Toxicity: Systems that get us Down

While I firmly believe in the mediation process – whether in workplace, community or international contexts – there are times, especially at the micro-level, when I fear it can amount to a mere sticky plaster placed over a sore. This is particularly the case where conflict is rooted in deep systems of communication, structure and processes that underlay the conflict. While these remain intact and unchallenged, mediation – even if successful at a certain level – can be just a moment in the recurring cycle. Like a perverse Jesus, the conflict will rise again. Interpersonal spats over different styles of communication, varying perspectives and misunderstanding can effectively be addressed by mediation. But when these spats are surface indicators of something unhealthy built into ‘the way it is done here’, then something more may be needed than addressing interpersonal concerns: at the very least an effective mediation process must include space for addressing systemic change.

Speaking to the working environment, the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work defines stress this way: ‘Work-related stress is experienced when the demands of the work environment exceed the employees’ ability to cope with (or control) them.’

The various demands on workers become toxic at that point where the worker’s wellbeing is significantly undermined. Some different toxicities that mediation may need to address include:

1. Poor systems of internal communication: a lack of direct and clear communication, often substituted by emails, or even expectations that ‘they should know this’. Of course much of workplace communication sometimes lacks mutuality – effective feedback systems from workers to management. Rather there are directives or ‘non-sultation’ rather than consultation around decisions that have an impact on the whole workforce. Sometimes just being consulted and having a view heard or valued is sufficient to relieve stress, even when decisions are made that fall short of an employee’s ideal.

2. Target cultures that focus on performance against targets at the expense of realistic capacities of individuals to deliver. One friend of mine was presented with a list of annual targets for his work. These had been developed independent of any conversation with him. He said ‘I will deliver these but it is going to hurt my health and home life! I don’t want to be seen to be failing.’

3. Equally unwholesome discourses about success. The comment from my friend ‘ I don’t want to be seen as a failure’ says much. Do we esteem ourselves as valuable because we are judged so against what may be unrealizable targets? This is not to say that we should not be stretched at work. Of course we should be! Work, at its best, contributes to our development and growth. But when expectations run counter to the wellbeing of a given worker because they are based on targets agreed in an ivory tower or without conversation with those responsible for delivering the work.

The list above certainly does not exhaust the potential toxicities thriving in work environments. But when these toxic features are not addressed at their roots and displaced by more wholesome narratives the potential for conflict remains high – as does the potential for health threatening stress levels leading to burn-out, sick leave, and debilitating lace of morale.

One other toxicity worth mention is the worker’s own narrative regarding their power to provoke change. Another individual I know was increasingly depressed at the lack of support from her managers, their sometime dismissive – if not downright patronizing – style of communication, and the lack of transparency regarding decision-making. This feeling was widely shared within the office to the detriment of morale and commitment to work. Many of her colleagues simply succumbed to ‘the way things work here’ and contented themselves with unhappy mumbles, not caring too much about the quality of their work and, as opportunity permitted, looking for work elsewhere.

Rather than succumb to the negative energy she took the bull by the horns and directly raised these issues with her own line manager. She did this a number of times, always clear but also empathetic with the pressures on managers. Gradually a different style of communication coming from management emerged. It was not perfect but tended more in the direction of respect, consultation and even affirmation. Some of the unwholesome metanarratives affecting the working environment, beyond the control of local managers to effect, certainly remained as background music. (Other interventions are called for at that level) But my friend was able to take power in her own hands and shape, however minimally’ a more humane working relationship with managers.

While it is the larger metanarratives that often contribute toxins into the workplace, in the immediate context we can assert power for positive change in some of those systems that get us down.

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