Study: Toxic Workplaces Remain a Challenge

The American Psychological Association’s survey is based on new U.S. Surgeon General guidelines around wellness at the office.

American workers not only want their employers to do more on behalf of their emotional well-being but also report high levels of workplace toxicity and harassment, according to a new survey.

The 2023 Work in America Survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association and released last month, found that nearly a fifth of U.S. workers (19 percent) describe their workplace as “very or somewhat toxic.” A similar percentage (22 percent) said they experienced workplace harassment, a leap from 14 percent in APA’s 2022 survey. (Those percentages are larger among women and marginalized groups.)

Dennis Stolle, JD, Ph.D., APA’s senior director of applied psychology, attributes that uptick in part to more employees returning to the office in the past year. “There were fewer opportunities for people to be having face-to-face interactions that they would consider to be abusive or problematic, because so many people were still in that transition phase of returning to work,” he said. “Now we’re a bit more back to normal.”

22 percent of those surveyed reported having experienced or been afraid of experiencing harm to their mental health at work.

APA’s new survey is an overhaul of its previous workplace survey, called “Work and Well-Being.” For this iteration, APA took its cues from a framework for workplace wellness developed and released last year by the U.S. Surgeon General. That framework, which APA consulted with the USSG on, emphasizes five “essentials of workplace well-being,” related to safety, belonging, connection, growth, and work-life balance. 

To that end, many of the questions in the new survey focus on issues of safety and belonging. For instance, 22 percent of those surveyed “reported having experienced or been afraid of experiencing harm to their mental health at work,” and 26 percent reported having “feelings of loneliness or isolation at work.”

Stolle said such findings demonstrate that workers are looking for more psychological support from their employers.

“At the core is a sense of some sort of fear at work,” he said. “Maybe it’s the fear of arbitrary procedures, or being fired for no reason, or not being able to speak up for fear of being ridiculed. That ties into one of the things APA had been recommending, but now even more so, which is the importance of developing psychological safety in the workplace.”

One way to help address that, Stolle said, is to avoid creating an “always-on” culture in the workplace. Only 40 percent of workers, the survey found, say their employer “offers a culture where time off is respected.” 

“That’s a big problem,” he said. “That begins to inform a lot of our recommendations, because it’s not just about the formal policies. It’s not necessarily that somebody thinks they don’t get enough allocated days of PTO. It’s a sense of always being on call.”

Stolle said he hoped employers pay attention to one particular data point: 92 percent said it’s very or somewhat important for them “to work for an organization that provides support for employee mental health.” 

“I’m not sure that for most employers, when they think about attracting the best employees, that notion is foremost in their mind,” he said. “They’re thinking about office space, vacation days, compensation. But I think they need to add to that mix the notion of, ‘How can we communicate to applicants that this is a psychologically and emotionally healthy environment where they can thrive?’”

(katleho Seisa/iStock)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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