The number one job of a safety director is to protect their employees from harm. Harm can come from many different directions and can strike an employee in any number of ways and places—the head, the hands, the feet, eyes, ears, nose, lungs, heart. It could be excessive heat, excessive cold, excessive sunlight, toxic chemicals and gases, spills, falls. It could come from equipment, vehicles, dry rot, asbestos, combustible dust, animals, electricity, fires, floods.
The list goes on and on, of course, as every workplace has its own unique potential to expose workers to some kind of harm. And for just about every possible danger, there is a corresponding solution to prevent it, or at least contain it.
But what if the biggest risk factor to your employees’ health and safety isn’t any of those things mentioned above? What if you—the safety manager—are yourself the biggest threat to your workers?
In a recent poll of its members, TeamBlind, a community app for the workplace, asked: What is the main source of employee burnout at your current workplace? Some of the most frequently cited responses include: work overload, toxic culture, lack of career growth, and insufficient rewards. But by far the number one cause of employee burnout is: poor leadership and unclear direction.
Now, burnout doesn’t refer to the occasional stress that all of us experience from time to time on the job. It’s not the typical employee grumble about being overworked and underpaid, or the wish that Friday would hurry up and get here already. According to Psychology Today, burnout is “a state of chronic stress that leads to: physical and emotional exhaustion; cynicism and detachment; and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. When in the throes of full-fledged burnout, [employees] are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level.”
Various university studies in recent years, including those conducted by Harvard, Binghamton University and the University of Manchester, indicate that poor leaders—in popular parlance, toxic bosses—are often the culprit for an employee’s high blood pressure, depression, substance abuse, overeating, heart attacks, and other physical, psychological and emotional issues. It should be pointed out that merely being inexperienced or not-a-people-person doesn’t make somebody a toxic boss. The type of boss that can burn out employees is one whose behavior is consistently abusive, one who takes a tangible delight in inflicting emotional harm on his or her workers. As Lancaster University’s Cary Cooper once put it, ““Nobody damages your health more in the workplace, potentially, than your manager.”
Here are just some of the ways that burnout can affect an employee (and by extension, the company itself): chronic fatigue, forgetfulness or lack of attention to details, dizziness, anxiety, lack of productivity, anger, absenteeism, apathy, poor performance. Now imagine a scenario where an employee suffering from one or more of these traits is, let’s say, working at a construction site, or driving a forklift, or handling hazardous materials. Not a pretty picture, is it?
One of the most popular comic strips of all time is Blondie, although more often than not the main focus of the strip is Blondie’s husband, the hapless Dagwood Bumstead. Dagwood works for Julius Dithers, owner of a construction company and as toxic a boss as the workplace has ever seen. In a recent Sunday strip, as part of a daydream sequence, Dithers clubs Dagwood over the head, chokes him, kicks him, yells at him, drags him by the feet, lifts him over the head, and tosses him out the door as he fires him. When his wife asks him why he’s in such a good mood, Dithers says, “I was just thinking how much I love going to work each day.”
While Dithers’ constant verbal and physical abuse of his employees (mostly Dagwood) is played strictly for laughs in the comics and Hollywood has mined the entire premise of “Horrible Bosses” for comedic gold, this kind of workplace bullying is definitely no laughing matter. The damage that bad bosses can inflict upon their employees’ health, to say nothing of their company’s financial health, can be enormous. According to Inc., bad bosses cost the economy roughly $360 billion per year in lost productivity, partly because employees with bad managers tend to slow down, purposefully make errors, hide from their boss, take longer breaks, or just generally fail to do their best work.
Safety managers, probably due to the nature of the job, tend to be the least prone to displaying this type of bad boss behavior, but they need to be sensitive to recognizing when this type of abuse occurs at their companies, especially among their managerial peers in other departments. Being proactive is one way we all can ensure that this type of toxic manager is an endangered species.