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Toxic Workplaces: How They Are Sustained

Updated: Feb 6

People who work in harmful, even toxic, circumstances know they are suffering. They feel the stress, understand what they are doing to cope, and in many ways are quite cognizant of the psychological and physical toll.
Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford University

I recently read with great interest a book titled, "Dying for a Paycheck," (2018) authored by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. Dying for a Paycheck is a book I highly recommend. Suppose you know our work at the Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose. In that case, you know that one of the topics we study is a concept we call "Blocks to Meaning," or the explanation that describes why and how people and organizations prevent themselves from thriving in life and what to do about it. Professor Pfeffer's work is a well-researched manuscript that provides helpful insights on this subject. I will cover some of his observations, particularly from a chapter titled "Why People Stay in Toxic Workplaces."

Why People Stay in Toxic Workplaces

As I wrote in my first book, The Path to a Meaningful Purpose, Psychological Foundations of Logoteleology (2013), Meaningful Purpose Psychology (MP) came to be because of a paradox: humanity does not suffer from a lack of answers, but despite the answers being readily available. Like MP's paradox, Professor Pfeffer asks, "Why do people, who mostly recognize they are working in harmful environments, nonetheless choose to remain?"

This phenomenon happens at all levels of social and professional life. In this paper, the context is organizations.

Humanity does not suffer from a lack of answers, but despite the answers being readily available.

So why do people stay in toxic workplaces? Here are some of Professor Pfeffer's contributions with my commentaries.

  • Economics. People work to sustain themselves. Unfortunately, unscrupulous leaders and their organizations pay the minimum and demand much for the effort. Many organizations open their operations in areas of high unemployment and advantageous tax incentives to keep a "grateful" workforce working under difficult conditions and low pay.

Once the facilities open, the companies are able to recruit a labor force more likely to put up with difficult working conditions and nonetheless remain – because the workers have fewer options.
Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer
(Quotes throughout by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer)

While in my graduate school, a Constitutional Law professor labeled this approach as a form of "legal slavery."

  • Company Prestige and Interesting Work. There are situations where the job is enjoyed, and the organization's prestige is one where it looks good on a resume. However, in some organizations, there is a cost associated with long hours and demanding expectations -- mental and physical burnout. Unfortunately, despite the toll on the employee's health, they chose to remain.

… they stay, in part, because they are not particularly attuned to the physical and psychological toll the work is taking on a daily basis, and also they often believe – or convince themselves – that things would not be that different elsewhere.

The point is that people have a choice to find work in more humane organizations but do not believe such organizations exist, which is a sad commentary on the reputation of many leaders and the organizations they work for.

  • Job Traps. This is where your job preference is portrayed as being in your best interest. In other words, though working under challenging conditions that affect your mental and physical health, there is an underlying belief that something good is being accomplished. Hence, the potential of achieving much under positive and uplifting conditions is replaced by achieving much at your expense. There is a fine line between being a hard worker who gives their best and giving up one's health and family life for the psychological safety of keeping one's job.

As growing research demonstrates, people are scarcely rational decision-makers – about jobs or much else. Instead, people get trapped, in a variety of ways, into staying in harmful work environments.

  • Shaming. It is common sense that if you reach a point where your health or family life is adversely affected, you decide to slow down or leave the organization for a better opportunity. Yet, employees who make meaningful career decisions will be labeled by devious and unethical employers as "quitters," "not having what it takes to succeed here," say things such as "they could not adapt to our culture" and "only the best thrive here." In other words, the employee is shamed and derided for doing the right thing and labeled as a failure.

If you quit, you are, by definition, a "quitter." Who wants to be known, even to oneself, as a quitter?

  • Inertia. This explains situations where employees are too busy and exhausted to look for work elsewhere. Employees feel they risk being fired if they let go from stepping on the work throttle. As science shows, staying in such conditions reduces performance and risks serious health outcomes, including death. In Japan, death from overwork is known as Karoshi. However, the U.S. is known for its long work weeks compared to many other developed nations. Many salaried employees, especially in higher-level positions, often work well beyond the 40-hour workweek. This can be attributed to the country's work culture, which strongly emphasizes individual achievement and productivity.

So one simple but important reason that people stay in harmful work environments is that they are too psychologically wounded and too physically stressed and overwhelmed to muster the energy to leave.

  • Commitment. This is where you do not allow yourself to experience "buyer's remorse" or admit to yourself and others that you made the wrong career decision. To avoid shame, the individual "sticks it out" to avoid being perceived as a "flip-flopper" or someone with a resume lacking consistent tenure between jobs.

Rather than admitting a mistake or distancing yourself from "your" decision, it is easier to rationalize the initial decision and the ongoing choice to remain. People are great, skilled, indeed consummate rationalizers.

  • Following the Norm. Social influence can play a decisive role in keeping people in toxic settings. The fallacy that unrealistic deadlines, work hours, and poor pay are normal – that everyone and everywhere works this way -- is a trap. If the belief that every person is working under these conditions is typical, you are expected to follow suit even when it is against your well-being and dignity. The point is that following the majority is not always the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, in the world of work, long work hours and other aspects of toxic work environments have become the norm in many places. So when people confront such environments, they see nothing unusual.

  • Disregarding your Meaning of Life. Another toxic organizational trap is the appeal to a greater mission at your own expense. Some companies have an appealing, noble mission that, unfortunately, does not include the well-being of the employees. Employees are expected to sacrifice themselves for the good of others. While the employee might relate and feel privileged in supporting a good cause, the culture might make demands or set expectations of selfless performance. It is even possible for employees to rate their organization as an excellent workplace while being numb to their work environment's mental and physical toll.

… some companies are indeed toxic workplaces where human well-being, even human health and life, are subordinate to some leader's ambitions and often to that person's agenda for power, prestige, and wealth, as well as to economic performance measures that do not fully capture, if they capture at all, the human toll.

  • Substance abuse. One way that some employees cope is through self-medication, alcohol consumption, and illicit drugs. However, these approaches are short-lived and can worsen conditions.

The problem is that employers seldom consider the workplace itself and what occurs there as important causal factors affecting individual behavior.
Such neglect is unfortunate because extensive research shows that individual health-relevant decisions such as drinking, smoking, drug abuse, and overeating are profoundly affected by job related conditions.

The Way Out

Here are a few tips on how to escape from toxic workplaces. According to Professor Pfeffer,

  • Find suitable role models or professionals who work regular hours, spend quality time with family, and produce good results. Having a realistic and doable new "norm" about how to work will help you be a productive achiever while respecting your right to live well.

  • Be willing to admit mistakes. Please do not succumb to judgments that you are not good enough or do not have what it takes to succeed. Avoid being manipulated by others through shaming. If your workplace is toxic, get a job elsewhere and leave with a badge of courage.

  • There will be lingering baggage from previous toxic work settings. Do expect it to take time to recover from the hurt of working in the wrong work setting.

  • Seek jobs in places where you can thrive. Be mindful and intentional about searching where you go next. Avoid jumping from the frying pan to the fire. It might take time, but though few, there are healthy places that are looking for talent.

Here are tips from Meaningful Purpose Psychology.

  • Discover what is meaningful for you. What is your ideal life? What meaningful things do you wish to achieve?

  • Leverage your strengths. Pursue roles where you can use your skills, natural talents, and preferences. Together, they promise enjoyment and the experience of flow.

  • Determine and claim your meaning in life. For what and whom will you live for? What meaningful goal will you dedicate your life to?

  • Once you have determined and claimed your meaning in life, ensure everything you do is aligned with it – including work.

  • Select or create an organization where you can fulfill your meaningful purpose. Choose your path carefully and deliberately.

Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose: Discovering Life's Answers. ™


The Paths We Choose

To learn more about the meaningful path, we encourage you to attend our next "The Paths We Choose Workshop" planned for Sunday, December 10th, 2023, in Westfield, MA. For more information on this and future sessions, click The Paths We Choose: A Workshop | authorluismarrero.

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