Are Your Employer and Workplace Toxic?

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC - 07/18/19

As a nurse, finding a job that’s a good fit is one thing, but you also need to find an employer and workplace that are a good fit. While you may love your specific position as a nursing professional, you may feel that the environment you work in is unhealthy, unsupportive, or perhaps completely toxic. So, how do you identify if your workplace is a negative whirlpool that you must escape by any means necessary?

Form of Workplace Toxicity

Toxicity in your place of employment can come in many forms. These are some prime examples of the main culprits to watch for:

Aberrant behavior:

Bullying, harassment, intimidation, teasing, hazing, and other negative behaviors undermine teamwork, increase attrition, exacerbate stress, and otherwise wreak havoc on workplace culture. Other forms of aberrant behavior include exclusion, ignoring colleagues’ needs, as well as direct sabotage of peers’ ability to conduct patient care and other duties.

Bullying and incivility can happen in ways that are difficult to pinpoint or document. Research has shown that being excluded lights up the same part of the brain that’s stimulated when experiencing physical pain; knowing your peers are willfully ignoring you can be demoralizing. Even eye-rolling, deep sighs, or other body language can be a form intimidation or bullying; it’s all about the context and intent.

Suspect leadership:

When leaders – managers, supervisors, or executives -- turn a blind eye to aberrant behavior, they’re sending a signal that the way people conduct themselves won’t have any negative consequences for them or their careers.

Many workplace bullies are actually hard workers or highly skilled clinicians who make themselves indispensable despite their egregious actions. These individuals may amass a great deal of power and be intimidating for even a boss to confront; thus, they may continue their terrible behavior for years without being challenged.

A wishy-washy milquetoast leader who refuses to proactively address thorny workforce issues will prove to be ineffective and dangerous to morale; employees will feel unsupported and unseen, and many will choose to jump ship in search of a more supportive environment.

When money rules:

Decisions related solely due to profits are, in essence, also symptoms of suspect leadership while deserving their own category. Profit cannot be the sole engine of healthcare, and the idea of multiple bottom lines can create a workplace where money doesn’t decide every action undertaken. 

Some thought leaders have identified the idea of the “triple bottom line”: people, planet, and profits. When people and planet are seen as holding equal weight to profit, everyone wins, including staff and patients. After all, healthcare delivery focuses on people, and staff who feel seen, heard, supported, and appreciated will work harder, be more loyal, and produce better outcomes for patients who also feel seen and heard. And when patients are happier, HCAHPS scores go up, along with Medicare reimbursement.

Meanwhile, when financial decisions do not override environmental concerns, a less wasteful workplace has a lower carbon footprint and a decreased negative impact on the planet as a whole. This can help both employees and patients feel better about their choice of employment or the receiving care.

Poor attitude and communication:

When the majority within a workplace are unhappy, stress and anxiety result. Aggressive, confrontational management styles can lead to employees internalizing that aggression towards themselves and/or externalizing it by lashing out at others.

Bad attitudes lead to bullying and aberrant behavior (see above), and a negative spiral results as the atmosphere becomes increasingly hostile. When certain employees adopt the authoritarian stance of managers and leaders, an unhealthy soup of aggression becomes the norm, and those displaying compassion and empathy get abused, pushed to the side, or driven away altogether once the damage has been done to their psyche and confidence.

Poor communication from executive leadership can create an unhealthy and poisonous well from which too many drink. As the disease spreads, more people are infected until the workplace’s toxic load is untenable.

Find a Healthy Workplace

As a nurse, your responsibility is to find a workplace where communication is valued, employees feel valued, patients feel seen and heard, and the culture attracts those interested in positive attitudes and collaborative, constructive relationships.  

If you’re vetting a potential employer, quiz your colleagues or acquaintances about the corporate culture, how staff are treated by leadership, how staff get along, and whether the culture is one where personal and professional growth are encouraged and supported.

A healthy workplace is indeed your right. Find a place where you can thrive, do good work, and create the career you’ve always dreamed of.