Can a toxic workplace ruin your health?

Meet Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general.

Aka America’s Doctor.

As “the leading spokesperson on matters of public health,” past surgeon generals have opined on safe sex, Zika, COVID-19 and – of course – smoking cigarettes.

So I was shocked to see the Surgeon General wade into the debate about work. Well, toxic work specifically.

“Toxic workplaces are harmful to workers—to their mental health, and it turns out, to their physical health as well.”

Um, of course. We all know that the body keeps score. And when the mind ain’t right, the body ain’t right.

America’s Doctor added additional guidance stating:

Long hours, limited autonomy and low wages can affect workers’ health and organizational performance. Chronic stress disrupts sleep, increases vulnerability to infection and has been linked to conditions ranging from heart disease to depression.

The pandemic offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for knowledge workers to redefine archaic relics from the industrial revolution. (Um hello, 9-to-5.)

But clearly that isn’t happening. Instead some jobs are pushing people deeper into a health crisis.

What’s the proposed remedy? And how are we avoiding toxicity in our own Rad workplace?

What does the ideal workplace look like?

The office of the surgeon general issued the following recommendations (as reported by the WSJ):

Asking workplace leaders to listen to workers about their needs, increasing pay and limiting communications outside of work hours. A mentally healthy workplace, according to the framework, includes growth opportunities, work-life balance, community, protection from harm and employee influence on workplace decisions.

This prompted me to look into our own Workplace Principles to see how RadReads is faring:

1. We work to live, not live to work

It sounds obvious, it’s imperative that we state it up front. Our team is passionate about our mission and their day-to-day activities. But work is not the be-all and end-all. In an ideal world, it’s a vessel for self-expression and self-actualization. But it doesn’t have to be. It can also be a job. Which leads to the next principle.

2. Our family, friends and personal well-being always come before work

One of my favorite $10K Questions is:

Do the people I love get my best energy?

And while we all make trade-offs in service of our ambition (and in Tom Brady’s case, unsurpassed excellence), we want to remember the big picture – the people we love most.

3. We respect each others’ attention and always favor asynchronous modes of working

We believe that the concept of a work day is obsolete. If the right team is hired and they are given clear goals, direction and accountability – we trust that they will hit their deadlines.

As such, we’re a meeting-free company (with the exception of Weekly 1:1s and a handful of monthly team meetings) and everyone is free to work on their own schedule. Those with kids will base their day around these commitments and others will batch their work around their hobbies, passions and travels.

4. We trust that our colleagues understand their responsibilities and commitments without micro-management

Here’s a wild fact about our 6 person team: I’ve only met one of my colleagues in-person. And since we don’t have an office (or a water cooler), it’s incumbent on us to build trust via other mechanisms. One of my favorite metaphors is the Trust Battery from Shopify CEO, Tobias Lütke:

Another concept we talk a lot about is something called a “trust battery.” It’s charged at 50 percent when people are first hired. And then every time you work with someone at the company, the trust battery between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise.

5. We strive to log off completely when not working

You’d think that an online business with a social media presence would “always be on.”

For our team, it’s actually the opposite. We’re passionate about protecting our own attention and our colleagues’ attention. This means we have extremely clear rules for communication (captured in a 5,700 word Notion document called How We Work) which include:

  • No sending internal emails (period)
  • A baseline expectation of checking Slack 1x per day
  • Recommendation for “scheduled send” on the weekend
  • Completely “off-the-grid” (and unlimited) vacations

6. We always invest a little bit of time to make our colleagues lives easier (regardless of our title)

This one hits particularly close to home as the founder and CEO of the company. This means that I’m required to tag tasks in specific ways, respond to Slack messages during the same timeline and refrain from using email internally. Yet it’s with these small gestures (often $10 work) that you demonstrate to others that you do not play by different rules, you value fairness and lead by example.

7. We have clearly defined and transparent goals, priorities and expectations

Fully-remote work requires constant over-communication, since you can’t rely on the small “side-bar conversations” that happen in the physical office. At the “macro” level, we manage using a modified version of OKRs (inspired by Christina Wodtke’s Radical Focus). Our priorities are handled during weekly 1:1s and a weekly Slack update. Finally, we strongly believe in surfacing unspoken norms (i.e. If my boss messages me on a Saturday, do I need to respond?) in our How We Work Document. These are the subtle interactions and expectations that are often left unspoken and detrimentally impact more junior workers because of power imbalances.

8. We deliver direct and timely feedback, without sacrificing genuine care for one another

Our approach to feedback is inspired by Kim Scott’s Radical Candor framework:

Feedback should always come through the lens of Genuine Care (as a human, see principle 1) for the person receiving the feedback. Furthermore, we use Scott’s guidelines on HHIPP:

Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.” That last P makes a key distinction: “My boss didn’t say, ‘You’re stupid.’ She said, ‘You sounded stupid when you said um.’ There’s a big difference between the two.

9. We see each other as human beings, not just workers — our work environment is anchored by respect, compassion and empathy

We conclude our principles by aggregating and reinforcing something we sincerely believe in: our collective humanity.

For many careerists, who you work with dictates huge swaths of your mental, physical and spiritual energy.

But more importantly – why wouldn’t you want to live those values every single day?

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