Toxic workplaces are a growing concern in Singapore as more employees suffer burnout

A survey reveals rising concern over workplace toxicity in Singapore, where nine in 10 professionals say they're experiencing burnout. There is growing recognition that burnout is not always an individual medical issue, but reflects a systemic problem with work culture, say experts.

An office building
Employee wellbeing expert Enoch Li says employees are increasingly looking for answers on what to do in a toxic workplace and how to cope with burnout — or they will quit. Image: Woj/Flickr

Singapore professionals are increasingly concerned about working in a toxic environment, as awareness of the need for companies to take better care of the mental health of their staff gains traction in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A study by co-working space firm Instant Offices found that internet searches for “toxic workplace” increased by 55 per cent in Singapore in 2021 over the year before.

Toxic workplaces — characterised by infighting among colleagues, poor management, and high staff turnover — have become a bigger issue as a result of the mental health toll of the pandemic, while remote working has aggravated stressors such as overwork, under-recognition, and poor communication.

Toxic work culture was found to be the single best predictor of staff resignations in what became known as “the great resignation” last year, when an unprecedented number of people quit their jobs, according to a January study by MIT.

The study by Instant Offices also found that nine in 10 Singapore workers say they are experiencing burnout, a state of poor mental health that results from excessive or prolonged stress at work.

Singapore employees work some of the longest hours in Asia Pacific region, with most working for an average of 44.6 hours a week. 

Enoch Li, founder of workplace health social enterprise Bearapy, told Eco-Business that the findings show an increase in mental health awareness, and an understanding that “employee wellbeing is more than just the individual burning out — it is the system and environment that might be the triggers of burnout.”

The ‘S’ in ESG is not as fluffy as people think it is. One person on sick leave due to depression is a cost to the bottom line. It accumulates.

Enoch Li, founder, Bearapy

Signs of a toxic workplace

Here are some warning signs that a workplace could be turning toxic:

• Increased sick leave days

• Lack of engagement, poor performance

• Reluctance to share knowledge or information with teammates

• Personal complaints and grievances between team members 

• Lack of understanding of responsibilities and boundaries

• Stressed, overworked team members

• Higher staff turnover

Source: Instant Office

Li pointed to the World Health Organisation definition of burnout, which describes it as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition, which results from chronic workplace stress that has not been well managed.

Li — who believes that Covid has given companies a “massive, collective wake up call” to the importance of mental health as part of the ‘S’ in ESG [environmental, social and governance] — said employees are increasingly looking for answers on what to do in a toxic workplace and how to cope with burnout, or else they will quit their jobs.

The cited factors causing burnout in Singapore are bigger workloads (49 per cent), pressure to meet deadlines (37 per cent), and long working hours (33 per cent). 

As a result of burnout, 30 per cent of Singapore workers are looking to change jobs in 2022, according to the study, which was published earlier this month.

The survey found that Singapore workers value a good work-life balance equally as highly as salary and benefits, and more so than job security or career progression.

Li said that poor mental health among employees poses a business risk for firms, which suffer from lowered performance levels and high staff turnover.

“The ‘S’ in ESG is not as fluffy as people think it is. One person on sick leave due to depression and work stress is a cost to the bottom line. It accumulates,” Li said.

Depression is believed to cause 200 million lost workdays each year in the United States alone, at a cost of US$17 billion to US$44 billion to employers.

“If boards want to ensure company performance, and ensure shareholder return and value, they must pay more attention to people,” she said.

“It needs to go deeper into ensuring the company is run in a way that does not burn people out, where performance and wellbeing can co-exist through a conducive company culture,” she said.

Firms needs to recognise people as human beings, not just an employee that generates income, and to explicitly cover the mental health and wellbeing of employees in medical compensation plans, she said.

Bad mental ill-health is estimated to shave four per cent off global GDP a year. By 2030, mental illness could cost the global economy US$6 trillion a year.

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