Most adults spend a significant portion of their day, year, and life working for pay. As a result, the dynamics of a workplace—including how coworkers interact, how responsibilities are delegated, and how dedicated workers are to the company’s mission—can have significant effects on people's physical and mental well-being.
Healthy workplace dynamics are sometimes ignored in companies' quests for profits and productivity. But they are not only integral to a company's success—more importantly, workplace dynamics have a deep, lasting effect on workers' well-being and career trajectory.
Each person’s vision of an ideal work environment may be different. But in general, a psychologically healthy workplace is one in which coworkers are respectful of each other’s personalities, ideas, and working styles; work is allocated fairly; and trust exists between coworkers, particularly between higher- and lower-level employees. Although it’s not always possible for someone to secure work in a field that is personally meaningful to them, employees who feel that they are doing work that is interesting, challenging, and rewarding are more likely to experience healthy workplace dynamics.
If, on the other hand, poor workplace dynamics are not addressed, it can trigger burnout or widespread employee dissatisfaction. It may also lead to high turnover, which often creates challenges both for employees who leave and for those who are left behind, not to mention the organization as a whole. Thus, working toward strong workplace dynamics is in the best interest of workers, their families, and the company's bottom line.
Research suggests that flexibility, autonomy, and a sense of belonging and inclusion at work are the leading drivers of employee happiness. Compensation and feeling appreciated by superiors also contribute to employee well-being, but are not as influential as many leaders believe.
Research suggests that the most effective teams are generally composed of members whose skills complement (rather than duplicate) each other; who demonstrate respect for one another, even when disagreeing; who generally enjoy working together; and who are able to communicate clearly and divide labor fairly. While some teams naturally work well together, most will need at least some guidance in order to overcome conflicts and perform at their best.
Some organizational psychologists theorize that most people have specific “styles” for approaching workplace conflict. One theory, for example, posits that there are five different conflict styles in the workplace, including the Ostrich (who avoids conflict at all costs); the Diplomat (who seeks compromises that benefit him the most); and the Warrior (who finds conflict to be energizing and may seek it out). While such theories won’t necessarily encompass everyone's "style" neatly, they offer a general framework for understanding why some employees shy away from conflict and others seem to revel in it.
Research suggests that workplace happiness has been in steady decline in recent years. While the dropoff is likely due to a confluence of factors, experts speculate that reduced job security, a lack of work-life balance, and fewer opportunities for social connection at work (due to both a rise of remote working and high employee turnover) are all key drivers of workplace dissatisfaction and malaise.
Workplace bullying can happen for a wide variety of reasons—for example, the bully may have high levels of narcissism or psychopathy that lead them to manipulate or belittle others for personal gain. One theory suggests that workplace bullying may occur when the victim violates known workplace norms (for example, by reporting an ethical violation that others had agreed to sweep under the rug). This theory suggests that workplace bullying is a kind of “degradation ceremony” that punishes the transgressor while strengthening the bonds between other in-group members.
Many organizations publicly declare themselves to being places where employees can “bring their whole selves” to work. In theory, this means that employees do not feel pressured to hide elements of their personality, experience, background, or perspective, and are encouraged to behave authentically. Such initiatives are generally undertaken as a counterpoint to unhealthy work environments in which certain employees—such as LGBT individuals, people of color, or people with certain religious or political beliefs—were actively discouraged, and often even punished, for behaving authentically at work.
How someone chooses to behave at work is up to them. But some organizational psychologists caution that being entirely authentic at work is neither possible nor advisable. Revealing a tendency to use vulgar language, for example, or discussing controversial political beliefs, could backfire in many professional environments, even those that claim to support authenticity. Instead, such experts recommend bringing your “best self” to work, rather than your “whole self,” by focusing on putting your best foot forward while staying true to your values.
“Psychological safety” is an organizational psychology concept that describes a work environment in which people feel as if they are able to candidly ask questions, share concerns, or admit mistakes, without being criticized, ignored, or punished. Psychologically safe workplaces have been associated with increased performance and heightened well-being.
The term “toxic workplace” can be used to describe any workplace in which negative dynamics harm employee well-being, foster conflict between coworkers, or slow productivity. Possible signs of a toxic workplace include:
Verbal abuse. Insulting language is frequently used, employees are belittled or threatened by superiors, disagreement is not tolerated, or malicious rumors are spread.
Poor communication. Priorities are disputed, instructions are vague, or employees do not feel comfortable communicating bad news to superiors for fear of a negative response.
Imbalanced workloads. Some employees have little to do, while others must work extra hours on their off-time to keep up with their workload. This can breed resentment among coworkers and may lead to overburdened employees leaving a company.
Overall poor mood. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be happy or motivated all the time. But if most employees are in negative moods more often than not, talking or laughing is rare, or no one seems to care about what they’re doing, it will likely have long-term effects on morale and well-being.
Because most people work at least 40 hours a week—and many work more—a toxic workplace can have a severely damaging effect on mental health. Toxic workplaces are strongly associated with anxiety, depression, or worsened physical health; many workers also experience burnout, losing their drive and feeling unable to complete even basic tasks.
Because no job is perfect—and because different people thrive in different environments—there isn’t always a surefire way to tell if a particular job is “bad” for a given individual. But employees who worry their work conflicts with their values, feel disrespected by coworkers or bosses, are unable to draw clear boundaries between work and life, or frequently experience physical or emotional side effects from work stress may be in a toxic work environment and would potentially be better off searching for a new job.
Workplace harassment, while commonplace, frequently goes unreported. Research suggests this occurs for many reasons—witnesses report that they fear retaliation, feel it’s not their business, or simply don't know how to report harassment or to whom. Streamlining the reporting process, protecting employees from backlash, and allowing anonymous reports could help organizations overcome these problems and weed out harassment in their midst. Educating employees on the importance of supporting one another can also empower them to report misbehavior.
Bosses are rarely physically abusive, except in extreme situations. But it is certainly possible for someone’s superior to treat them in a cruel, coercive way that is analogous to emotional abuse. This could involve belittling the employee, undermining them in front of others, threatening their job for minor mistakes, or blaming them for problems that are not their fault. Some bosses also make an effort to isolate employees from coworkers or spread rumors about them behind their back. Unwanted sexual attention or attempts at sexual coercion can also be classified as abusive behavior on the part of a supervisor.
If someone has determined that their workplace is toxic, they may decide that leaving the job is the best choice for their well-being. However, for those who are unable to find another job (or unable to do so immediately), there are steps that can make a toxic workplace more bearable.
Employees should, first and foremost, prioritize their own well-being. This means getting enough sleep, engaging in self-care behaviors, and/or seeing a therapist to discuss feelings of anxiety or sadness.
Next, it’s best to communicate concerns about a toxic workplace to a supervisor or trusted coworker; together, it may be possible to take steps to reduce toxicity. Reporting verbal abuse or outright harassment to HR will ideally allow for bad actors to be held accountable.
When all else fails, setting firm boundaries such as leaving at a set time each day, or not checking email on off-hours can reduce the likelihood that the negative effects of a toxic workplace will bleed into other areas of one's life.
Deciding whether to quit a job is rarely an easy, black-and-white decision—all jobs have pros and cons, and nearly everyone will experience difficult periods at work. However, if you feel as if the environment has become damaging to your mental health, you are not being compensated in a manner that’s commensurate with your talents or experience, you don’t get along with coworkers, or you see few opportunities for advancement, it may be time to move on from your current position.
The dynamics of almost any workplace—from the slightly mismanaged to the seriously dysfunctional—can be improved with dedicated efforts from both workers and leaders. Though change can be both top-down and bottom-up, most large overhauls of a company’s culture will require buy-in and participation from the organization’s highest-ranking people, as they have the most power to enact real change and make it stick. However, lower-ranking individuals can also take steps to improve their immediate workplace environment, either by addressing small problems head-on or by making an effort to prioritize their own mental health, even in the face of dysfunction.
The most important things companies can do to improve employee mental health is ensure that workers are treated with respect, compensated fairly, and granted a reasonable amount of autonomy and flexibility. Beyond that, companies can help promote employee wellness by providing access to mental healthcare, either through employer-sponsored health insurance or through employee assistance programs. Wellness and self-help programming may also be used to teach employees coping mechanisms and address minor problems, such as communication challenges or coping with disappointment.
Companies can reinforce a culture of psychological safety by prioritizing trust and transparency—sharing the motivation for each major decision, and seeking feedback along the way, can help employees feel respected and like their contributions matter. Identifying and shutting down bullying and harassment are also paramount for a psychologically safe workplace.
Managers can improve work environments by being receptive and responsive to feedback (even negative feedback), proactively addressing problems, dividing work fairly, and treating employees with empathy—always remembering that they’re humans with lives outside of work, rather than productivity robots. Many experts also advise that managers make an effort to handle their own stress productively; shutting down or lashing out at employees can foster negative feelings and decrease team morale.
Managers have a responsibility to identify and put a stop to workplace bullying. Experts recommend learning to recognize the signs of bullying (including verbal abuse, threats, exclusion, or malicious gossip) and addressing them directly whenever they arise. Telling the victim to “tough it out” or solve it themselves will likely be ineffective; instead, work with all parties to resolve disputes, set boundaries, and clearly outline what behavior will and won’t be tolerated. On a larger scale, managers can advocate for anti-bullying education in their workplace, and advocate that bad actors across all levels of the organization be held accountable.
A “mental health day” may be necessary whenever stress, depression, burnout, anxiety, or other challenges significantly interfere with your ability to function at your job. Beyond that, therapists believe that other valid reasons for taking a mental health day include needing a day to recharge or reset, being distracted by something that you need time to address, or needing to attend appointments to care for your mental health.
When dealing with a cruel and controlling boss, it’s important—albeit challenging—to avoid directly expressing anger, frustration, and impatience as much as possible, as this can exacerbate the situation and motivate your boss to further target you. Instead, make an effort to communicate calmly and tactfully, sticking to the facts and removing yourself from the situation when your boss speaks or behaves inappropriately. Set firm boundaries—for example, shutting off your device at a set time each day and not responding to further communication. If your boss also behaves abusively toward coworkers, reach out to them for support and band together to address the problems. If necessary, reporting an abusive boss to HR (with coworkers’ backing, if possible) can better ensure that problems are addressed.
Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and taking time to exercise can all improve your mood and make you more resilient to the daily stressors of work life. Talking to a therapist about feelings of burnout or other common on-the-job struggles, such as imposter syndrome, can help you develop strategies for becoming a more effective and less stressed employee.