Could Your Workplace Be Toxic?

Your job might be slowly killing you.

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

A engineer at Facebook a computer support analyst at Stanford, both commit suicide and were allegedly subjected to workplace stress and harassment. Work related stress has become an epidemic and is omnipresent in many modern workplaces irrespective of industry. Workplace injuries have evolved over time and no longer encompass only physical injuries, but psychological as well. With the advent of these two unfortunate suicides, I felt that it was important that I not only share my experiences of what it was like to work in a toxic and hostile environment, but leverage my expertise within human resources as I had visibility to mental health data and trends.

Many people have approached me to ask, if I regret making the decision to speak my truth about my experiences, as they perceive it to be career suicide. My answer will always unequivocally be, NO. When I share my working experiences at Facebook and describe them as psychologically harmful and damaging, many people are surprised that a “white collar” job could have such a profound impact on my mental health. Unfortunately, work-related stress is not a metric that companies internally measure and is not subjected to regulations by any State or Federal agencies. However, work stress is prevalent and pervasive within the modern workplace today. Many people believe that if you work in a toxic environment, you can leave and find another job, a better job, but in all honesty, this is not always a viable option to vulnerable populations for a plethora reasons.


Even though I no longer work at Facebook, a piece of me has died after trying to survive in that type of environment for 3 years. In full transparency, I am not able to return to a traditional corporate environment without having passive suicidal ideations. In fact, workplace stress is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., and is responsible for 120,000 deaths annually according to Stanford professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer. According to The American Institute of Stress, work related stress and poor management can impact the bottom line of any company and costs U.S. companies $300 billion annually, in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, worker’s compensation claims, medical benefits, insurance costs, and legal defense.

I was hired to build the Accommodations Program for the Facebook. Through my employment, I was able to evaluate accommodations mental health trends that were starting to become disconcerting. Based on my prior experience, I could already see the writing on the wall for Facebook as these trends pointed to harmful work practices that impact employee health and mental well-being. I knew, if the work culture was left untreated, that Facebook like many companies, could potentially experience an influx of mental health issues within the workplace. After diving deeper, I realized these harmful work practices were pre-adopted by the culture and perpetuated by management. Often, companies will attempt to normalize and defend the culture as “special”, but despite the justification these practices display the typical toxic markers. There are other markers that contribute however, I found theses 3 to be consistently present within many working environments that spanned across multiple industries.

Harmful workplace practices

  • Long hours- The modern workplace today does not allow us to fully disconnect. If you work in the Tech industry, you soon discover that while you have all of the perks of free lunch, nap pods, gyms, health centers and shuttles to ease your long commute, it creates an environment where you are constantly working. Rather than going out to get lunch, you may opt to eat lunch at your desk and work. During your commute you may decide to work to help manage your workload and you have just logged another two hours of work. In total, many people are working 10–12 hour days without even realizing it. In fact, there is a direct correlation between being overworked and diminished employee productivity. Evidence suggests that being overworking not only impacts physical, but mental health. Many overworked employees not only struggle with physical, but mental health aliments such as neck and back pain, depression, insomnia, and feelings of burn out.
  • Normalization of a toxic culture- Many companies normalize toxic behaviors by simply playing to our egos. This type of normalization is pervasive within Facebook and the workplace in general. The impact of this narrative is harmful to the psyche because it is built on a deceptive platform of influence (if the entire team can work long hours, why can’t you?). I have not only experienced, but observed leaders tout how unique the internal culture and that having a work-life balance is a luxury. I had a manager tell me that, “I am not like her and it is clear I am not able to cut working in this type of environment”, despite working 12-hour days and weekends for 2 years straight.
  • Work -Family Conflict- We all must make trade-offs with family commitments concerning our careers. However, when work consumes your life and flexibility is not afforded to partake in family moments, this toxic marker can become an enormous source of stress for any employee. In my situation with my daughter, as a single parent, my work stress impacted her mental and physical health. Due to the trauma I sustained working at Facebook, I am unable to work and collect disability through my worker’s compensation claim. To help, my daughter had to pick up two jobs for us to survive and eventually wound up in the emergency room for stress-related symptoms due to my situation.

Workplace stress is not a new phenomenon, but rather, has been recently exacerbated due to the instability within workplace due to the uprising of the gig economy. Typically, stress stems from believing you no longer have a choice or control over your work situation, but you do not have to let your employer fully rob you of your power.

How to Take Back Your Power

While I do not foresee a change within the workplace in the near future, there are some steps you can take to reclaim your power and care not only for your physical, but mental health.

Set boundaries

Prioritize your health and time with your family. This may require you to make a proactive effort to shut down. Be open and communicate with your manger and team that you need to prioritize your health right now and doing so means limiting the time you will be working and responsive to emails, barring “true emergencies.” Set a response that outlines your availability and clearly communicate the times you will be unavailable to respond to emails (6:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.). Outline what is considered a “true emergency” to ensure there is alignment and provide an alternative way to notify. The key to setting boundaries is sticking to them!

Ask for Accommodation or Leave

There are times during your employment where stress may impact not only your physical, but your mental well-being. If work-related stress is hampering your ability to perform the functions of your job, you might need to consider discussing with your HR department the need for either a leave or an accommodation. Both are viable options however; it is best to discuss further with HR and your medical provider which one will support you best.

  • When to ask for a leave- A leave is an option that requires a medical doctor or psychiatrist certification. There are extended leaves for up to 12 weeks or intermittent options that your doctor can discuss with you. This option will provide job protection, but there are eligibility requirements that must be met:

— Employer has at least 50 employees

— Worked for the company for at least a year

— Worked at least 1,250 hours.

  • When to ask for accommodation- Many companies should have an accommodations program that not only covers disabilities, but health conditions. This is a great option if you are not eligible for any State or Federal leave options, exhausted leave options, want to continue to work. The Accommodations department will work with you and your medical provider to determine what workplace accommodation would work best for you given your medical condition through the interactive process.

Leave if you can

If you can leave and find a healthy workplace, then do it for your own sanity and future happiness. Unfortunately, that was not an option for me despite my efforts to source another job. Make sure you do your due diligence when looking for another job. Press the recruiter to provide you specifics about the manager and ask the manager directly what does a typical work week look like? Do research online as well as Glassdoor will provide some truthful insights to many work cultures.

Conclusion

Given my broad experience working in human resources and specializing in the accommodations space, I see this topic as an immediate area of risk for all business not only from a cost, but a human capital perspective.

Many companies have the ability to make a first step and can start to measure the level of work-related stress company-wide. Once the data is complied companies can then design a strategy that will not only help eradicate, but educate managers about the implications stress has on the business and their employees.

Kristine Sato Phillips

Written by

Former Facebook & Amazon employee. Multidisciplinary HR expertise & SME.

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