by Shaina Fawn, LCSW
The curious thing about the Covid pandemic is it seems to have revealed a myriad of other social-emotional pandemics we've been silently (or not so silently) dealing with for years. And for some of them, we're starting to collectively decide "enough is enough!"
Even before the Covid pandemic, workplace environments were becoming the focus of research as some experts were interested in better understanding, explaining, and responding to concerning workforce trends related to toxic stress and burnout. The Society for Human Resources Management released a literature review in 2019 in which they found that:
turnover due to workplace culture costs $233 billion per year in the US
58% of those who left a job due to "workplace culture" claim that poor management was the reason they left.
40% of employees said their manager failed to engage them in honest conversations about work
25% of employees didn't feel safe voicing their opinions about work-related issues
57% of people report having left work for the day feeling exhausted, and that a toxic atmosphere often compounded their stress
25% of Americans dreaded going to work, which could account for the loss of $431 billion per year due to unplanned employee absences
These listed factors continue to be of interest in the time of what has been coined the "The Great Resignation," a trend seen in April-June of 2021 when 11.5 million workers quit their jobs. Most recently the New York Times reported that more than 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November 2021, suggesting that this trend is continuing to occur.
What is it about this particular time in our collective history that is causing so many people to throw in the towel? Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel has recently shed some light on this phenomenon, explaining that the global pandemic has forced humans to experience an "extended period of prolonged uncertainty." When paired with racial injustice and climate change, people are left to experience an existential breaking point where they are keenly aware of their own mortality. Perel explains that this causes people to begin to rethink their priorities and the qualities of their relationships. In terms of work, this has meant that many are no longer willing to accept being subjected to toxic workplace dynamics.
Human Resource experts in the field are attempting to now predict shifts that will occur due to the trends we are seeing during this time. At the top of the list of predictions are ones that will appear in terms of mental health and wellbeing. Some companies including Apple, Google, Nike, and HBO are beginning to offer new employee wellness benefits including a paid mental health day, employee-sponsored yoga, meditation space on-site, and access to mental health apps.
While these additions are helpful, they can fall short of the real and lasting change that is needed. In order to truly get to the heart of toxicity in the workplace and factors that have caused people to quit in droves recently, it is necessary to look at the culture of the organization and even the industry as a whole. A good starting place for workplace leadership who wish to make change is to re-examine policies regarding employee safety. Safety traditionally has been thought of as physical safety, including preventing accidents, workplace violence, and avoiding workers' compensation claims. A robust safety conversation, however, should also include psychological safety. Factors that support psychological safety can improve a workplace environment and help turn the tide in the workforce in years to come.
There is a growing number of written resources regarding ways that leaders can work to change the culture of their agencies and organizations. One example is Mindful Leader, a social impact for-profit organization whose mission is to create more mindful and compassionate workplaces. For leaders wanting to implement quick and easy solutions, here are some suggestions:
Assist Employees in Feeling Validated
Employees report greater workplace satisfaction when they are told that they are appreciated and doing good work. In fact, research has shown that this makes people actually work harder and report greater workplace satisfaction.
Allow Employees to Safely Express Concerns
Employees need to feel like they are openly able to express concerns without fear of retaliation or punishment. This implies that there must be a level of trust such that they can share their thoughts with their supervisor and that their supervisor will actually attempt to do something about it.
Involve Employees in Big Decisions
Especially when big changes are being made, employees report that they would like to feel like their thoughts and opinions are taken into consideration. Making decisions without warning that cause significant changes for staff can cause them to feel as though their voice, opinion, and expertise do not matter.
Create and Nurture an Environment of Acceptance and Belonging
Humans are relational at our core. This means that relationships are deeply important to us and we have an innate need to feel connected to one another. Leaders can help hone this type of environment by recognizing birthdays, accomplishments and taking time for team-building activities, even small ones, during meetings.
We live in a time where people in power, who are making decisions, must decide that the needs of their workforce are important and a priority, otherwise these disturbing workforce trends are likely to continue.