Sarah, a marketing executive in an advertising agency, initially found her job exhilarating. As time passed, factors such as deadline pressure, extended work hours, and negative feedback from coworkers altered her perception of work. The culture of long hours and a competitive environment contributed to a pervasive sense of stress.
As the workload intensified, Sarah’s perception of her job became increasingly hostile. Following the lead of older coworkers, she started labeling her work environment as toxic. The stress began to overshadow the aspects of her job that she once enjoyed, creating a sense of being trapped in a cycle of high expectations, never-ending tasks, and a culture prioritizing output over well-being.
Slowly, the toxic perception of her work started affecting her overall performance.
How we perceive work is crucial to our productivity and overall well-being. Extensive research in organizational psychology consistently highlights the profound impact of our attitudes and beliefs toward work on our performance.
“The designation of an individual as ‘toxic’ possesses the potential to instill feelings of shame and self-deprecation. Over time, such labels have the propensity to become internalized, particularly when dealing with a term as emotionally charged as ‘toxic.’ Those who already grapple with diminished self-esteem or fragile self-worth are particularly susceptible to adverse effects when characterized as such,” says Dr. Robert Chandler, DClinPsyc (UK) Clinical Psychologist, Director, Corporate and Workplace Services at Lighthouse Arabia.
Seeing work as toxic or burdensome can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where this perception contributes to reduced satisfaction, engagement, and productivity.
A recent article explores a critical question: “Why does it seem like every workplace is toxic?” In the article, behavioral expert Thomas Erikson notes that the term ‘toxic work’ has undergone hyperinflation, often employed dramatically to label situations that may not be poisonous but rather negative experiences tied to a challenging manager.
Yet the term “toxic work” has gained popularity through the years.
The word ‘toxic’ derives from the Latin ‘poison,’ says Dr. Chandler.
“Over recent years, the word has been the subject of ‘concept creep’, in that the original definition of the word is used more often, in more contexts, with changing parameters of the word’s meaning. Although concept creep is neither inherently a good or bad thing, the increase in the use of the word has several negative outcomes,” he says.
Firstly, it is a categorical word (something is either toxic or non-toxic), and its use fails to consider the nuances of people, relationships or work environments, he adds.
In addition, overuse of the word creates a sense of “powerlessness in the individual.” Upon using this term, people think, ‘I am at the mercy of the other and therefore lack agency,’ explains Dr. Chandler.
“What likely follows is an individual who feels stuck, disempowered, and lacks control over their relationships or workplace culture,” he says.
The term ‘toxic’ is frequently used to summarize work experiences or relationships, yet its overuse comes with a caveat.
According to Dr. Chandler, the term may gradually lose its impact and significance due to concept creep. “I have consulted with patients who have been described as “toxic” by their partners or colleagues, and some of them appear unperturbed by the characterization, largely because of the term’s overuse and subsequent dilution of its meaning,” he says.
Moreover, research by Bakker and Demerouti (2007) delves into the “job demands-resources model,” indicating that perceiving work as depleting and stressful rather than as a source of growth and fulfillment can significantly affect an individual’s engagement and performance.
“We all see the world from our lens, which may lead to biases of opinion on organizational culture. Developing emotional agility enables us to step back from emotional reactions that might make us perceive a culture as toxic,” says Nathan Farrugia, Managing Director of VISTAGE.
MISUSE OF THE TERM
Whether we categorize our experiences as toxic or transformative, these descriptors are crucial in shaping our personal and collective professional narratives. In this context, the power of words goes beyond semantics, becoming a nuanced force that influences our perceptions and molds the fabric of our shared professional reality.
Dr. Chandler explains that cognitive distortions are exaggerated assumptions that are often not fact-based. “At times of stress, our thinking narrows, and we can overgeneralize, jump to conclusions, or come to see a complex situation or event in a way that fits our pre-existing beliefs,” he adds.
According to Farrugia, supplementing our feelings with factual evidence is crucial to forming an unbiased opinion and validating our beliefs. He says employee engagement surveys can serve as valuable tools to indicate whether the rest of the team shares our sentiments or is specific to our situations. “If there is evidence of a negative culture, the key to mitigating toxicity within an organization is first acknowledging the need for change, aligning everyone with the company’s vision and mission, and fostering trust and transparency, which becomes imperative,” he adds.
“This is essential for creating a collective commitment to positive change and promoting a healthier organizational culture,” Farrugia adds.
Another ripple effect is labeling, which is a commonly occurring cognitive distortion.
Dr. Chandler highlights that continually labeling people or situations as toxic hampers open-mindedness and the capacity to view a situation from diverse perspectives.
“Once we label a work environment as ‘toxic,’ our minds unconsciously search for more data points supporting that narrative. As the narrative strengthens, this leads us to enter situations, meetings, or events with an already defined outcome in our minds of how that situation will play out, which is highly problematic,” adds Dr. Chandler.
DESPONDENCY, CYNICISM AND BURNOUT
Transforming a toxic perception starts with a shift in mindset and behavior. Labeling something or someone as ‘toxic’ indicates a negative perception. Acknowledging that our perception heavily influences our experiences is the initial step toward bringing about change.
“When a person or environment is characterized as ‘toxic,’ it often results in the accuser absolving themselves of agency and responsibility by saying, ‘The issue lies with the culture, and I have no role in this,’” says Dr. Chandler.
“Relationships and workplace cultures are intricate and nuanced, with each individual within the system or relationship making some contribution. This isn’t to deny the existence of genuinely challenging workplace environments but rather to emphasize that everyone should reflect on their contribution to the situation or relationship,” says Dr. Chandler.
Moreover, altering cognitive distortions can have long-term benefits.
Dr. Chandler adds, “People who constantly blame the organization or others in a relationship are likely to feel cynical and despondent.” He adds, “This may also contribute to the onset of burnout and mental health difficulties.”
The collective evidence indicates that our perceptions of work profoundly impact our productivity. When individuals view work as toxic or burdensome, it can create a self-reinforcing cycle that affects motivation, mental well-being, and productivity. This negative perspective can result in reduced job satisfaction, increased stress, and diminished performance.
Recognizing the influence of our perceptions on work is crucial. It’s not only the nature of the job but also our mindset and attitudes that play a significant role in shaping our productivity and well-being.
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