One issue that causes the most stress for many employees, including those in the publishing industry, is the dread of simply arriving at work. Far too many people know they will face a negative atmosphere the moment they walk (or rather Zoom) into their workspace.
The job we are employed to do is often the simple part. Most of us understand our role, can do our job well. Even if we are not looking to advance their career, we are often happy with our responsibilities and feel sufficiently challenged by them.
Yet there is something else going on behind, around and beneath our daily to-do list.
It may begin with something quite small like a harsh critical comment. But small comments can rapidly lead to toxicity permeating every aspect of working life. A toxic work culture becomes a dark force from which there is no escape and makes tackling the daily workload harder than it should be. Projects that could once be seamlessly organised and implemented make you seize up in fear. A regular meeting you once found enjoyable becomes a black hole. Frightened from the moment you sit at your desk, you are on permanent alert. You can no longer move forward with energy and ease. There is little appreciation for what you do. You may even begin to blame yourself.
Toxic cultures can arise in any industry, from finance and medical to publishing and law. The three aspects that contribute to toxic workplaces are:
- organisation systems – seen through policies and procedures;
- the role of the line manager – and their ability to undertake their role competently; and
- the employee – the responsibility we must all take for our behaviour and interaction with others.
In the publishing industry, much of this toxicity may now centre on new ways of working which have arisen since the pandemic and lockdown. Almost all members of staff in the publishing world will be working from home. Employees working in bookshops will be furloughed. Some may be running ‘click and collect’ services. These are big changes, and they can easily lead to underlying psychological difficulties. A small number of people might travel to the office for one or two days a week, leaving someone else, who remains at home, to become anxious. Those at home fear they will be missing out on discussions and critical decisions being made in their absence.
This fear of missing out can lead to such a build-up of anxiety it explodes into a toxic situation. Employees who had previously worked together in harmony in-house now feel resentment towards their colleagues. The concern that they might be excluded corrodes working relationships. They are physically and emotionally remote.
Another aspect of this is presenteeism. Employees in many organisations have historically often turned up for work when not fully well, in the belief that their presence makes a difference for their job security. Heightened by lockdown, this has now taken on a darker tone. By sending emails late at night or in the early hours of the morning, employees give the impression that they are hard at work, outside core hours. They play to the illusion that this above-and-beyonding looks good.
It can be difficult for leaders in any industry to acknowledge problems have arisen within the company, but they must address these issues and create strategies to change them, right now. Fear of looking stupid or underachieving goals is often the reason why leaders do nothing, but it's more important than ever to let that incapacitating fear go.
So what action can publishing leaders take if they suspect their working culture is taking a turn for the worse?
Relax: Allow people to loosen and feel relaxed, whether they are WFH or in the office. Help them to rejuvenate each other with renewed energy, even if in front of a screen. Take away stiff formality and replace with informal friendliness and humour. WFH surely strengthens the need for informality, without descending into a lack of professionalism.
Devalue titles: Remove the powerhouse of titles! As a leader, take away any idea that your status or titled position is more important than the success you achieve. Leaders can unwittingly create a toxic environment, loving the power they exert, inciting fear.
Encourage conversation: Allow employees to mix with leaders and managers across Zoom. Create interaction and mutual respect, welcoming collaboration instead of telling an employee ‘what to do’ or ‘how they should think’. Recognise effort and triumph.
Bend rules: Delete the notion that strict adherence to policies and regulations is expected without room for individual judgment and experience. When employees live in fear of breaking rules, they shuffle around and do not speak. They send emails at ridiculous hours.
Discuss emotions: Open up about unhappiness in the workplace and include WFH. Allow employees to say when they feel overwhelmed or concerned about missing out. Encourage the flow of new ideas, rather than mere goal achieving. Talk about fear: why and where it exists and what can be done to change it. Fear is a store of energy. It can be put to enormous positive use, once transformed.
Implement change: Ask for joint co-operation among staff of all levels to figure out solutions to your main cultural tensions. ‘Do what I say and keep quiet’ culture will almost certainly lead to toxic rebellion. When open debate is suppressed, you create a fertile breeding ground for aggressive toxicity. When its encouraged, it becomes a fertile breeding ground for change.
Clive Lewis is one of the UK’s most sought-after mediators, and is the founder and chief executive of Globis Mediation Group. His new book, Toxic: A Guide to Rebuilding Respect and Tolerance in a Hostile Workplace will be released in hardback on 18th February 2021 (Bloomsbury Business).