Wednesday 28 August 2019 4:48 am

Let’s call time on poisonous workspaces that are causing stress

Anna Baréz-Brown is the co-founder of Shine for Women.

When we feel in control, we can grow, develop, and become better people. Surely this state of mind is crucial for an effective working environment? 

An increasing focus on workplace wellbeing suggests that there is a shift in the right direction, but can stress and anxiety really be solved with table tennis and free pizza?  

The pace and intensity of many workplaces is spiralling out of control. It’s a sad state of affairs when a reported 595,000 of us are suffering from workplace stress in the UK – and this doesn’t even include the number of people who are too concerned of the repercussions to report it. 

In response, many firms are trying to fix the issue through wellbeing initiatives such as free food or gym memberships – but these don’t address the root causes of workplace stress.

Again and again, I meet people who are at the end of their tether. 

Clearly, there needs to be change. But before we can solve the problem, we need to understand the toxins that can become endemic in an office. 


This is when people or groups of people go on the attack and try to dominate. They single out those that they want to subjugate and change the way an organisation thinks about them. 


This happens when one person, group or department decides that they no longer want anything to do with another. People will keep information away from those who need it, and may constantly cancel meetings.


People sometimes don’t listen and jump to an aggressive defence of a position, without considering why they are doing so or what impact it can have. 


This is when one group or person systematically overwhelms others to meet a goal – for example, adding workload pressure while also delivering news that can seriously destabilise someone. 


This is the worst toxin of all. It’s almost impossible to come back from a position where people or teams believe that their counterparts are worthless or beneath consideration. 

It may be hard to believe that businesses really can be like this, but it does happen. So how can an office overcome all these challenges? 

It starts with setting the right values. When enforced at a senior level, this can help define the ground rules for the way people work. 

In their absence, you’ll quickly find that tribes form with their own poisonous ethics. 

This happens because different departments have clear goals and aims, which inform how they think: for instance, sales will be target-driven, while marketing will be creative. Without a common set of values, they may see others as “the enemy”. 

Once values are in place, it’s vital that you start breaking down any embedded prejudices. This can be achieved by simply building empathy. 

A good place to start is looking for where tensions lie, and then getting the respective groups into a room. Once there, each side can describe how they feel. 

You then ask each side to step into the other’s shoes and seriously try to consider how they may feel in that situation. It’s amazing how this can calm situations quite quickly.  

This will also allow leaders to become more aware of what’s going on around them and in their teams on a truly human level. When we get to this level of humanity, people thrive – and so do businesses. 

With that in mind, creating a more welcoming workplace atmosphere  isn’t just “nice to have” – it is essential.

Photo by Liaison.

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