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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Toxic Work Environments are Poisonous to Your Health

By David M. Brown

Traditional or home offices can damage you mentally, physically, and emotionally. Stressors attack continually: the behavior of fellow employees; a micromanaging or lax work culture; fear of viruses; intimidation; sexual and political harassment; domestic interruptions. Your response will affect the health of your relationships with family, friends, your significant other — and yourself.

An administrator fails to guide you or guides too much; a workmate repeatedly requests that you expand your professional relationship into a personal one, although you rebuff these overtures immediately. You’ve been over-Zoomed during the pandemic and feel disconnected from the one-on-one interactions we need as social creatures.

More: An outspoken colleague doesn’t understand why you haven’t fallen in formation on political matters and reminds you often at the water cooler that you’re marching to the wrong drummer. Another co-worker is “quiet quitting,” but please don’t tell. Or, you feel “othered,” not included, although the company attests it’s devoted to diversity and inclusion.

Or, working hybrid at home on a project deadline, you are bothered by your children or spouse breaching your office, complaining about domestic issues.

 The scenarios are many, but you must promptly attend to them to balance work and life to ensure the success of your 21st-century career. For Baby Boomers, money was marquee; today, research shows that work-life balance is paramount for Millennials and Gen Z’ers.

 “Your system will process some of these stressors the same as it will process a tiger jumping out from behind a bush or a large tree branch landing on your child. We can include many situations where the mental trauma is acute; when we must be concerned is when we are in ‘fight or flight’ response on a regular basis,” says Cie Allman-Scott, Ph.D., a media psychologist and longevity expert in Phoenix and Los Angeles, who has for a quarter century advised her patients on matters of body, mind, and spirit. She is also the author of the book “Decide Your Future.

Dr. Bruce Hutchison calls one aspect of work toxicity “emotional contagion.” The semi-retired Ottawa, Ontario based clinical psychologist is the author of the recently released “Emotions Don’t Think: Emotional Contagion in a Time of Turmoil, which discusses how toxic emotional contagion is one of today’s most powerful forces in society and in politics. For more than 50 years, he has provided psychotherapy, counseling, consultation, and assessment to thousands of clients and patients.

 “Emotions can be transferred between people via mirror neurons inside our bodies so that they feel like they are transferred and rub off on us,” he explains. “They’re contagious, and if we are susceptible and have an affinity to a certain kind of belief or topic, then we are more prone to pick up the emotions that come along with that belief. In this way, emotions carry simple messages that we also pick up when we absorb contagious emotions. It’s better not to absorb them automatically. Instead, let them bounce off until you have a chance to appraise them.”

Negativity can be spread as pessimism, cynicism, depression, fear, hate, panic, anxiety, and suspicion, as well as fact-challenged politically based conspiracy theories, he explains, referring to today’s volatile rhetoric.

He recommends, “Don’t get involved in the emotional ping-pong game which can occur when others engage in political rhetoric. Be aware of the emotion as conversations and interactions occur at work. Resist becoming emotional, either in favor of or in opposition to the other person’s rhetoric. Recognize the other person as expressing emotion even if they are not outwardly emotional. Emotion is in the voice.”

According to Hutchinson, happiness at your desk begins with you. “Managing contagious emotions stemming from a significant change in the workplace, toward or away from toxicity, is a fundamental key to personal and organizational survival.”


Medical Matters

Our mental health can also be affected. “Depression, anger, and pessimism all stem from toxic workplaces. We can feel trapped and so find it difficult to be happy, especially if we feel we cannot advance further in our careers,” notes Dr. Hutchinson.

In addition to affecting our mental and emotional well-being, chronically stressful professional environments can often have lasting physical effects, as well. According to Dr. Scott, for some, toxic work environments can create levels of stress on the body akin to what some may have experienced in POW camps or medieval torture chambers. “The body sees them the same when you experience this type of stress,” Dr. Cie notes. “Commuting in stressful traffic for some is like smoking a pack of cigarettes every day.”  

The body responds to stress immediately, she explains. “If a lion jumps out from behind a tree, your eyes go wide, your blood pressure skyrockets, the heart rate elevates through the roof, and you experience deep gasps to breathe in oxygen. Blood vessels to the GI tract constrict and your intestines shut down,” she says.

To combat stress, the body releases stress hormones to warn and protect you. If you are chronically exposed to stress, these hormones — cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine — can be dangerous. “You are inciting a decline of health that can eventually lead to serious disease, premature aging, and death,” she explains.

Adrenal failure is also a chronic stress symptom. Our fight or flight response begins in the endocrine glands, located on top of each kidney. They secrete hormones into the bloodstream which tells receptors on cell surfaces that danger is imminent. “The adrenal gland’s response was designed to be an acute response for rare occasions, not daily,” Dr. Scott explains.

So, too, stress overload can cause cardiac issues, migraines, muscular-skeletal pain, and vasoconstriction –  a lack of blood flow and oxygen supply to the body’s organs – particularly to the gut. And that can lead to other problems, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome.


 Fight, Flight, Surrender?

Recognize work toxicity and its potential seriousness.

If you can’t alleviate the situation immediately, consider practicing mindfulness on a routine basis, as well as after toxic incidents. Dr. Hutchison recommends meditation, affirmations, prayer, feeling and expressing gratitude, nature walks, listening to soothing music, and visualization of your desired outcomes. “Petting your dog or cat and appreciation for their beingness also applies,” he says.

“Very often we find that the source of toxic environments isn’t personal. That is, these conditions would exist with or without you, and you may find comfort knowing that you don’t have to take it personally,” he says. “When a person who is experiencing mistreatment knows that it isn’t about them, it becomes far easier to let it go and experience less pain and release fewer of the toxic chemicals.”

For instance, working at home can be more peaceful as it can remove some of the traditional office stressors. But if your boss continually calls you on your cell phone, day or night, this crossover between home and work can become a violation of personal boundaries. It then becomes important to communicate the need for a change in behavior. “Be flexible when it’s reasonable, but if the boss resists this change continually, then look for another job,” he says.

If you’re finding your circumstances to be more difficult than you feel equipped to handle on your own, check in with your company’s HR director for advice on how to handle the situation. If you feel you might benefit from outside help, explore your company’s insurance policy on mental health counseling. “It’s best to seek out private counseling,” says Hutchison. “Generally, medication is not recommended, as it does not solve problems related to the issues; it just removes the symptoms rather than solves problems.”  

“We must learn to manage the stress we cannot avoid,” Dr. Cie says. “Would you go on a roller coaster every day? It might exhaust you. This is oxidative stress, and it wears the body out. If you are struggling, you are doing it wrong! Life is what you make it. Suffering is optional.”




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