Toxic relationships have been in the workplace as long as workplaces have been in existence.

We have anti-bullying policies, training to treat each other with dignity and respect, The Equality Act 2010 and the Harassment Act and even the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, is there to protect our mental health as well as our physical health at work.

I was brought into a situation to mediate when a finance manager accused a team member of stealing from collections when someone was leaving.  It’s very difficult to prove your innocence when you can account for every penny spent but cannot prove how much each person has put into the collection.  The accused eventually left the company with a non-disclosure agreement and several months salary.  A couple of years later the same manager accused someone else of the same thing, it became obvious that this was a tactic he employed if he didn’t like and wanted someone to leave.

In a workplace I witnessed a man threatening contractors and staff that they would be sacked when “new rules” came into place if they didn’t complete the job quickly,  enforcing them to work overtime.  But it isn’t just the boss, who can be toxic. Colleagues and co-workers can be equally at fault and I’ve known more than one manager who suffered  ‘Upward Bullying’ by their secretary.

Gaslighting can come into play, when we know something and we question ourselves due to being told we are wrong.  One example was when we used to describe it as “moving the goalposts” when you can never achieve your targets because the goal constantly changes without it being discussed with you.

There was another adage often used “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”  This leaves some members of staff doing very little and others having far too many demands placed on them. The busy person often doesn’t get credit for the work they have done, the extra hours they have worked or the ideas they have come up with, and can end up being criticised for being too involved with the minutia of generalised work and not taking a strategic view or attitude.

Workplace romances have always occurred, we spend a great percentage of time at work and thereby meet people we like and become friends and partners to. However, not all relationships flourish and often an ending of a relationship results in one person feeling awkward and ensuring the other party feel uncomfortable enough for them to feel they have to leave.  Especially if one of the couple is a person in an authoritative position in the workplace.

Bullying is behaviour that is employed to make a colleague or employee feel intimidated, belittled or offended.  It can be face to face but can also very easily be by  phone, email, social media or Office gossip and the grapevine.  My assistant once received an email from someone in the company, that had words in capitals and some of it was in red font.  The language used berated her for something that was out of her control.  She showed me the email and I asked to meet him, he couldn’t understand what the “fuss” was about because he hadn’t shouted at her in public.  The man was from a different culture and said he had no idea that it wasn’t acceptable as it was only an email between them.  He promised he wouldn’t do it again, however, I do know of other people who also received similar missives.  Eventually he was reported formally and a disciplinary ensued.  Being allowed to do this, put people in fear of receiving an email from him, even when it wasn’t a complaint. His staff, seeing him behave this way, thought they would also get results, by also being aggressive, and toxicity waterfalls down.

Although there is no legal definition of bullying, ACAS describe it as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either:

  • Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting
  • An abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone.

Bullying can be a one-off incident or a regular pattern of behaviour.  Perception of the bullied is paramount and whether the intention to hurt or insult is meant or intended as “banter” it is the effect it has and not the intention that carries weight.

An example I recently witnessed was 2 volunteers, one who was leading a talk and one there to support as it was a large group of visitors and eminent locals.  The person leading the discussion, for whatever reason, did not introduce her colleague at the start and when she did, she commented that her support would normally wear a sparkly leotard.  The supporter took it in good humour but told me later that she would never work with that person again.  Had that been in a workplace, it would have not only caused embarrassment but would have escalated if they had to continuously work together.  It was meant as a put down and in a working environment could be identified as bullying.

In general, a toxic workplace is when a culture of negative behaviours permeates and cascades through the ranks, with many people believing that they can behave how they want and the rules do not apply to them.

The Stress Management Standards issued by the HSE in 2006, attempts to ensure compliance and fairness for all staff, but many organisations did not buy into them, and we are left with many policies and staff handbooks but little compliance to them.

The Stress Management Standards revolve around 6 issues, Demands, Role, Relationship, Control, Support and Change.  If all 6 standards are met for each employee, it should ensure the Culture of the Organisation  is positive and should eliminate bullying and harassment, gaslighting and other forms of workplace abuse.

  • Demands – ensure your workload, work patterns and work environment and adequate
  • Role – ensures you know what your job is and should prevent the “goalposts” from moving
  • Relationships – ensure you have support from the organisation, your manager and colleagues, this prevents bullying, conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Control – ensures you have some say in how you do your work and should allow for some flexibility in your work and time
  • Support – ensures you are adequately trained for your role, the organisation provides adequate equipment to do the job and you have support from your manager and team to work cohesively
  • Change – ensures how organisational change, whether large or small is managed and communicated to the workforce

Stress, depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal (often associated with stress) disorders accounted for 17.9 million in 2019 (HSE).  Averaged out, this accounts for 21.6 days absence per person, per case for stress, depression and anxiety, and 18.4 days for musculoskeletal disorders.  (HSE).  These figures account for the people off work with mental ill health, and do not include the people who remain in the workplace and suffer in silence.

The cost of mental ill health in the Workplace each year in the UK costs around £45 billion and Presenteeism (where someone, turns up for work despite being unwell for mental health reasons) accounting for the largest proportion of between £26 and £29 billion in lost or reduced productivity (Deloitte)

Whilst 85% of Managers acknowledge that employee wellbeing is included in their responsibilities, only 30% of line managers report they have received any training (ILM).

If you need more information about our Corporate training that focusses on Work-related Stress and Bullying and Harassment, contact or telephone 07511929020