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If employees are not speaking up, it’s a bad sign for your work culture

When employees feel a lack of respect, safety, and encouragement, they choose disengagement at work which negatively impacts organisations

Research shows that when employees feel safe enough and encouraged to express their opinions, organisations benefit,
Research shows that when employees feel safe enough and encouraged to express their opinions, organisations benefit, (Pexels)

From last year's ‘quiet quitting’ to this year’s ‘bare minimum Mondays’, these social media buzzwords have led to more open conversations about workplace culture and discussions about red flags. With a collective awareness and accessible knowledge about what a healthy workplace should look like, dismissing toxic culture as ‘how things have always worked’ is no longer a viable option for leadership. 

Now, a new study shows that a lack of safety and open dialogue at workplaces is a huge concern for employees.

The new report titled Diversity, Equity and Inclusion by HR solutions provider Genius Consultants involved respondents from around 2,000 Indians from various sectors. The findings showed only 13% of respondents felt safe to express their ideas and opinions, while the rest felt bogged down by fear of judgement and negative consequences, according to Press Trust of India. Notably, 22% of surveyed people said there is a significant gap in creating an inclusive and equitable workplace, and 33% feel that their organisation does not have an open-ended culture.

Also read: Workplace harassment can impact your mental health, even if ‘just’ verbal

The report highlights the main issue with the talks about diversity, equity, and inclusion: It's often limited to paying lip service. One in four people do not feel valued at work, and those who do are mostly in senior positions, according to a 2022 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Lack of diversity and inclusion remains one of the primary reasons for employees not engaging in the workplace, as it is also the issue that necessitates the establishment of a safe environment. Not engaging in the workplace and keeping quiet is often linked to self-preservation, a way of protecting one's mental health and well-being.

Previous research has highlighted a few other important reasons that lead to employees hesitating to express themselves in the workplace. We take a look at some of them.

Lack of open dialogue

Studies have shown that when employers don't encourage dialogue but instead use a top-down communication approach, it can cause stress to employees and make them feel like their opinions are not valued or respected. A 2021 study by Rice University researchers showed that creating a work environment centred around open communication has a positive impact, and leaders who encourage employees to speak up with ideas build better teams.

Another study published in PLOS One in June 2022 highlighted that engaging leadership, wherein employees feel a sense of autonomy and a feeling cared for, may boost employee engagement. When open communication is discouraged, employees don't feel part of a team, and it can be isolating. There is also the added anxiousness of how their opinions and ideas will be received.

Consequences of burnout

When employees feel burnt out at work, and the stress burdens them, they tend not to have the energy to engage or come up with new ideas. This is the foundation for bare minimum Mondays and quiet quitting trends. A feeling of burnout leaves almost no scope for creativity at the workplace as employees struggle to get through most days.

A 2020 study by Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz showed that work stress and burnout can reinforce each other. Commenting on it, Professor Christian Dormann of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) said in a press statement published in Science Daily, "This means that the more severe a person's burnout becomes, the more stressed they will feel at work, such as being under time pressure, for example."

He further added that to protect themselves from further exhaustion, employees might implement a psychological distance from their work. They alienate themselves from work and people associated with it, he added. When there is a distance, communication is one of the first things to be cut off.

Lack of safety

When an employer publicly reprimands an employee or dismisses their ideas without consideration, it can lead to a work environment where employees constantly question themselves, struggle with self-esteem and prefer silence over shame.

A 2021 report by the Workforce Institute at UKG shows that four in five employees feel that people at their organisation are not heard fairly or equally, and nearly half (47%) say that underrepresented voices remain undervalued by employers. When there is a fear of backfire, employees may often choose to withdraw and not speak up.

These findings reflect those of previous research, such as the 2020 study by MIT Review. For the study, MIT researchers conducted a survey involving 6,000 employees of a Microsoft business unit wherein they asked about their managers and how many of the 15 topics they spoke up about. The findings showed that only 13.6% of the surveyed employees spoke up about more than 10 of the topics. Notably, 17.5% said they do not speak up at all.

In the research highlight, MIT researchers highlighted that when employees feel safe enough and encouraged to express their opinions, organisations benefit, and it helps create a better workplace environment.

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