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Workplace Dynamics

Most adults spend a significant portion of their day, year, and life working for pay. As a result, the dynamics of a workplace—including how coworkers interact, how responsibilities are delegated, and how dedicated workers are to the company’s mission—can have significant effects on people's physical and mental well-being.

Why Workplace Dynamics Matter

Healthy workplace dynamics are sometimes ignored in companies' quests for profits and productivity. But they are not only integral to a company's success—more importantly, workplace dynamics have a deep, lasting effect on workers' well-being and career trajectory.

Each person’s vision of an ideal work environment may be different. But in general, a psychologically healthy workplace is one in which coworkers are respectful of each other’s personalities, ideas, and working styles; work is allocated fairly; and trust exists between coworkers, particularly between higher- and lower-level employees. Although it’s not always possible for someone to secure work in a field that is personally meaningful to them, employees who feel that they are doing work that is interesting, challenging, and rewarding are more likely to experience healthy workplace dynamics.

If, on the other hand, poor workplace dynamics are not addressed, it can trigger burnout or widespread employee dissatisfaction. It may also lead to high turnover, which often creates challenges both for employees who leave and for those who are left behind, not to mention the organization as a whole. Thus, working toward strong workplace dynamics is in the best interest of workers, their families, and the company's bottom line.

What makes employees happy at work?

Research suggests that flexibility, autonomy, and a sense of belonging and inclusion at work are the leading drivers of employee happiness. Compensation and feeling appreciated by superiors also contribute to employee well-being, but are not as influential as many leaders believe.

What are good team dynamics?

Research suggests that the most effective teams are generally composed of members whose skills complement (rather than duplicate) each other; who demonstrate respect for one another, even when disagreeing; who generally enjoy working together; and who are able to communicate clearly and divide labor fairly. While some teams naturally work well together, most will need at least some guidance in order to overcome conflicts and perform at their best.

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How to Identify an Unhealthy Workplace

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The term “toxic workplace” can be used to describe any workplace in which negative dynamics harm employee well-being, foster conflict between coworkers, or slow productivity. Possible signs of a toxic workplace include:

  • Verbal abuse. Insulting language is frequently used, employees are belittled or threatened by superiors, disagreement is not tolerated, or malicious rumors are spread.

  • Poor communication. Priorities are disputed, instructions are vague, or employees do not feel comfortable communicating bad news to superiors for fear of a negative response.

  • Imbalanced workloads. Some employees have little to do, while others must work extra hours on their off-time to keep up with their workload. This can breed resentment among coworkers and may lead to overburdened employees leaving a company.

  • Overall poor mood. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be happy or motivated all the time. But if most employees are in negative moods more often than not, talking or laughing is rare, or no one seems to care about what they’re doing, it will likely have long-term effects on morale and well-being.

What are the consequences of working in a toxic environment?

Because most people work at least 40 hours a week—and many work more—a toxic workplace can have a severely damaging effect on mental health. Toxic workplaces are strongly associated with anxiety, depression, or worsened physical health; many workers also experience burnout, losing their drive and feeling unable to complete even basic tasks.

How can I tell if my job is bad for me?

Because no job is perfect—and because different people thrive in different environments—there isn’t always a surefire way to tell if a particular job is “bad” for a given individual. But employees who worry their work conflicts with their values, feel disrespected by coworkers or bosses, are unable to draw clear boundaries between work and life, or frequently experience physical or emotional side effects from work stress may be in a toxic work environment and would potentially be better off searching for a new job.

How to Improve Workplace Dynamics

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The dynamics of almost any workplace—from the slightly mismanaged to the seriously dysfunctional—can be improved with dedicated efforts from both workers and leaders. Though change can be both top-down and bottom-up, most large overhauls of a company’s culture will require buy-in and participation from the organization’s highest-ranking people, as they have the most power to enact real change and make it stick. However, lower-ranking individuals can also take steps to improve their immediate workplace environment, either by addressing small problems head-on or by making an effort to prioritize their own mental health, even in the face of dysfunction.

How can organizations improve employee mental health?

The most important things companies can do to improve employee mental health is ensure that workers are treated with respect, compensated fairly, and granted a reasonable amount of autonomy and flexibility. Beyond that, companies can help promote employee wellness by providing access to mental healthcare, either through employer-sponsored health insurance or through employee assistance programs. Wellness and self-help programming may also be used to teach employees coping mechanisms and address minor problems, such as communication challenges or coping with disappointment. 

How can companies foster psychological safety?

Companies can reinforce a culture of psychological safety by prioritizing trust and transparency—sharing the motivation for each major decision, and seeking feedback along the way, can help employees feel respected and like their contributions matter. Identifying and shutting down bullying and harassment are also paramount for a psychologically safe workplace.

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