dinner.” She says he also messaged employees with urgent requests at midnight, and forbade them to take days off.
“My entire team suffered under his management,” she says. “Personally, I was in a constant state of anxiety and had a lot of trouble sleeping at night, staying up late hours thinking [about work].”
Experts say that having a boss who is a bully can be especially harmful in remote work environments, like many are experiencing now. The person still needs to interact with the bully, says Jain, but may find the behaviour harder to handle when they are at home, suffering from a lack of social interaction, feelings of emotional exhaustion and the work-life imbalance stemming from blurred personal and professional lines.
“Working remotely can make the situation worse, as the individual might not be able to get informal social support from their colleagues or take recourse from grievance mechanisms through HR because they’re isolated and feel less empowered,” he adds.
Coping with a toxic culture
Getting rid of toxic work culture, say Jain and Priesemuth, involves companies identifying and addressing the root causes of the dysfunction, which is often bad management. But that doesn’t mean employees have to wait around hoping things will get better. Educating yourself on your rights, whether via your company’s employment policies or local laws, can be an empowering first step.
“Being aware of your employer’s legal obligations is useful, as you can hold them to account,” says Jain. Many countries regulate working hours, time off and holidays, with the UN’s International Labour Organization’s guidelines serving as a baseline international standard. “Having this awareness can also help in pushing back on managers whose expectations have become unreasonable or unfair since the transition to remote work.”
If you’re a victim of bullying or otherwise unprofessional behaviour, it’s a good idea to save those emails or chats, or write down what was said on calls. “Gathering evidence of hostility can be a useful tool to substantiate any claims that might be raised through HR or senior management,” says Priesemuth. “Also, it’s beneficial to try to find allies – perhaps colleagues who have similar experiences or witnessed any transgressions – who can serve as a support system or help address the problem.”
Banding together with your peers can only go so far if there’s no meaningful HR department or system for raising a grievance, however, as was the case in Nikolina’s small company. “There was no such thing as HR or leadership that could be reached with any issues or complaints,” she says. “Our boss was our only point of contact and his attitude was that we should be grateful for our jobs and salary. In the end, I quit, along with many others, once the pandemic started spawning remote jobs. Now I have the creative freedom and peace of mind to develop my own business, a dating and relationship website.”
If changing jobs isn’t feasible at the moment, however, you can take measures to make yourself less vulnerable to toxic behaviours.
“Setting stronger boundaries between work and your outside life has been useful for employees,” says Priesemuth. “Research has shown that it can reduce job-related stress and increase employee wellbeing.” While this can be very challenging with a toxic boss, you can try taking small steps like turning your phone off after a certain hour of the evening, signing out of email and simply making yourself unavailable.
Still, Priesemuth emphasises that these coping techniques may only temporarily mitigate the effects of a toxic remote work environment – not solve them permanently. If your company leadership ultimately fails to take feedback and implement change from the top down, toxicity will probably persist, and your feelings of anxiety and fear will likely linger.
Every employee's situation is different, of course – and not every worker has the same amount of wiggle room to make changes, if any at all. No matter what your circumstances, it’s important to remember just how damaging toxic work environments can be, whether remote or in person; just shrugging off your negative environment can only make things worse. While strong boundaries, social support and stress management may help, you may want to eventually consider moving on if things don’t improve. If nothing else, these strategies can buy you time until you land the next, healthier gig.