Thursday, September 25, 2014

Workplace Abuse: The effects of toxic fumes in the workplace

Yesterday was a bust - in so many respects.  Cognitively, my mind decided to go AWOL (Absent Without Leave which is now known in the military as UA - Unauthorized Absence).  No matter the semantics of the thing:  it was gone - and refused to come back.

After several hours of bulling through and trying to put words and thoughts together to make sense, I gave up.

Recovering from workplace abuse - even if that abuse has been some time in the past - is still hard work.  I recall just recently how a friend whose life has also been impacted by workplace abuse told me recently that she wonders if it ever completely goes away.

I think there's a kernel of truth in that.

So yesterday turned out to be a rest, working on recovery day.  But now we're at today ....

Looking down on Hamilton Harbour from Hamilton Mountain
It's hard for me to find appropriate pictures from my own archives when writing about things like a toxic workplace environment as most of my pictures are of nature - of peaceful things, not of things that wreck havoc.  Especially havoc in the making.  I've never been in a cataclysmic event such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan a few years back.  Yet, I've seen the pictures, the videos on the net.  Heart-wrenching pictures of people's lives being changed in an instant.

Also, the full-blown effects of bullying facilitated by a toxic work environment cannot be photographed.  There are no broken, bloody bodies strewn around or boats floating on what used to be streets, buildings demolished.  There are only people; people who look normal from the outside yet struggling on the inside where no one can see to survive.

As well, the toxic fumes caused by gossip, slander, defamation of character, even libel, are not visible like the fumes from the steel mill in the opening picture.

Writing about the toxic workplace is not easy as too many people don't understand it.  It's like the furniture in the living room.  Simply there.  

However, the fumes of a toxic living place can be photographed such as these pictures taken in 2013 of the steel mills in Hamilton, Ontario's industrial area.

I wonder if these steel mills which emit these huge clouds of smoke - probably toxic smoke and fumes - into the Hamilton air are as commonplace to the residents of Hamilton as the toxicity in my former workplace.  Just there.  Always there.  For generations.  Kind of like the living room furniture.

The town of Hamilton kind of has two parts:  the lower part by Lake Ontario where the steel mills are and what they call the Hamilton Mountain which is part of the Niagara Escarpment.  I've been told that residents in the basin have a lot of health issues while those living on top of the escarpment are generally healthier.

The toxic fumes perhaps?

What is toxicity in the workplace?  Yesterday, I gave an example of a toxic employee in my work environment.  That is only one of many examples I could give of how toxicity became a fixture in that workplace.

Let's look at the phenomenon of toxicity in the workplace a bit more, this time from my research on the net rather than by examples from my work environment.

Here is what one author says:
Bullying can also have a toxic effect on the workplace as a whole. When a workplace is characterized by bullying, it is by definition a poisoned work environment, a place people will naturally try to avoid or leave, resulting in increased absenteeism and turnover, along with decreased morale. With such a workplace environment, an employer can look forward, in addition to increasingly substantial legal costs, to increased costs for recruitment and retention, increased use of employee assistance programs, and a loss of reputation and good will.
This particular passage focuses on the monetary effects of the toxic workplace:  law suits, employee turnover and the costs associated with recruiting employees to replace those who have left and retaining employees, etc.  However, in our workplace, people didn't often leave.  They may have liked to gripe and complain but our employer paid us well and gave good benefits.  A lot of the people I worked with were "lifers" - or hoped to be lifers.  To stay there as long as they could - preferably to age 65 and retirement.  Especially the older ones who had already put in 20 years or more. Even though the climate in the workplace was changing with the takeover by the multi-million dollar conglomerate who bought us, the changes were slow and people, in general, didn't want to leave - unless they were forced to.

As far as financial costs to the company, I know that there would have been costs in my case with my disability claims, overtime for employees to fill-in my position while I was off sick and finally the exit package.  However, they made sure that they did not have legal costs by coercing me to sign away all my present and future rights in the donut shop that day.

Yet, financial costs are, to me, only a small part of the danger of a toxic work environment.  More important to me, being a people person, is the toll the toxic atmosphere takes on morale:  the willingness to go the extra mile, to work overtime, etc. as well as the erosion of self-esteem and confidence.

Most employers - or at least mine - did not seem to realize the effects on the bystanders the bullying they were observing was happening.  My workplace also did not seem to realize that gossip, backbiting, etc. were part and parcel of a toxic work environment and, therefore, did nothing to stop those behaviours.  In fact, one manager said to me:  "I can't stop people from talking."


I agree.

But ... talking, surface level chit chat is far different from gossip - and that behaviour could have been and should have been curtailed.

... continuing on:
....  An Employment Law Alliance poll conducted in early 2007 found that 44 percent of American workers have worked for a boss they considered abusive.¹ More than half of poll respondents reported experiencing rude treatment at the hands of a supervisor or witnessed such behavior directed at another employee. The reported behavior ranges from dirty looks and sarcastic jokes to public criticism and outright screaming tirades.
But this is not the only type of toxicity that can pervade a workplace. Other harmful office issues could include chronic pessimism, gossip and back-stabbing among staff, an ambivalent attitude concerning ethics, and the big two – sexual harassment and racial discrimination. For the unguarded employee, such behavior could become a way of life at work and home.
“It’s going to affect your self-esteem and confidence,” said career coach Hallie Crawford, MA, CPCC. “When there’s negative energy, it seeps into you and can make you become that way as well. You can become blind to that and not have as good of boundaries in your personal life. You begin thinking its okay for people to treat you that way.”
For companies, such attitudes can be extremely detrimental to the organizational culture and the financial bottom line. It can lead to decreased job satisfaction, less productivity, and lower retention rates of employees and clients. Each situation is unique, so Crawford recommended that employees take a series of steps before deciding to cut ties.

  1. As I've indicated earlier, my co-workers - especially those involved in the bullying - liked to grip and complain about policies, about management, about everything.  In short, in my opinion based on observation, they were very unhappy people in general.  And when people are unhappy, morale goes down.
  2. Morale is, to me, the biggest casualty in the toxic workplace.  As I observed the behaviours of those I worked with who seemed to be immune to all censure and discipline from HR and management, I became more and more disgruntled and unhappy. More unwilling to go the extra mile.  I'd already been prevented from working any overtime because one employee who had the supervisor's ear maintained that "anyone could do my job" and, therefore, I should not have any overtime.  Even when the person on the shift after mine called in sick, I was denied overtime because the supervisor felt that complete coverage of the eight hour shift was not necessary, therefore she gave the overtime to the person coming in on day shift who was quite junior in seniority to me.  When I complained, she became implacable and said "That. Is. My. Decision. To. Make." and made it a power and control issue - which is a crucial aspect of bullying that I have not really delved into as of yet.
And yet ... was it her decision to make?  Was she in effect saying that since she didn't feel that that shift deserved full-time coverage when the person who owned that job was ill, was she in effect changing policy and saying that that particular job/shift should be changed to part-time or even eliminated altogether?  Was that her call to make when assigning overtime?

I also watched one major player in the clique of bullying co-workers come and go as she pleased - arriving late and leaving early.  Seemingly with impunity.  I watched this same person surf the net for hours on end.  If asked to help me with a task, she would take what I now realize was the "passive aggressive" route.  She wouldn't say no and be upfront about it.  She would either simply not move or move very, very slowly so that I could have accomplished the task I was working on plus the one I had asked her to do in less time than it took the two of us to accomplish the tasks at hand.  Therefore, I became more and more reluctant to ask for any help.  It wasn't worth it.

This non-action of just sitting there, not moving, hands in lap was one that was very much in evidence from her very earliest days in our office when I was training her.  

Also, there's effects to the bystanders, to those who are watching this scenario play out.  The bystanders are not immune to the disease either.  Many, especially those who worked in our small office, joined their allegiance to those emitting the toxic fumes of gossip, backbiting, slander, defamation of character either.

As in Hamilton, Ontario, no one living in the area near the steel mills and their fumes is immune from diseases caused by this emissions, so are the employees of a toxic workplace.  No one is immune from their harmful effects.


So today, I will publish this post - a day late.  I will focus on my routine which affords me a chance to regroup and rest.

Until tomorrow ....

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