A Gurugram-based content strategy professional still shudders at the thought of her previous workplace. She used to spend 14-16 hours in the office. There were instances when she, along with colleagues, would spend entire nights in the office working because their to-do lists were unmanageable.
Burning the midnight oil was an unsaid expectation set by their manager. If any of the team members failed to fulfil it, the manager would ridicule and trash their ideas before the entire team during the next meeting.
“We were always so fearful of him. I remember having panic attacks at work,” recalls the 35-year-old. “It wasn’t just me. Most of my team members couldn’t stay beyond a few months.”
Another worker at a large corporate in Mumbai is aware that, like most other days, he won’t be treated well by his manager when he enters the office. From being yelled at for taking sick leaves to foregoing meals to complete tasks, he has seen it all.
Unlike the Gurugram professional who eventually quit the job and is now happy, for her new workplace allows her to strike a work-life balance and take care of her physical and mental health, the Mumbai resident doesn’t want to quit his job because he likes his role as a sales manager.
“It’s like being in a relationship with an emotionally abusive partner. Most of us spend long hours in the workplace and if you have a toxic manager, you know your mental peace is likely to go for a toss,” says the 42-year-old.
These two workers aren’t alone. A 2022 study conducted by the McKinsey Health Institute, titled Employee Mental Health And Burnout: A Time To Act, found that four out of 10 employees working in India Inc. have high levels of burnout, distress, anxiety and depression as a consequence of a toxic workplace. A toxic work environment breeds unrest, competition, low morale, constant stress, sickness, and even bullying, yelling and manipulation.
“Work life plays a huge role in overall well-being and satisfaction,” says Pallavi Singh, a Delhi-based trauma and grief-in-formed therapist at mental health not- for-profit I Am Wellbeing.
“If a person is subjected to toxic behaviours, their productivity will suffer irrespective of how passionate they are about the work they do,” says Singh.
Toxicity at the workplace can be defined as four different types of behaviours: narcissistic, aggressive, unethical and rigid, says Ruchi Ruuh, a Delhi-based counselling psychologist. “Someone who bullies and exhibits unethical behaviours that cause serious harm to an employee’s well-being by breaking their confidence, self-esteem, motivation and performance can be termed toxic.”
According to G. Ravindran, the former managing director and global business leader of SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) and the founder of start-up Leadership-next, a toxic manager gets personal, even when the relationship with the employees is strictly professional.
He points out how the typical Indian manager is different from their counterpart in the West. As Indians, we are accustomed to pushing people to ensure results that are neither governed by objectives, goal sheets or timelines.
Often, this behaviour is one of the biggest reasons for toxicity in the workplace, Ravindran says. In the West, however, there is more emphasis on employee mental health and wellbeing.
“If the delivery has to happen the day after tomorrow, the Indian manager is going to try and push employees to give it beforehand, even if that means them staying in office beyond work hours,” he explains.
This is unlikely to happen in a Western country. “They know what they are paid for and would stick to that,” he says.
Ravindran has some pertinent thoughts on a toxic employee: “The employee is not always innocent and that is an element that is often unaddressed. They play on the values and cultural elements of a company that can protect them. There have been many cases of employees misusing their rights. It requires a little maturity on part of a company to understand who is the complainant.”
Covid-19 didn’t just shake things up on the personal front. It also brought about several changes in the way we work.
Work from home became a reality to ensure business continuity during the pandemic. Experts like Ruuh argue that the pandemic was a significant contributor to workplace toxicity, having blurred the boundaries between home and work.
Ideally, a situation like the pandemic should have instilled empathy and compassion. On the contrary, employees witnessed more apathy, points out Ruuh. “Employees were expected to work longer than usual with no fixed time to sign out,” she says. “The decline in human connection made it even more ruthless, making it easier for managers to give ungodly commands.”
There are some companies that have formal systems in place for employees to reach out and inform the manager’s superior or an impartial ombudsman to tackle a situation of workplace toxicity. “Generally, the large and more aware corporates have a strong follow through, very little patience and almost intolerance towards such behaviour,” points out Ravindran.
According to Singh, besides having an open conversation with your boss, workers also need to claim their agency and consider the option to switch if there’s scope.
“If it isn’t possible, take out some time for yourself. Do self-care activities to add some joy to your hectic routine, or seek therapy to help create support,” she says.
Don’t take things personally. Toxic behaviour reflects their attitude, not yours. It’s important to be aware of your worth and competency
Have a healthy support system outside the office. People who maintain personal relationships report better life satisfaction
Learn stress management techniques and take up daily exercise to manage your mental health
Stick to your values and goals at the workplace. There are several employees who compromise on their beliefs to maintain peace with their toxic manager
By Ruchi Ruuh, a Delhi-based counselling psychologist