Advice for how colleges can avoid or end toxic work cultures (opinion)
The U.S. surgeon general recently released a groundbreaking report that identified toxic workplaces as being detrimental to the overall well-being of employees. The report confirms the notions that work can adversely affect your health. And that’s particularly relevant to colleges and universities these days: according to a 2022 Gallup poll, workers in higher education had the second highest reported rate of burnout—35 percent—after K-12 employees.
It is evident that faculty and staff members continue to feel overworked, with limited resources and no clear solutions to improving their conditions. And a toxic workplace can only further contribute to an unhealthy work life. In order to end toxic college and university workplaces, we need to understand what constitutes such an environment.
According to an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, the leading elements contributing to toxic cultures include failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion; workers feeling disrespected; and unethical behavior. Such elements of disrespect include bullying, not rewarding hard work, not respecting boundaries of employees and constantly discriminating against employees. In addition to damaging people’s health, toxic work cultures negatively impact employee retention and long-term satisfaction. Thus, higher education institutions should prioritize ending toxic workplaces, and the following 10-point plan provides a blueprint for doing so.
No. 1: Center diversity, equity and inclusion as part of the institution’s strategic plan. After the death of George Floyd and the racial reckoning of 2020, many people hoped that higher education institutions would make transformational progress in publicly committing to racial diversity and fully embracing and investing in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Three years later, however, many of those public commitments appear somewhat hollow, and the investments have not brought the desired returns. In fact, we’ve been confronting a backlash against DEI and antiracist practices, as some state governments have sought to severely limit any focus on this area.
But a primary aspect of toxic workplaces is the failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, and higher education leaders must not be intimidated by government officials. Our society—and by extension, our students, faculty and staff—will continue to become more diverse, and the colleges and universities genuinely committed to responding to the needs of all employees will be the most successful in the long term.
Higher education institutions should fully integrate DEI into their strategic plans to guide progress over a specific period of time, such as five years. They should not view DEI work as in something addition to their mission but as a central part of it.
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No. 2: Provide consistent, quality coaching and training for managers and senior leaders. Managers play a key role in creating a toxic or a healthy workplace. Unfortunately, however, many don’t receive the proper coaching and training to adequately fulfill their responsibility to develop and support employees. That often results in toxic work behaviors, like micromanaging, microaggressions, bullying and playing favorites.
Therefore, higher education institutions should invest in skilled coaching and robust training on various aspects of DEI, as well as topics such as inclusive leadership, impostor syndrome, compassionate communications and burnout prevention to help managers and senior administrators become better leaders. They should also offer training programs specifically for boards of trustees, an important but often overlooked group when discussing cultural competence and its importance in creating and sustaining a healthy workplace.
No. 3: Have zero tolerance for all forms of bias, discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment and coercive tactics, and prioritize psychological safety. Beyond centering DEI as part of an overall strategy, leaders must demonstrate zero tolerance for all forms of bias and coercion. They should create a psychologically safe environment in which employees feel assured they won’t be punished for speaking up or critiquing the organization. Psychological safety is such a crucial part of creating a healthy workplace, yet most organizations only pay lip service to it, if they acknowledge its importance at all.
No. 4: End the notion of “doing more with less.” As we encounter a period of economic strain, with many institutions cutting staff and reducing resources, college and university leaders will be tempted to place more of a workload on their remaining staff members. Senior administrators will tell employees to “do more with less,” an indication that no additional resources—money, head count and so on—will be coming, even given heavier workload expectations. To prevent burnout and overwork, we must instead encourage employees to “do less with less,” so that their expected work output reflects the capacity they actually have to produce it.
No. 5: Normalize self-care, including taking breaks during the workday and interruption-free vacations. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of self-care and protecting one’s energy amid challenging work conditions. However, as layoffs increase and companies do not replace head count, workers have had to work harder without breaks or time off. And when they do take time off, they may still feel the need to remain connected—taking calls on vacation, for instance, since they may not have any backup in their administrative unit.
Therefore, managers need to normalize self-care, encouraging those they supervise to take breaks during the day and to use paid time off liberally. And when staff members do take vacation time, managers should not expect them to be available and interrupt them but rather allow them to be truly disconnected from work.
No. 6: Stop the “we are a family” paradigm. So many leaders and institutions constantly state, “We are a family,” as a means of indicating closeness. Yet, unfortunately, they can often use that paradigm to exploit employees, making them feel guilty about setting appropriate boundaries, not allowing them to advance and grow, and forcing them to overwork for the good of the “family.”
You can demonstrate care and closeness without that paradigm, allowing employees to have a suitable distance from work while enhancing their commitment to the institution. Saying instead, for instance, that “we are a team” can help encourage employees to do both without an exploitative connotation.
No. 7: Outline a clear career development path for all employees and provide consistent feedback about performance. Far too many employees are unclear about how to advance and excel in their roles, because they aren’t given feedback about their progress or guidance and development toward a clear career path. By providing consistent feedback about both strengths and challenges, including bias-reduced performance evaluations, as well as outlining a career development path, higher education institutions can increase loyalty, commitment and retention among staff members—who will feel more seen and valued.
No. 8: Encourage healthy boundaries. That means employees should not feel the need to be available 24-7 with little balance between work and home. Institutional leaders should also encourage more discussions among themselves about mental wellness and how to prevent employee burnout or help people recover from it—understanding these are organizational imperatives that must be handled on a systemic level and are not just the responsibility of individual employees.
No. 9: Truly collaborate with employees to create a new, innovative vision of the workplace. The pandemic provided an opportunity for employees to assert more power—for instance, in demanding to maintain remote work—and the Great Resignation has indicated employee dissatisfaction and a desire to develop new options. But many higher education institutions have refused to adjust to the new normal of a collaborative approach to management, opting to hold on to the outdated command-and-control style, wherein they bully employees into following all their dictates.
By changing that approach, leaders can improve employee satisfaction, enhance retention and truly transform the work environment into a healthier one. The future of work will require innovation—not just in technology but also in rethinking the design of the workplace in a holistic way. And it will demand a truly collaborative approach between senior administrators and employees.
No. 10: Normalize joy and kindness in the workplace. There is often not enough joy and kindness at work, including genuine laughter, thoughtful and compassionate acts, and general good vibes. The pandemic has robbed us of those aspects, and we must work to regain them. We need to normalize work as being a place where you can be both productive and joyful.
Some people may mock that notion, asserting that work is work and meant to be a grind. But my experience has always been that the people who feel most connected to their company are the ones who feel seen, heard, valued and fully appreciated, and who have a good time. Managers should model kindness and positive engagement, increase informal ways for employees to connect, and constantly take the “joy temperature” of the team.
The past three years have been grueling, traumatic and challenging for colleges and universities. But we have an opportunity, despite difficult conditions, to end toxic workplaces in higher education. By following this 10-point plan, we can transform the workplace into one that provides psychological safety and joy—and is a healthy place for everyone.