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‘Toxic’ Workplace Culture Linked To a Threefold Increase in Risk of Depression, Study Shows

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Jun 24, 2021

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An Australian study tracked the mental health of employees over the course of 12 months to conclude that poor mental health in employees was associated with the absence of a safe and supporting work environment in an organization.

Published in the British Medical Journal yesterday, the study noted a threefold increase in the risk of depression among employees, quantifying the emotional and mental toll of work stress. It also suggests how the mental health of employees reflects poor management practices that carry a general disregard for the employees’ well-being.

“Evidence shows that companies who fail to reward or acknowledge their employees for hard work, impose unreasonable demands on workers, and do not give them autonomy are placing their staff at a much greater risk of depression,” said Amy Zadow, a research fellow at the University of South Australia, who led the study.

The researchers identified the lack of a safe psycho-social work environment that constituted a “toxic culture.”

Experts define toxic workplaces as environments fraught with judgment and infighting, which also discourage open communication in favor of people-pleasing. Toxic cultures also include climates that don’t prioritize the psychological health of employees at the workplace.

“Toxic culture perpetuates skewed office relationships, biases, and judgments, dogmatic rules and restrictions that bog people down, and fearful energies that threaten an individual’s ‘safe’ feeling in his or her role,” Atul Mishra from The/Nudge Foundation, an Indian NGO, explained.


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Researchers also explained that workplace harassment and bullying — through humiliation, aggression, overbearing supervision, or constant criticism, both overt and covert — contributes significantly to the risk of depression.

However, at times, the one bullying may also be a victim of the toxic work culture, who is perpetuating the treatment meted out to them. Unfortunately, this can set a precedent for how employees are treated. “Sometimes stress is a trigger for bullying and in the worst cases it can set an ‘acceptable’ level of behavior for other members of the team,” said Maureen Dollard, another research fellow at the University of South Australia, who was also involved in the study.

The solution to that, too, lies in addressing the systemic harassment of employees by companies. “Bullying can be predicted from a company’s commitment to mental health, so it can be prevented,” Dollard, who has been involved in similar studies, said.

Besides these external stressors, employees are impacted by expectations. The pressure to appear “committed” and “enthusiastic” — in order to be valued — often forced employees to put in long hours, not only tipping their work-life balance, but also amplifying their depression risk.

In addition to depression, toxic workplace cultures can have tangible repercussions on our physical health, too. “[H]eightened levels of stress can lead to changes in brain structure… Additionally, some people may also develop hypertension or diabetes due to stress,” Samriti Makkar Midha, a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, told The Swaddle last year.

A study by the World Health Organization from May also found long working hours leading to strokes, heart disease, and even premature death.


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Toxicity in the workplace is a concept that has endured and evolved over the years. During the pandemic, experts say the shift in work cultures across the world may further exacerbate the risk of poor physical and emotional health.

“Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work. In addition, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, said in a statement.

The findings of the study have emphasized the importance of creating healthier work environments.

“[A] comprehensive, non-judgmental, and empathetic working environment can create positive mental health at the workplace,” Atashi Gupta, a consultant psychologist from Kolkata, wrote.

In order to get companies to care, Gupta also explained how the better mental health of employees benefits the companies too: “A healthy mental state increases productivity and therefore makes perfect economic sense for the organization as well. It also ensures that attrition is low, which saves a huge cost.” 

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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