Healthy Behaviors Start with Workplace Culture

August 20 2018 / by Mari Ryan


Have you ever worked in a toxic workplace? I asked that question of some colleagues recently and they all looked at me as if I had two heads. Their response, “Hasn’t everyone?” It seems that toxic workplaces are everywhere.

What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic workplace is one built on a culture of negativity. It leaves employees stressed, tense and disconnected. Characteristics of a toxic workplace that might exist within your organization include:

  • Leaders or managers who are bullies
  • Focus heavily on profit with little regard for employee well-being
  • Multiple levels of bureaucracy or lack of clear decision-making
  • Little regard for work-life balance
  • Dysfunctional leadership team
  • Lack of transparency or inconsistent communications
  • Psychologically unhealthy.

The list could go on and on. Toxic workplaces exist because the behavior is tolerated or perhaps even encouraged. When negative behaviors, practices and norms are considered acceptable, they become rooted in the workplace culture.

It takes a courageous effort to turn around a toxic workplace. One approach is to examine the existing culture for opportunities to create a supportive environment where employees can be at their best.

Culture is the key to thriving employees

Edward Schein describes culture as an abstraction. Yet it is made up of a variety of observable events and underlying forces, including:

  • Observed behaviors such as the language, custom and traditions
  • Group norms, the unwritten rules that govern individual behavior in groups
  • Publicly articulated values, what the organization say it stands for
  • Formal philosophy, policies and guiding principles
  • Rules of the game, implicit, unwritten roles for getting along
  • Climate, feeling conveyed by the physical layout
  • Shared meaning, as created by group members as they interact.

How culture influences individual behavior

Employees thrive when they are in a safe workplace where they are trusted, given autonomy, and empowered. A safe workplace is a great example of how employee behavior is influenced by culture. When the formal policies, espoused values, and workplace communications consistently say, ‘we care about our people and their safety is our top priority,’ it drives the behavior of managers and employees. When reinforced by aspects in the physical workplace that encourage and support safety first, everyone gets the message.

Less obvious behaviors also send messages. When leaders and managers, don’t take breaks during the workday, don’t take vacations, or work while on vacation, it sends a message to employees. The resulting behavior may be that employees don’t feel they have permission to take breaks or vacations to recharge and renew.

Look around at your workplace. What norms, practices, or values are impacting the behavior of your employees? Is it a culture of negativity or a satisfying, healthy environment? If employees are frustrated by your workplace culture, start the conversation to change toxic norms. Building a positive, supportive, and energizing culture where employees look forward to coming to work every day is possible, not to mention well worth the effort.

Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, Worksite Culture, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, behavioral science, employee benefits, hr, behavior change, employee well-being, human resources, workplace wellness, toxic workplace

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.