Depression, burnout, insomnia, headaches: how a toxic and sexist workplace culture can affect your health


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Xi Wen (Carys) Chan, Griffith University and Paula Brough, Griffith UniversityAs allegations of rape and sexual assault engulf Australian federal politics, several current and former female staffers and politicians have come forward to share their stories of a culture of toxic masculinity within Australia’s political bubble.

It’s unfortunate that while gender roles are evolving at home, gender inequality and overt sexism remain prevalent in Australian political culture and in many workplaces across the country.

While the effects of a culture of toxic masculinity are most detrimental for the victims, other employees in workplaces and the wider community can also be negatively impacted.

This opens up a broader question: how does a toxic and sexist workplace culture affect the health and well-being of employees and organisations?

What does a toxic and sexist workplace look like?

A culture of toxic masculinity is a hostile work environment that undermines women. It’s also known as “masculinity contest culture”, which is characterised by hyper-competition, heavy workloads, long hours, assertiveness and extreme risk-taking. It’s worth noting this type of culture isn’t good for men, either.

Such workplaces often feature “win or die” organisational cultures that focus on personal gain and advancement at the expense of other employees. Many employees embedded in such a culture adopt a “mine’s bigger than yours” contest for workloads, work hours and work resources.

These masculinity contest cultures are prevalent in a wide range of industries, such as medicine, finance, engineering, law, politics, sports, police, fire, corrections, military services, tech organisations and increasingly within our universities.

Microaggressions are common behaviours in workplaces steeped with a masculinity contest culture. These include getting interrupted by men in meetings or being told to dress “appropriately” in a certain way. There are also overtly dominating behaviours such as sexual harassment and violence.

These behaviours tend to keep men on top and reinforce a toxic leadership style involving abusive behaviours such as bullying or controlling others.

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A hyper-masculine work environment might look like huge workloads, long hours, hostility, assertiveness, dominance and an extremely competitive culture.
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At a very basic level, workplaces should afford women safety and justice. But women’s issues are left unaddressed in many workplaces, and many fail to provide women employees with psychological safety or the ability to speak up without being punished or humiliated.

This might be because leaders in the organisation are ill-equipped to deal with these issues, feel uncomfortable bringing them up or, in some cases, are sadly not interested at all.




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How does a toxic culture affect our health?

Evidence suggests a toxic workplace culture can negatively affect employees’ psychological, emotional and physical health.

Emotional effects include a higher likelihood of negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, disgust, fear, frustration and humiliation.

As these negative emotions build, they can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, cynicism, a lack of motivation and feelings of self-doubt.

Research also points to increased chances of physical symptoms, such as hair loss, insomnia, weight loss or gain, headaches and migraines.

Employees in toxic workplaces tend to have poorer overall well-being, and are more likely to be withdrawn and isolated at work and in their personal lives. Over time, this leads to absenteeism, and if problems aren’t addressed, victims may eventually leave the organisation.

For some victims who may not have advanced coping skills, a toxic culture can lead to a downward mental and physical health spiral and contribute to severe long-term mental illness. They may also engage in displaced aggression, in which they bring home their negative emotions and experiences and take out their frustrations on family members.

Woman stressed and isolated at work
Employees in toxic work environments are more likely to be withdrawn and isolated, both in the office and outside of work.
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How can workplaces change?

Workplaces aiming to make a real change should start by promoting an open culture where issues can be discussed via multiple formal and informal feedback channels.

One option is formal survey mechanisms that are anonymous, so employees can be open about their concerns and feel less intimidated by the process.

A good first step is having leaders trained to address these issues.

Traditionally, workplace interventions have focused on victims themselves, putting the onus on them to do the work and come forward. However, a healthy workplace culture should see leaders actively seeking feedback to make sure any forms of toxic masculinity are stamped out.

It’s a shared responsibility, and the onus shouldn’t be solely on employees, but leaders, too.




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The Conversation


Xi Wen (Carys) Chan, Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, Griffith University and Paula Brough, Professor of Organisational Psychology, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Cultural misogyny’ and why men’s aggression to women is so often expressed through sex


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Xanthe Mallett, University of NewcastleAs the country watches Scott Morrison grapple with the sex scandals rocking our federal parliament, it is worth wondering what has really changed since former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s now-famous 2012 “misogyny” speech.

The power of that speech is undeniable, and it resonates loudly today.

Gillard spoke to the imbalance of power between men and women and the under-representation of women in positions of authority. Her speech raised serious concerns about how some politicians saw women’s roles in contemporary Australia.

Fast forward to yesterday, and Scott Morrison attempted to address the most recent shocking allegations of lewd behaviour by some coalition staff – the allegation being a group of government staffers had shared images and videos of themselves undertaking lewd acts in Parliament House, including in the office of a female federal MP.

These stories raise the question as to why some men participate in sexually denigrating women – both those in authority as well as those in positions of submission in hierarchical organisations. And why is male aggression towards women so often expressed through sex rather than through other means?

As a criminologist, I interpret men’s sexually aggressive behaviour – whether it is desecrating a women’s desk by videoing himself masturbating on it, or a sexual assault – as an activity born of a need for power and control.

When some men feel challenged, or want to dominate someone to fulfil an innate internal inadequacy, they can feel the need to do so sexually. Often, the subjects of their rage about feelings of inadequacy are women.

From lewd comments, to being groped, through to sexual assault, the attacks on women in the workplace continue.

Research suggests heterosexual men who are more socially dominant are also more likely to sexually objectify women. When these men are placed in positions of submission to women at work and their dominance is challenged, the levels of sexual objectification of women go up. This supports the assertion that some men increase their dominance by sexually objectifying women, and this objectification can become physical.

This conversation around how we address this has been building for some time.




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In 2017, the #MeToo movement went viral, as women started to share their negative sexual experiences via social media. The discussion initially focused on women being sexually harassed by their bosses in the media and entertainment industry, but it soon became obvious the problem was much wider than that. It permeates every industry in every country.

Sexual harassment and assault are more common than many people might believe, or want to believe. A 2018 study surveyed 2,000 people in the US. It found 81% of women and 43% of men had suffered some form of sexual harassment or assault. Further, 38% of the women surveyed said they have suffered from sexual harassment in the workplace.

The picture is mirrored in Australia. A 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission report found 23% of women said they had been sexually harassed at work in the previous 12 months.

In 2021, we are still having the same debate.

One big question is where these bad male behaviours originate from?

Social Learning Theory might help us to understand what is going on in relation to some men’s need for sexual domination of women. It is based in the premise that individuals develop notions of gender and the associated behaviours by watching others and mimicking them. This learning is then reinforced vicariously through the experiences of others.

Combine this learnt behaviour with cognitive development theory, which suggests gender-related behaviour is an adoption of a gender identity through an intellectual process, and we can see how misogynistic behaviours can be identified, remembered, and mimicked by subsequent generations of males.

This could be termed “cultural misogyny”.

How do we change the dynamic?

The only way to shift the framing around appropriate behaviour in the workplace, and society more generally, is to continue to break down gender stereotypes. Women need to be elevated to positions of power to reduce male domination in all aspects of life. We must challenge the undermining of women’s and girl’s autonomy and value when boys exhibit it, to break the chain of passing on these negative attitudes.




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We are only now beginning to the hear the breadth of stories from women speaking out about their own negative experiences.

As a woman in academia – a very hierarchical structure – I have been sexually harassed, and I just accepted it as part of my working world. My experience was with a very senior member of a previous university, and I would never have considered challenging him or reporting it, as I was very well aware of the power he had over me and my career. I even considered changing organisations to avoid the unwanted behaviours.

The brave women who are now speaking up have changed the way I view my own experience. The more we raise our voices, support each other and encourage change in the attitudes around us, the more we will all benefit.The Conversation

Xanthe Mallett, Forensic Criminologist, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.