Deadly work cultures

It is easy to dismiss ‘culture’ as the soft side of safety and health, a luxury indulged by an advanced economy and a class of professionals who focus on continuous improvement and vision zero.

Aren’t tangible things such as safe machines and PPE, systems and procedures that are all in place and well documented, what really matter in the end? Let those who know about what’s good for us get on with the job and let the rest, the employer as much as staff, simply do what they are told. Culture doesn’t really kill people. 

A recent news story unequivocally put this myth to bed. In a report examining a heart-surgery unit at South London’s St George’s Hospital, it was said that a ‘toxic feud’ between ‘rival camps’ contributed to a higher than normal death rate and put patients at risk.

Mike Robinson, chief executive of the British Safety Council

Interviews with staff, by Professor Mike Bewick, revealed that the workplace was dominated by a ‘persistent toxic atmosphere’ and ‘dark forces’ and that this inevitably led to its poor performance.

It is now for St George’s to examine these findings but, clearly, leadership and culture need to be addressed. It is not the first hospital to have to face these difficulties.

In 2013, staff at a different hospital told the regulator about “a bullying and blame culture in theatre and critical care”, which made them afraid to raise concerns and report safety incidents.

Hospitals are not alone of course and there are many examples of how a poor workplace culture can negatively impact on the safety of the public and staff.

What exactly is meant by a toxic culture? I think it takes on many different forms but, at its heart, are shared destructive behaviours that stem from the development of psychological barriers.

People will hide behind the barrier, find excuses not to communicate or cooperate across it, and push back when they feel the barrier is threatened. It’s both a refuge and a fortress.

Most damagingly for the business, it encloses not only the self but all those others who ‘feel’ the same and then, in time, ‘rival camps’ emerge; collectives of hurt and resentment that feed off each other and see slights and provocations in every ‘rival’s’ conversation or behaviour.

There are of course health consequences for those at the centre of such poisonous atmospheres, as Julian Hall, founder of the ‘emotional resilience’ consultancy Calm People tells Safety Management harbouring anger at work is as bad for health as stress. He also tells us that storing up negative feelings can lead to heart attacks, strokes and skin complaints.

Clearly though, with communication compromised, even degraded by such workplace cultures, the risks increase through the whole workplace. For example, you can imagine how one member of a ‘camp,’ not necessarily at the centre of one, could, through loyalty, not share a safety concern with a ‘rival’? It may not be deliberate but the impact of not sharing could be devastating.

How do such ‘toxic cultures’ develop and what can be done to prevent them in the first place? Of course, people will always fall out over all kinds of things that happen in and outside work, or simply just not get on.

Toxic cultures get a foothold when these feelings are not dissipated or overcome in the context of work, in the context of the culture of the workplace. Work is an incredible magnifier of human emotions – and the more at stake, the more ‘important’ the work – the more that is likely it seems to be that such common feelings are exacerbated.

What is needed is a positive workplace culture to prevent such everyday affairs turning into something more destructive.

This again begs the question of what a positive culture is. Top of the list must be a shared vision of what needs to be achieved, with shared goals that not only encourage but demand collaboration. If people are allowed to work in isolation or silos, then anger and resentment will find a rich and fertile soil to grow in.