Work & performance

June 26 2016

How poor workplace culture can affect wellbeing

Dr Peter Cotton FAPS
By Clinical and organisational psychologist

A negative vibe at work can lead to poor mental health outcomes, but proactive leadership can reduce the risks and create a more productive working environment.

Whether you or the boss has attempted to cultivate it or not, your office, construction site, school, medical practice, police station or rural paddock has a workplace culture. It’s in the personality, leadership style, values, systems and behaviours native to the place where you go to work.

A positive workplace culture has the power to boost productivity and improve employee wellbeing, while a negative workplace culture can, unsurprisingly, achieve quite the opposite. In particular, a growing body of research shows that poor workplace culture characterised by unchecked incivility and bullying can lead to what is often called ‘psychological injury’. This may be associated with diagnosis of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety that arise from workplace stress – and are a growing source of claims for workers compensation.

There is emerging evidence to suggest that some leadership styles contribute to negative wellbeing at work. Importantly, however, this also means that everyone from line managers to the CEO can help to improve workplace culture and reduce the risk of psychological injury.

What causes psychological injury?

Psychological injury is a diagnosable mental health disorder that is significantly influenced by the workplace. Because managers set the tone of the workplace, poor leadership is a significant contributor to psychological injury.

Leadership styles such as those that are motivated by control appear to be correlated with higher levels of workplace interpersonal conflict and harassment. Similarly, leaders who want to be everyone’s friend and avoid difficult conversations can contribute to more entrenched problems which eventually erupt into confrontation and major conflicts when they are eventually addressed.

What’s more, in a poor workplace culture there tends to be a much wider tolerance margin for bad behaviour and over time staff members can be impacted by those behaviours. They may make complaints, those complaints may be ignored and as such staff become disgruntled and distressed.

Worryingly, low level behaviours that may seem insignificant – like talking over other people, not saying good morning and sending emails in red capital letters – can create fertile ground for the bigger ticket counterproductive behaviours like bullying, which is one of the most common causes of psychological injury. Research shows there’s a lot more of this sort of incivility in our workplaces than there was even a few years ago.

When the team climate is negative, morale is low. When people don’t feel supported by their leaders or colleagues, they tend to evaluate their experiences more negatively and you get a downward spiral that can result in a psychological injury.

The finer details

How can you tell the difference between poor leadership and employees who can’t handle a poor performance review? Behaviours that contribute to psychological injury occur outside of what’s called ‘reasonable management action’. This means that if you’re treating someone fairly and reasonably and have to provide some critical feedback about a performance issue, so long as it was done fairly and you weren’t screaming at the person or threatening them, if they get upset it’s not a psychological injury.

However, all employers – regardless of the size of the business – have a legal obligation under occupational health and safety law to maintain a safe and healthy environment. That applies equally to the psychological environment as the physical environment.

Sometimes there is a poor fit between an employee and the company and the best solution is for the person to move on, but where there’s a problem in the culture it can create a risk to health and safety and therefore create a risk for psychological injury.

At the other end of the spectrum, in a positive environment people actually perform better. They’re more engaged and will put in more effort. In other words, a good people environment is good for business and good for wellbeing.

How to reduce psychological injury

People-focused leadership is the key to improving poor workplace culture and reducing the risk of psychological injury. It’s about expecting managers to lead by example and model good behaviour, address issues as they arise and not tolerate inappropriate behaviour.

In many work environments where the tolerance margin has been really broad and the organisation starts to reduce the tolerance margin and hold people more accountable, you see an improvement in the culture and a reduction in the risks of psychological injury.

Other behaviours like keeping your finger on the team pulse, knowing your people, being open to feedback, being transparent and even-handed in decision making, and having integrity are really important for leaders to cultivate. What a lot of leaders don’t recognise is people on an everyday basis make tacit judgements about a leader in terms how genuine they are and the extent to which they walk the talk.

When people believe leaders have more of those qualities there’s stronger morale and better performance. In every industry there are better leaders who achieve better results and better levels of wellbeing because they have those characteristics.