Episode 3

Published on:

1st Nov 2022

20 Signs Your Workplace Has... Issues

With so much talk about burnout, why are so many workplaces still sailing ahead with practices that the research definitively tells us make their employees unwell? Today Dr. Andrea lists twenty job characteristics that are empirically shown to heighten stress, decrease morale and productivity, increase the risk of burnout, and lead to deteriorating mental and physical health in employees. If you’re a worker, a job searcher, or a manager who thinks that offering a yoga class makes you a workplace wellness hero (it doesn’t!), you’ll want to take a listen. 

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Cover art by Danielle Merity

Music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: The average American adult works 90,000 hours in their lifetime. • • And psychological research has taught us so much about how each one of those hours affects our mental health, for better and for worse. • • And yet we don't seem to be taking those findings to heart. • • • Do you know how your workplace stacks up? • • • • • • • • • Today we'll discuss 20 symptoms that a workplace is far from. Well, some of them might be obvious. • • Others of them you'll find surprising. • • • But all of them are things that, collectively, we should be doing something without. • • • Whether you are working, looking for work, starting your own business, string and gigs together, or pretending to work, you will want to listen to today's Baggage Check. • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • Welcome. I'm Dr. Andrea Bonjour, and this is Baggage Check Mental Health talk and advice with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. • • Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel • • incidentally. It is also not a show about the wardrobe choices of Little League umpires. • • • • • So today we're going to talk about your workplace. Or maybe it's not your workplace, but the workplace of your partner that's making them miserable, and you miserable, too. Or maybe the workplace that you're considering taking a job at. We're going to go over some surprising but important signs that your workplace is just not up to snuff, psychologically speaking. • • • I talk to a lot of corporate audiences, and I'm always startled by, to be honest, how much upper management is willing to just check the box of workplace wellness and just think that they're done. They think that because they make yoga classes available to their employees, for instance, • • that their job of making their workplace a healthy environment is completed. • • But like I always say to them, if your workplace has toxic characteristics that are making your employees miserable, • • then giving your employees a yoga class basically just means that now they're still miserable while doing downward dog. • • It's simply not the whole answer to just check a box. • • We've got to look more systematically about the actual workplace environment. We've been hearing so much about burnout, and we will definitely have future episodes that dig deep into burnout itself. But I wanted to start with some traits of workplaces that we know are not good and take a bird'seye view of them. Unfortunately, some of these traits are continuing to rise over time as we fall into the trap of having less and less work life balance than ever before. So sit back and really give some thought to some of these symptoms of a workplace that are much more likely to burn you out over time. Maybe consider sharing it with your manager. Or if you are a manager, • • let's start committing to stop making our employees sick. Okay, • • symptom number one no delineation between work and home or between time off and time on. • • This, of course, is a boundary that got absolutely steamrolled during COVID and it shows no signs of abating. But no matter how unrealistic. It is for you to assert yourself about not checking your emails after hours, for instance. • • The truth is, we all need a psychological boundary between being on the clock and off the clock. If we're always on high alert that there could be a task given to us at any time, we can never fully engage with our home life. This is probably one of the most pervasive components of burnout across all different types of jobs. And I know people starting their own business or doing gig work or trying to hustle it's up to them sometimes to set these boundaries. And I know it's really hard. But the truth is we know that the boundaries are so important and when they're completely eradicated, it simply puts us at risk for a lot of stress and anxiety. symptomology • • • • symptom number two vacation. That doesn't mean vacation. • • This is related, of course, to the no boundaries between time on and time off. First of all, the data show that a lot of American workers don't actually take their vacation time at all. They leave it on the table. So not only are they sabotaging themselves, but they are enabling a work environment where it becomes less and less acceptable to actually use the time that is owed to you. And I know some people fear that they'll lose their job if they take vacation. • • • But this becomes exponentially worse when the culture shifts in the direction of not taking vacation. It makes everybody more likely to be burnt out and not rested. Or worse yet, people are on their • • time off, • • but they're scared to actually protect it. So they tell everyone, yes, feel free to still contact me, or they still are on call. • • Same is true for sick days. It just isn't good for us to not truly have the mental break of actual time off. What's the point of a vacation day if you're still feeling obligated to be mentally beholden to your work? It's not really a vacation day or a day off at all. • • Symptom number three conflicting demands. • • This is an insidious one. When one manager is telling you to do one thing and another manager is telling you to do another, or your job description goes totally against what you're being asked to do, or you were told to start a project one way and then constantly told to switch things up. This scatters our focus. It makes us more confused about the purpose of what we're doing. It increases our self doubt. It's also just particularly exhausting because it makes us feel like we're never really making progress. • • • • • Symptom number four unrealistic goals. It's the idea of always being on a treadmill, knowing that you're supposed to be doing a better job than you feel that you actually are. • • It's great to aim high, but when you're never actually allowed the satisfaction of meeting a goal, it's incredibly frustrating. It raises our physical and mental stress response to levels that really aren't good for us. Over time. We even see this in animal research. • • There's poor little rats. They're being thwarted from self actualization. • • • • If your workplace contributes to the idea that you're always supposed to be meeting marks that are just out of reach, that prevents the opportunity to feel validated for the work that you're actually doing. You're always feeling like you're falling short and it leaves you in a constant state of frustration. • • • • Symptom number five unfairness in the workload. • • • Our sensitivity to a sense of fairness that doesn't go away once we're past the days of, I don't know, fighting with our siblings over donuts. Right. I work with so many clients where one of their number one stressors is the idea that they're constantly being jumped on at work in ways that nobody else notices • • or that don't align fairly with their job description. And at best it's from clueless management, at worst it's vindictive. Or maybe a colleague has learned how to game the system and be handed a lot less to do just because they're sort of utilizing the appearance of incompetence and they get out of stuff all the time. And meanwhile, the hardest workers get punished and more and more burnt out because they have to constantly pick up the slack. That's just not sustainable for anyone's mental health. • • Going along with this is symptom number six favoritism constantly feeling like you're playing second fiddle because somebody else is unfairly. Being given more privileges or fewer demands can lead to anger and resentment that significantly hamper productivity. That goes against the very notion of a workplace where people are valued for their contributions and encouraged to do their best and given feedback accordingly. Of course, no workplace can be completely fair all the time, and people are human beings, so they can't be completely objective in whose work they value. • • But when there is a systemic bias for or against someone, it can feel awful for the person who's being slighted and ironically, even for the person who knows that their work is being elevated more than it should be. • • Symptom number seven lack of clear feedback. • • We all know how important positive reinforcement is, but this goes even beyond that. • • Lack of clear feedback leaves people scrambling with the uncertainty of not even knowing whether the feedback would be good or bad. • • It creates a situation where people have no idea what they're supposed to improve and no clear path towards growing and getting better. • • • It also feels interpersonally confusing because you have no clue where you stand with colleagues and supervisors. • • • Symptom number eight discouragement of supportive relationships. This is a huge one. I've given a lot of keynotes about the importance of relationships at work. I find that most managers think that if they encourage friendships at work, then everybody will just be sitting around talking about Game of Thrones and never getting anything done. But the truth is, uh, feeling like your relationships at work are positive actually helps us do our best work. The people are often what keep us in a job and keep us satisfied there. Whereas when we feel discouraged from forming proper connections, that feels isolating and frustrating and it can lead to less collaboration and less ability to actually get our jobs done. Symptom number Nine constant Interruptions • • ironically, this is the fourth time that I've started recording my talking about constant interruptions. My dog Buster is unfortunately not winning awards for his conduct in the workplace. • • But in all seriousness, so many people I work with think they are suddenly developing ADHD at the age of 32 or 54. • • In reality, their attention is constantly being splintered by their external environment. I could jabber on for hours about all the ways that technology is splintering our attention • • and hey, no one would be able to pay attention to my jabbering on for hours. But beyond the technology, • • oftentimes the interruptions are coming from management or colleagues. It's one thing to be able to break up your own work for your own pace, but it's another thing when there is the expectation that you will answer an email immediately. No matter how involved in a different task you are, or while you're on a job site doing what you actually came to do, a supervisor will put something totally different on your plate that needs to be attended to right then. Our brains aren't meant to work that way. It cuts down on efficiency and raises our threat perception. So it makes us much more anxious over time, • • not to mention wrecking our concentration and productivity. • • Symptom number Ten lack of Connection to Why You're Doing What You're Doing we always want to think about a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose. And of course, it's true that not all jobs clearly connect with our sense of purpose, nor does our job need to be the love of our life in this sense. • • Nonetheless, a, uh, job that is completely removed from the larger question of why can lead to burnout more quickly. So what this means, in a practical sense, is to try to make a bigger connection between that smaller task and the larger picture. Are you helping a company that ultimately tries to make people's lives better? Are you providing services to someone that can make their day a little brighter? Are you contributing to something creative or that adds to the beauty of the world, or that helps protect people or the world? Even if you're making Widgets, there is often a deeper connection to something. Of course, if the only thing that you feel connected to is contributing to the boat fund of your CEO, then long term that could be a deeper question to wrestle with. • • Same, if you're at a job that goes against your value significantly, that's probably not sustainable in the long term for your mental health. Symptom number Eleven a Lack of Trust in Supervisors • • few things erode the health of a Workplace more Quickly than a lack of Trust in so many workplaces. People feel not only like their colleagues or supervisors don't have their back. But even worse than that. That betrayal is always a possibility around the corner. Even if it's just that you've gotten used to people at your workplace not doing what they say they will. This leads to a sense of always being on guard to protect yourself. This raises your level of threat, which over time increases your stress response and makes you more prone to burnout. Symptom number twelve lack of predictability and controllability over your Workday of course, everyone has different levels of spontaneity that they feel comfortable with. Plenty of people wouldn't necessarily do well with a nine to five, me included. But all of us need some semblance of controllability and predictability over what we're doing day in and day out. The key is that you feel autonomous to an extent where you're not constantly feeling like you're on a roller coaster. We know that in general, a sense of predictability and controllability • • lessen the stress response, and they allow us extra mental space to not be fretting about the uncertainty of what's to come. The ideal workplace allows a person to find their level of structure and doesn't constantly hit them over the head with things that they weren't expecting. It also doesn't constantly demand that they shift their availability or schedule against their will. • • Symptom number 13 no support in setting healthy Goals • • because goal setting can often be so dysfunctional in a workplace, oftentimes people do better when they have some support in setting goals. • • Otherwise they're just throwing darts, often overshooting and setting goals that are unrealistic or losing so much confidence that they don't want to set any goals. This isn't to say that micromanaging is best, or that your boss should be all up in your grill about whether or not you're going to meet every single mini deadline you make over the course of your work day. But you shouldn't feel like you have to go it alone. • • Your goals should mesh well with the goals of your team, and you should feel like everyone has a vested interest in helping each other meet their individual goals. • • Symptom number 14 unclear or Dysfunctional Communication • • • we can talk for hours about the tenets of healthy communication. I guess that probably wouldn't be the greatest communication for me to just segue into hours of that right now, but we will have a show on it at some point. We know that so many workplaces are dysfunctional precisely because communication is so screwed up. There's passive aggressiveness, there's lack of clarity. People say things that they don't mean and mean things that they don't say. There are some workplaces where there's just a constant bombardment of email so that nobody pays attention to anything that's said anymore and people miss stuff. So there's so many ways to screw communication up. But communication is one of the most important avenues of collaboration. • • Everything can go in a pretty awful direction pretty quickly when communication turns poor. • • Symptom number 15 lack of feeling valued. We all like to feel valued. Psychologists have been harping on this since Freud's time. Of course, Freud spice it up with things like penis envy and anal fixations, but really, the idea has long been understood that we all have a need to feel worthy. I'm not saying that your boss needs to be sending you greeting cards all the time, but when you're spending dozens of hours a week contributing, that contribution should feel like it matters. If it doesn't, it can lead to a sense of emptiness and helplessness pretty quickly. In fact, not feeling valued is one of the top reasons people give for leaving a job. Speaking of reasons that people leave a job, symptom number 16 is lack of opportunities for advancement. • • Now, this doesn't have to be as totally toxic as the others. Some jobs there's just a ceiling, and that's the nature of the job. The key here is whether people realize and accept that that's the nature of the job or if they're constantly being led to believe that there's a path toward advancement that might materialize but never does. • • Some jobs are meant to be just for a season in your life. I've certainly had my share of those in high school. I don't a dicky. And yes, that's what they had to call it for a steakhouse buffet chain. And they got away with paying me server wages even when they put me on cash registered duty so I couldn't get tips. What a season that was. But, uh, when you're in a job where you really hope to advance or you're being led to believe that you could advance but the avenue is not opening up, that does spell toxicity over time. Symptom number 17 a lack of say in decisionmaking. This goes back to the idea of needing autonomy in our jobs. And when we're constantly feeling like a cog in the wheel because we have absolutely no say in choices that are affecting our day to day life, it wears us down. • • Now, I know a lot of managers right now are probably catastrophizing and imagining how much of a disaster it might be. Ugh. If I actually let my underlings start making decisions, all of a sudden, everything would go to pot. • • We would never get a lick of work done because everybody would be hanging out at the cupcake ATM that they demanded we install in the break room. • • But let's get real. There are lots of ways to include employees in decision making. • • And if it feels like your employees aren't old enough to at least make some choices about things that affect their workday, • • then how are you legally employing them in the first place? • • Symptom number 18 a Gotcha culture. • • • Oh my goodness. I work with so many clients where instead of feeling like they have a collaborative environment with colleagues. They constantly feel like they're on guard because everyone is always looking for everybody else to slip up, • • or everyone's always afraid to ask for help because it will be used against them as a sign of weakness. • • But this cuts down on creativity and collaboration. It cuts down on the natural risk taking that we all need in order to grow. • • • • It's so frustrating how often I see this. Might this just be one of the trappings of the extremely dysfunctional brand of capitalism that has infected so many cultures around the world that everyone is always hoping for an avenue to get ahead by seeing someone else stumble? • • I really want to think not, because I have seen workplaces that are healthy and where this is just not the case. Then again, I have also seen folks crack an egg into a pan with just one hand and their omelet doesn't get all full of shells and their hand doesn't get gross. • • That doesn't seem to be generally attainable. So maybe I'm unduly optimistic, but I do think workplaces can do better. • • • • Symptom number 19 belittling and personal criticism. • • • It's so interesting to me how some supervisors who say that they are all for professionalism and how personal lives should never have any effect on people's work. Well, sometimes these supervisors are the first people to get personal when giving negative feedback to their supervisors. • • • Constructive criticism is, of course, helpful and great in many contexts, but when it's tinged with a sense of belittling or becomes a personal attack, • • it can very easily border on emotional abuse. • • • And finally, symptom number 20 is lack of flexibility. • • • • This kind of looks like the autonomy issue. So many supervisors think that if they offer a little bit of flexibility, then chaos will reign. The truth is, if we build in flexibility for employees, • • then they're less likely to break because they can bend. • • Certain jobs have more possibilities for flexibility than others. No doubt, no doubt. A flight attendant, they're not able to telecommute nearly as easily as a copywriter. I get it. But a lot of times it just takes a little creativity to see where your employees can be given just a little bit more wiggle room. • • And employees, you can think about where to ask for it. Be concrete, be respectful, be specific. • • • Give the rationale about how it will help not just you, but it will help your overall productivity. • • Remember, when we can bend, we are less likely to break. • • • So there you have it, a, uh, bird's eye view. Of the 20 characteristics that seem to be most implicated in making a workplace dysfunctional, • • • of course, these are the most common ones. I've heard some horror stories over the years that involve far more dysfunction than what we've talked about today. • • Clearly, if your workplace has practices that are violating people's physical safety or health or just completely steamrolling people's ethics, those are serious concerns. But I think we know those a little bit more. • • • Hopefully these 20 characteristics have given you something to think about that maybe wasn't quite as clear before. • • Maybe you're in the position to make direct changes as a supervisor or as an employee advocating for something to be a little bit different. • • Or maybe for now, you feel stuck at your work, or that none of these things are in your control. • • • But at least knowledge brings some, um, power. And the more of us that know that our workplaces don't have to make us unwell and that relatively small tweaks can make an enormous difference in our risk of burnout, the more we can use that power to shift our cultural norms over time. • • • A larger conversation about mental health and work is just beginning in the world and on this podcast, • • and I'm really glad you're showing up for it. • • • • Thank you for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonjour, and this has been baggage check with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Submit your voice memos@baggagecheckpodcast.com, and if you have that quirky friend who likes podcasts about thought-provoking issues, please let them know where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, cover art by Danielle Merity, and my studio security is provided by Buster the Dog. Until next time. Take good care. • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every other Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.