Case Study: Are You Causing your Employees to be Sick?

Submitted by Rachel Shackleton

Mr L works for a large international organisation based in central London. His position within the company reports into director level and he frequently has direct access to the President of the company. The responsibility within his job role is huge financially as it is at his discretion to stop contracts going ahead if risk appears too great, the project will not achieve required profitability or parameters are unclear for some reason. His position is highly pressurized. In many situations he is torn between the “devil and the deep blue sea” between interested parties and the decisions that have to be made.

Mr L has worked for this company for over 10 years growing his responsibility and seniority over this time. He knows the company culture well and describes the environment “as toxic, with some good parts.” From his observation many of his colleagues cope with this culture by divorcing themselves and keeping their heads down, adding minimum value, and collecting a salary at the end of the month to pay all their bills. Trapped in their own world and justifying this mediocrity through monthly bills that must be paid.

Mr L has been suffering with his health on and off for approximately two years. However his health started to deteriorate some time earlier in a previous role within the same organisation. Whenever his job demanded that he fly to another business location he would get anxiety attacks. The result of these attacks eventually led to a breakdown with several weeks absence on sick leave.

The more recent health issues are mostly gut related. He suffers from nausea, stomach cramps and irritable bowel type symptoms. To seek understanding of these symptoms he has undergone various tests through his doctor, all of which have produced nothing sinister or out of order. Is this internalized stress caused by overload on the adrenal system.

Stress caused by what?

Looking from the outside in, the pressures of the job created by a combination of the job role, the volume of work to be processed by one person, and the desire to do his job excellently in order to avoid putting the company under undue risk, whilst also being able to stand behind each of his decisions with confidence. This is further compounded by the general toxic environment within the company created by the actions of each President to make his or her mark by driving profitability, very often at the cost of corporate and human values, in pursuit of personal gain. Over the last five years there have been three Presidents, each one being moved on in the company having achieved an apparently “excellent” job.

Mr L’s full realization of the impact on his health occurred over the Christmas and New Year period when he, like so many of us had time off to celebrate and re-charge in preparation for a new year and new decade. For several of the holiday days he was on call to answer questions that might occur in areas of the company that do not follow a Christian calendar and therefore not on leave. Calls were few and on most days he was able to relax, unwind, reflect and re-charge.

Returning to work after the break, nausea and stomach cramps accompanied him into his office on the first morning, which by the end of the day had developed into IBS symptoms. In his own words “After one day back at work, I feel terrible.”

What options does Mr L have?

Stay or leave or change job roles? The latter might relieve the stress of the job itself, but it is not immune from the general company culture. If staying, could he find a way to accept the status quo and not allow it to affect his health on a physical and mental level? This probably means joining his colleagues in doing the minimum to take home the end of month pay cheque.

The other alternative – leave the company. Who wins? The company loses a highly skilled, motivated and well respected employee with many years of experience. He walks away from a job that he is good at to seek employment elsewhere. Likely in a company where he is an unknown quantity and it is an unknown quantity to him, and where he has to spend several months getting up to speed and once more becoming a valuable asset.

If staying in the current role and trying to manage the impact of the company culture and work pressures is also a possibility, perhaps he could join his colleagues and divorce himself from this by simply seeing it as a job that pays the bills. In what way will this benefit the company, and would he be capable of such a divorce?

Is Mr L the only employee who is suffering ill health as a result of this toxic corporate culture, lack of leadership integrity and a focus on personal bonuses and benefits at the top level of the organisation? “The fish stinks from the head down?” Corporate, culture and values lie in the hands of those who have been placed to lead and inspire others and to deliver shareholder value. If they choose personal gain over leading by example and living the company values why would employees behave differently?

Do you know how well your organisation is?

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