Toxic Workplaces: Centering Systemic Inequities and Public Health for a Transformative Workforce

As the Director of Resilient Wellness, I began focusing on workplace wellness due to my own experiences working within unhealthy workplaces. We developed an innovative program that is designed to address the specific needs of each workplace, coupled with prevention and secondary intervention.

Unhealthy workplaces and staff are a byproduct of the capitalistic system that we exist in. Referring to cultural axiology, which is the study of value. It is safe to say that the highest form of value lies in material gain for a majority of workplaces and their leaders. However, this can lead to many issues, as material gain which is almost always in competition with the wellbeing of humans who are seen as a means to an end to achieving these material gains.

With the cost of living rising across the country and the increased costs for healthcare despite the passing of the affordable care act, workplaces are still experience high levels of turn over, low productivity and high rates of illness. According to a study conducted by the Department of Labor, workforce illness contributes to $576 billion in losses for the US economy annually.

Causes of Unhealthy Workplaces

The main culprits in the development of unhealthy workplaces are outlined in the model below:

Leadership: The leadership of a workplace, organization or institution sets the tone for what is allowed, for the culture of the workplace and interactions between employees.

Culture: Workplace culture dictates what is and isn’t acceptable. Culture is comprised of values of the organizations, the implementation or lack thereof of policies and procedures also influences workplace cultures.

Infusion of Overarching Social Themes:When structural oppression such as racism, sexism, homophobia, colorism and more seep into the workplace, these social themes will thwart any and all initiatives to support employee wellbeing. These issues must be address first and foremost.

Interpersonal Dynamics: Interpersonal dynamics fueled by unresolved internalized dynamics can create unnecessary conflict, combine this with the addition of social themes and a pre-existing culture and there can be toxicity that is difficult to address and transform.

Internalized Dynamics: Staff and leaders bring their lived experience to the workplace. Perspective and experience in addition to their cultural axiology can create toxic interpersonal dynamics if space is not created for transformative experience to enhance perspectives and improve behavior.

The Solution

The solution for addressing toxic workplace dynamics can be found in the problem itself. By centering the health impacts of workplaces that lack diversity, we can transform the purpose of workplace wellness programs and diversity efforts. Current efforts are often times watered down, don’t address the root cause of toxicity and in many ways, exacerbate it. Workplace leaders should understand that the best ROI is the health and wellbeing of their staff. By promoting culturally respectable health practices and creating space to develop healthy interpersonal skills, toxicity can be transformed. Workplaces also should focus on developing a true culture of diversity through self-awareness and community building. Collaborating with outside organizations can be more effective than developing in-house programs. It reduces tension employees may have with revealing grievances and expressing improvements while allowing leadership teams to also benefit from programming and reduce barriers to engagement that are created by hierarchy.