Does this sound like your workforce and workplace?

  • About one in four working Americans dread going into work; don’t feel safe voicing their opinions; and don’t feel respected and valued at work.
  • Only 38% of American workers are very satisfied with their current jobs.
  • 49% have thought about leaving their current organization.
  • 57% report leaving work feeling exhausted.
  • Nearly three in ten say their workplace culture makes them irritable at home;
  • Nearly half have put off important things in their personal lives (family, friends, life milestones) due to work demands.
  • One in five call in sick when they don’t feel like going to work.

Culture is crucial

These findings come from interviews with more than 1,000 adults conducted this past July by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). SHRM commissioned the survey to better understand the impact of workplace culture on employees. In 2019, SHRM says healthy, positive, engaging cultures are critical due to blurred lines between work and home life (answering emails 24/7, working on vacations, etc.); changing expectations about what makes for a good job (ask millennials); the broad diversity in today’s workforce composition; and the wide range of ages in today’s workforce (with many Baby Boomer age 65+ continuing to work). 

Other factors driving interest and media attention on culture include today’s slow but sure increasing emphasis on employee mental health, increasing incidences of workplace violence and harassment, and technological advances such as personal wearable monitors and sensors that raise privacy and Big Brother issues.

You already know this…

Google “safety culture” and you get about 1,600,000,000 results in 0.95 seconds. Safety and health managers have long known the importance of culture – the organization’s values, beliefs and leadership - on safety, morale, productivity, engagement, presenteeism and absenteeism. Culture has been at the top of safety and health issues for the past ten years at least.

But are toxic cultures something of an epidemic today, as the SHRM report suggests? Backing up this claim, the survey finds almost two out of three American workers state that they have worked in a toxic workplace, and 26% say they’ve had the misfortune of working for more than one toxic employer.

It doesn’t add up

If so many U.S. workplaces are toxic, how is the economy so robust? The U.S. economic expansion and recovery from the Great Recession is now the longest ever in history, reaching ten years (121 months) this past July. The year-over-year gain of 2.4% in productivity in the first quarter of 2019 was the best in nearly a decade. And this past April, the U.S. economy added 263,000 jobs – making it 103 straight months of job gains. The unemployment rate in April fell to 3.6%, the lowest since 1969.

Are employees sucking it up, grinning and bearing toxic cultures? 

They may dread going to work, but they show up and do the job. Workers are the muscle behind this historic economic boom.

They may think about leaving their current employer, but most don’t. Reality check: most of us at least think about the possibility of moving on from our current employer. Who doesn’t?

Most employees report leaving work feeling exhausted. This is partly a matter of definition. What’s the difference between feeling exhausted, tired, fatigued, burned out or stressed out? These terms are often used interchangeably. Who doesn’t feel tired at the end of a day’s work? 

And who doesn’t at times feel irritable at home due to some sort of work stress? 

Who doesn’t find that work demands, deadlines, OT, etc. at times interfere with personal lives? 

Who hasn’t called in sick to take a “mental health day” off from work?

The big cultural crack

A breakdown in communication is often the most common sign of a toxic atmosphere at work, according to the SHRM report. No argument there. But who doesn’t complain about poor communication at work now and then? 

Leadership creates – and undermines – an organization’s culture, according to the study. Understood. It starts at the top. About 30% of employees have complaints about their management, the survey states. Manager don’t know how to lead; they can’t be trusted; they don’t encourage open, transparent communication. But during a 40-hour workweek, 50 or so weeks a year, just about any boss comes in for some criticism. Who doesn’t complain about their boss? If not their direct report, senior leaders further up the chain of command?

The rest of the story

Flip these statistics around. Seventy percent of U.S. workers don’t have any real problems with their “people managers” – including safety and health managers. Seventy-five percent of workers do not dread going to work; do feel safe in voicing their opinions, and do feel respected and valued for the work they do. Sixty percent say their managers do frequently have honest conversations about work issues. And 80% of workers have not left a job due to workplace culture toxicity.

Maybe it’s a silent majority of workers who keep the economy humming, unemployment low, and productivity gaining. They may not be actively “engaged” in committees, volunteering or conversations, but they do what’s expected of them. They produce.

Bad news sells

Kudos to SHRM for reminding us of the importance of culture. And for pointing out cultural challenges that need to be addressed – in a minority of cases. But I’ve conducted enough research and reported on results to know that bad news sells. It gets more attention. Good news, satisfied workers, good managers – that’s “ordinary” stuff that doesn’t make news. It’s true, you can read into research whatever you want.

Toxic workplace culture are a reality. All you need to do is look at thousands of OSHA enforcement cases. Some companies take chances, some are caught off guard by violations, and some just don’t care. The price of a good work culture is eternal vigilance. Most companies, large and small, have at least decent cultures. Sure there’s room for improvement. Most operations could and should be more vigilant. That’s the challenge. Just don’t over-hype it.

What do you think?


—  Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor,