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  • Writer's pictureAllison Abrams, LCSW-R

The Toll of Toxic Workplaces on Mental Health

The APA's 2023 Work in America survey is a reminder of many workers' challenges.


KEY POINTS
  • 1 in 5 U.S. employees report working in a toxic environment.

  • Workers in toxic environments are twice as likely to report fair or poor mental health.

  • Only 43% of employees receive health insurance with coverage for mental health and substance use disorders.


Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

The significant impact that our work lives can have on our mental health is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Perhaps most indicative of this is the 2022 U.S. Surgeon General's report naming workplace mental health as a top priority and prompting the release of its first-ever Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being. More recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) released the results of its 2023 Work in America survey, an annual report measuring employee work-related stress. The survey was conducted online in April among 2,515 employed adults in the United States and yielded mixed results.

Psychological well-being: a high priority for workers

The results of the APA survey revealed psychological well-being in the workplace to be a high priority among employees. Ninety-five percent said it was important to them to work for an organization that respects the boundaries between work and nonwork time.

Encouragingly, 77 percent of workers reported being satisfied with the support they receive from their employers for their mental health and well-being. And 72 percent agreed that their employer helps employees develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle. article continues after advertisement Despite the survey's positive results, it revealed significant room for improvement.

Lip service versus reality

Many large organizations today boast of their commitment to employee well-being. However, whether their actions align with their declarations is questionable.

Approximately 1 in 5 APA survey respondents reported working in a toxic environment. Unsurprisingly, those employees were more than twice as likely to report fair or poor mental health. "The number of individuals who report experiencing a toxic workplace without protection from harm is troubling," stated Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., the APA’s chief executive officer. "No one should feel fear at work. It is clear there is much work to be done to foster a positive work environment for all workers in the nation." According to the survey, 43% of employees believe that if they told their employer about a mental health condition, it would have a negative impact on them at work. Further, only about one-third of the respondents reported that their employer offers a culture where breaks are encouraged, and more than half said their employer thinks their workplace environment is a lot mentally healthier than it actually is.

Source: Yan Krukau/Pexels

Work and mental health

Mental health professionals have always known the significant impact that work has on our psychological well-being. We witness the casualties of dysfunctional work environments almost as frequently as we witness the casualties of dysfunctional families.

When working with children living in abusive households, one of the most frustrating things I, and many of my colleagues, encountered was the unwillingness of the families to make changes in the home. We saw the child for one hour each week, during which we processed the week’s trauma and worked on coping techniques.



However, once that hour was up, the child was sent back home to where they were once again immersed in their dysfunctional family dynamics, often leaving clinicians with a sense of futility.

Similarly, with respect to the dysfunctional work environment, there is only so much “clean up,” so to speak, that therapists can do if the environments in which our patients are immersed Monday through Friday do not clean up their own act. In order for any real impact to be made, the culture of the workplace must change. What’s more, if these changes are made and workplaces become psychologically healthier, the need for mental health services will likely not be as dire, costs will become lower, and productivity will increase, as will the bottom line. That should motivate organizational leaders to make changes.

Employers need to step up

Many employers do offer wonderful mental health benefits for their employees. Nonetheless, even when benefits such as mental health days and free therapy sessions are offered, they serve as a mere bandaid. The dysfunctional environment that facilitated the psychological distress in the first place does not change. Superhuman expectations, endless performance reviews, coworker rivalry, toxic micromanagers, narcissistic leaders, and lack of work-life boundaries are just a few of the culprits plaguing the American workforce today, further fueling our mental health crisis. If this is to change, then perhaps it is time to rethink our obsession with productivity and consider that there is more to life than work and that we are more than our jobs. As one respondent of the APA survey suggested: “Employers should make the work environment better by limiting toxic people and everyone being treated with kindness and respect.” Would that be too much to ask?

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