Can you be damaged by working in a toxic academic environment? As you’re answering this question, know that by toxic, I don’t mean chemicals, asbestos, and the like. Toxic, as we will use it in this article, is defined as hostile, stress-filled, mean-spirited, cold, exclusionary places. If you have never been to a college or university, then you may think that this couldn’t possibly describe an academic environment. Unfortunately, sometimes it does.
The damage that can result from working and “living” in a toxic academic work environment is staggering, not just to us but to all of those around us. For most academics, since our work is a huge part of our life and it’s not 8 to 4, 8 to 5, or whatever that funny little slot is that people talk about. For many professors, it’s not uncommon to work seven days a week. It’s why when our environment does become toxic it’s very difficult to just shut the door as some people might suggest. We can’t just walk out of the office and leave the ‘poison’ there.
Here are some of the categories where damage occurs when toxic academic work environments exist. I will discuss these four in the rest of the article.
- Colleagues (the good ones)
- Colleagues (the not-so-good ones)
Individuals: The individuals who may be hurt include the faculty members, staff, and administrators who are directly involved. However, other people in our families also suffer. Many times in ‘higher ed’ families, there’s more than one academic in the family. But other times when only one person works at a college or university, the other person works in an environment that when the work day is over and he/she goes home, that’s the end of it. Period. They clocked out. Not only is it the end of the job for that day, but they don’t have to think about it again until the next day. This is not true for college faculty members. Not only does their work come home with them, but the negativity that they experienced in their toxic environment may come right home with them as well. Certainly the pain comes with them and it’s difficult to block that out (just ask my husband).
Good Colleagues: Toxic academic environments take a toll on your ‘good’ colleagues. You’ll begin to see people (including yourself) get headaches, become sick, have maladies that just ‘hang on,’ etc. You will often notice that the good colleagues begin to lose that collegial feeling. It’s very sad to watch (and experience).
Not-so-Good Colleagues: The bad colleagues, i.e., the ones who may be contributing to the toxicity, often get even worse. If they were sort of “bad” (difficult, mean, condescending, racist) before or if they were somewhat bullying and uncivil before, they get even worse and more hateful. This may be because they’ve been emboldened and/or it may be because they have begun to enlist allies.
Students: Departments and programs often start to lose students, for example. Many, many students have lots of options. Students, particularly once they get into a major, don’t want to be in a department where clearly the people hate each other. They want to be in a department where they feel a collegial atmosphere – not only among the faculty and staff, but also that includes them. When toxicity is clearly present, you will start to lose students, because there’s no way they can thrive in that kind of an environment. Other times, you will have disconnected students. If you are at an institution where the students don’t have as many choices, and so they’re kind of “stuck” there, then they may very welcome come to class or campus, but then they disengage as quickly as possible. None of us like that. We like students who are engaged, not just in the classroom, but after class.
You may be thinking of other categories where damage results from a toxic work environment. Or maybe you have read this article thinking, that can’t possibly be true, however,
sadly, toxicity does exist in the academic work environment. If you would like to access a teleseminar (*Antioxidants for a Toxic Academic Work Environment*) that was hosted by Gina Hiatt of The Academic Ladder, feel free to go to Keeping Chaos at Bay where the handouts and recording are available.