The pandemic was a golden opportunity to fix the most toxic parts of work culture – yet we made many worse. Why?

In July, Mark, who works for a small technology company in East London, emailed his manager to tell her that he had tested positive for Covid-19. His boss didn’t ask any questions; instead, she expressed sympathy, wished him a speedy recovery and told him to take as much time off as he needed.  

Mark, whose surname is being withheld for job-security concerns, didn’t actually have Covid-19. In truth, he was exhausted and anxious; the toll of the pandemic, coupled with working 80 hours a week, and being expected to be on call around the clock, had become too much to handle. The 40-year-old was feeling severely depressed, and suspected that he might be on the cusp of a serious clinical burnout. 

“At that moment it was just so much easier to say I had the virus,” he explains, admitting that he felt some guilt for lying. “The stigma around mental health is real: questions are asked and judgements are made. The only good thing about Covid is that everyone just accepts it as a reason to be out of action, feels sorry for you and then moves on.” 

As the pandemic started spreading aggressively around the world, almost every industry was forced to adapt its way of working – in many cases, overnight. Management experts framed this as potentially positive: they were swift to forecast that this period of extreme and forced experimentation would provide a rich and unique opportunity to stamp out some of the most insidious elements of toxic workplace culture: presenteeism, a glorification of overwork and an entrenched authority bias that stops employees from speaking up when things don’t feel right.  

But as businesses reopen and companies begin to explore ways of operating that are fit for a post-pandemic world, there’s evidence that much still needs to be done to dismantle the relics and features that most prominently perpetuate unhappiness and ill health in the workplace. Mark’s experience is just one brutal and vivid example of this. 

A missed opportunity 

For years, it’s been widely acknowledged that many elements of modern workplace culture are problematic – and even damaging. 

In the past few decades, technology in globally interconnected companies and industries has introduced a fresh level of competition and speed. Almost anyone was given the opportunity to work from anywhere at any time, which led to overwork and overtime becoming dangerously glorified. Workaholism emerged as a sign of praiseworthy ambition and commitment to corporate causes, even as the detrimental health effects of never switching off became impossible to ignore.  

There’s much evidence that harmful pre-pandemic ways have simply been adapted for the remote world

Many consultants, managers and workplace experts witnessing the evolution of labour practices were acutely aware of these harmful shifts, and agonised over how to fix what was broken. But the relentless grind of everyday life provided scant opportunity to reflect and ultimately challenge such an entrenched status quo. 

However, when Covid-19 hit, businesses all around the world were forced to pause, assess and recalibrate. As companies retooled how they worked, and made decisions for how their workforces would go forward, this collective breath provided a rare opportunity to remedy the most insidious parts of working culture. 

Except, despite this open window, little seems to have changed. Even as workplace practices have been fiercely debated and discussed, there’s much evidence that harmful pre-pandemic ways have simply been adapted for the remote world, raising fears that even as we re-invent work in a hybrid and flexible way, toxic culture could endure – or even worsen, becoming even more rife and ubiquitous. 

Bad – and getting worse? 

“The arrival of the pandemic first seemed to put the work-to-death mentality on hiatus,” says Maryam Meddin, the founder and CEO of a behavioural health clinic in London called The Soke. “But after a while, it emerged that ‘working from home’ had somehow morphed into ‘living at work’, and people were working even longer hours than before.” 

This is particularly evidenced in the evolution of presenteeism, wherein employees come to work as a performative measure, despite being sick or fatigued. As a huge chunk of the global labour market moved out of the office and into a remote set-up during the pandemic, presenteeism silently shifted into the digital workplace.

Earlier this year, amid a reported rise in companies using surveillance software to ensure that employees put in the hours while working from home, cybersecurity company Kaspersky surveyed 2,000 full-time workers in the UK. A quarter of respondents admitted to working harder out of fear that their superiors would think of them as lazy, a proportion that rose to 40% among those who had monitoring software installed on the devices they were using for work.  

And, overall, poor pandemic workplace culture has meant that workers are putting in far more hours: a late-2020 survey by HR consultancy Robert Half showed that 45% of respondents were working more during the week than before the pandemic, a trend that the researchers attributed to the flexibility “[making] disconnecting extremely difficult”. 

The knock-on effect of this increase in work is clear: an October 2020 study of more than 3,600 UK employees showed work-related pressure as the most common cause of mental health issues by far. More than a third of respondents put symptoms of poor mental health down to workload, long hours and not taking enough leave, and almost one-third said their mental ill-health was caused by not feeling supported in their role, potentially an indication of their reluctance to share their circumstances. 

Now, as many employers begin to shift into hybrid-work arrangements, these effects may only worsen, experts warn. “The danger is that with some people continuing to work remotely whilst their colleagues opt to go back into the office, the ‘work-from-homers’ will feel a pressure to prove their commitment on an ongoing basis and continuously turn the dial up on a culture of overwork,” says Meddin. 

A matter of trust 

Theories vary on why so many companies have failed to use the pandemic pause to fundamentally reset the damaging elements of corporate culture. Some say that panic and uncertainty discouraged managers from trying anything that was not familiar. Economic fears, others contend, led to a myopic focus on short-term gains, like financial revenue, at the expense of everything else. 

But many also suggest that managers did not – and many still do not – appreciate the root cause of some of the most problematic workplace practices: a lack of trust. 

So many of the working practices that we’ve all become accustomed to are not built on the premise of trust – Peter Cheese

“Managers need to trust their employees in the same way as they need to engage with employees to trust them. But so many of the working practices that we’ve all become accustomed to are not built on the premise of trust,” explains Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the UK’s professional association for human resource management professionals. 

Cheese explains that managers at all levels and in every industry must be trained to appreciate the contributions of employees not “based on how many hours they spend in the office or how many texts they can answer in the middle of the night, but on their output and outcomes”.  

Through the decades, he explains, managers have become accustomed to evaluating the performance of their employees based on easily measurable factors: hours spent at work, or money generated for the business, for example. Humans like standard yardsticks against which they can measure and compare things, but we must appreciate that productivity comes in many forms, he adds. 

“Managers have to trust that employees understand their duties and responsibilities without being constrained and policed every hour of the day, and we need employees to know that managers trust them and trust their judgements,” adds Cheese. “Employees want to feel empowered. If they don’t, that will affect their engagement as well as their productivity.” 

While trust issues were already rampant prior to the pandemic, Cheese suggests that the unfamiliarity of remote working may have exacerbated them in some situations. Suddenly not being able to physically keep an eye on what members of the team were doing might have been disconcerting for some managers, who then overcompensated by checking in excessively over phone and email. Employees, in turn, could have interpreted that as a sign of not being trusted, creating tension and stress among seniority levels. 

Simply, not only did companies not use the pandemic to mend trust issues among their workforces, they doubled-down on many elements of corporate culture based on distrust. 

This has left employees feeling even more stifled and unable to speak up, amplifying anxiety, stress and poor mental health. Mabel Abraham, professor of management at Columbia Business School in New York, says it’s imperative that employers “create an environment that helps employees feel comfortable making their needs and preferences known”. “People will only speak up if they feel like they are being listened to and if they are not concerned about potential penalties for sharing their views,” she says.

No easy solution  

Coming up with a way to eradicate the most damaging habits, beliefs and patterns of behaviour is extremely challenging, not least on account of their entrenched nature.  

Paul Young is a former assistant psychologist in Britain’s National Health Service. He decided to pursue his PhD in workplace psychology at Loughborough University, UK, after spending a decade in the financial-services sector and witnessing a variety of workplace cultures over that time. 

“Undoubtedly, employers have a huge role to play in influencing work cultures and creating environments which are supportive of employee wellbeing,” says Young. But he argues that employees also have agency to develop their own personal resources to cope with adversity and stressors at work, and that companies should do more to help their people to tap into the resources they need. 

One potential pitfall that Emma Parry, a professor of Human Resource Management at Cranfield School of Management, in the UK, sees is that organisations make changes as a knee-jerk reaction to potential problems: that they panic and grasp for quick fixes. “Whereas at the outset of the pandemic, it was necessary to act quickly to be reactive to the situation, now is the time to ensure that any organisational development is evidence-based,” she says. She adds it’s important for managers to invite feedback from employees both through surveys and frank conversations, “so they can examine the culture and shared values of the organisation in a systematic way”.

I think there has been a lightbulb moment in society where young people especially are not prepared to put up with toxic work cultures – Paul Young

Abraham, of Columbia, says that she considers one of the greatest challenges to be that companies often become “paralysed by where to even begin in addressing these seemingly huge issues”. “To make these changes realistic organisational leaders must treat this as they would any other business problem and devise an actionable strategy to tackle the issue piece by piece, otherwise it will be insurmountable,” she says.  

But despite all the undeniable headwinds, Meddin of The Soke is confident that harmful behaviour can be eradicated, giving rise to workplaces where the culture is built on empathy, compassion and – most importantly – trust. “On average, it takes between eight to 12 weeks for behaviour to become ingrained,” Meddin says, “so I have faith that we have the capacity to form new habits.” 

Young says that even just the fact that we’re talking about issues like mental health more is encouraging. “I feel very optimistic that, in general, workplaces in the future will be better informed and more geared towards maximising employee wellbeing,” he says. “I think there has been a lightbulb moment in society where young people especially are not prepared to put up with toxic work cultures and environments which are detrimental to their health,” he says. 

So, while there might be plenty of grim evidence that things got worse during the pandemic, it might be wrong to think of the window of opportunity as closing any time soon. What Young calls a “lightbulb moment” might indeed be the catalyst for progress to come.

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