Loch Associates

With almost a third of UK employees taking time off work due to toxic workplace culture, what can you do as a business to protect your employees and provide a supportive and flourishing environment? By Pam Loch, Loch Associates

A recent report carried out by software developer, ‘Culture Shift’, has found that two in five employees across the UK have experienced problematic behaviour, such as bullying, harassment or discrimination at work. 42% reported a ‘toxic workplace culture’ has impacted their mental health, and 61% of those affected have taken long-term leave or left their roles permanently.

The report found that since the Covid pandemic started in March 2020, employees are less willing to put up with negative environments and are more aware of what is truly important to them in terms of a strong culture of trust and respect. “There are just simply fewer employees who are willing to put up with negative cultures, problematic behaviour and the subsequent impact on their mental health.” says Gemma McCall, chief executive of Culture Shift.

With the cost of recruiting a new member of staff believed to be at least £25,000, it is essential that employers do all they can to avoid a problematic or hostile working environment in order to retain, engage and motivate their staff.

The damage caused by allowing a toxic culture to develop can be very costly to repair. Scottish brewer BrewDog carried out an extensive culture review, following claims from their workers that they were ‘burnt out, afraid and miserable’. The company has also spent £9m investing in employees, improving salary and benefits and bolstering HR resources to combat the controversy embroiling the business.

Allegations of mistreatment are not confined to the business world, and in 2020 issues were highlighted within British Gymnastics regarding the welfare of gymnasts, the ineffective handling of safeguarding concerns and complaints and gymnasts feeling unable to raise issues with the appropriate authorities. A report has been carried out to address issues which have emerged in recent months.

The public sector has also come under intense scrutiny. The NHS is Europe’s largest employer, and in 2018 the Independent published an article highlighting that the toxic culture within the NHS is costing the public billions. The stress caused to NHS workers by the pandemic has exacerbated the problematic behaviours and in their ‘Paying the Price’ report, Culture Shift identified that 49% of healthcare employees who have experienced bullying, harassment, discrimination or sexual misconduct are looking to leave their jobs as soon as they can’t find something better. With staffing issues already dominating the problems faced by the NHS, this paints a very bleak picture.

So what can you do as an employer to safeguard your organisation against complaints of a toxic culture?

Anonymous reporting 

Employees need to know that there are a number of resources available to them, should they need to encouter problematic behaviours or a negative culture to their employers. It is not enough to rely on employees reporting issues to management, as studies show employees fear the repercussions of doing so, particularly where the issues are caused by their colleagues. Creating a policy or process which provides the option for anonymous reporting is a vital first step in encouraging employees to speak up, and not speak with their feet. 

Improve your existing workplace policies and procedures

McDonald’s has signed a legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) committing to improving its policies and procedures, taking a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and creating an anonymous survey their workers can complete to highlight the problems they face. This comes as a result of McDonald’s’ workers reporting a catalogue of complaints to the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union. 

The problem facing McDonald’s is likely to have arisen, because of a structure, where workers are on zero hours contracts, rely on the goodwill of their managers to be given the hours they need to survive, when low pay is endemic and living hand to mouth is the norm. 

Employers should re-visit the policies they have in place and ensure that these are available to all workers. Policies should set out clearly the approach the organisation takes to sexual harassment, bullying and hostile behaviours and that these constitute gross misconduct. 

Policies should also clearly identify the options available to employees who are suffering the impact of these negative behaviours and how they can safely and confidentially report their concerns without fear of repercussions.  


Training and development

Managers and other employees in leadership roles should be given specific and targeted training on how to identify issues faced in the workplace, and to take steps to combat negative behaviours. Under the Equality Act 2010, an employer is legally responsible if an employee is discriminated against, harassed or victimised by another employee, and they also owe a duty of care under the contract of employment. 

Managers should be provided with guidance on how to conduct one-to-one meetings with their employees to help identify problems as they arise and encourage reporting of their concerns to someone higher up if they do not feel equipped to manage them alone, rather than turning a blind eye or taking ineffective steps to resolve issues.


Improve your employee benefits and conditions

A positive environment is proven to boost morale and relationships within a workplace, resulting in employees contributing more ideas, feeling encouraged and believing in the success of the company. Workers are no longer just looking to achieve the best rate of pay but a place to work which reflects the importance an employer places on its employees, a culture where employees feel recognised, encouraged and valued.

Good notice of shifts, flexible working hours and arrangements and paid breaks have all been identified as significant factors job seekers consider when identifying their next role.

In order for employers to attract the best candidates and retain their staff, they have to look beyond salary levels and consider what workers require to achieve a work life balance in which they can prosper and ultimately, bring the most value to the employer they work with.

Pam Loch, Solicitor and Managing Director of Loch Associates Group


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