Toxic behaviour at work ‘spreads like a virus’. How leaders can learn from public health to reduce toxicity.

Kristen Sadler
5 min readJul 30, 2019

Toxic behaviour at work “spreads like a virus” and “infects employees” so we try to “prevent outbreaks”. With numerous analogies between workplace toxicity and actual disease, I began wondering — Are there real parallels? If so, can leaders learn from the public health experience to deal with toxic behaviour?

Under the right conditions, toxic behaviour certainly proliferates like a potent virus. A problematic person causes damage by negatively impacting colleagues, teams and even an entire organisation. Colleagues can inadvertently pick up bad practices and support a toxic culture. Identifying and dealing with problematic people limits the damage, however, prevention is more effective than ‘cure’. Hence I argue that there are commonalities between toxic behaviour and viral disease, and consequently lessons to learn from the public health experience.

Controlling, preventing and eradicating disease is not a solo effort.

The first learning point is the importance of a specialist network for sharing knowledge and resources to improve the individual, community and global prospect. In public health, scientists publish their findings about virus structures, government agencies and NGO’s release results and information about treatment and prevention strategies, healthcare workers report progress and challenges. If each worked in isolation and didn’t share findings the control and prevention of even one infectious disease would be virtually impossible.

To find the most efficient, effective and sustainable solutions for toxicity in the workplace, specialised expertise is needed to understand the multitude of factors. In one organisation dealing with one particular outbreak or prevention plan, the expertise will focus on the specific goals for that situation.

When we take a broader view, the lessons learnt and methodology developed for dealing with toxic behaviour don’t need to be state secrets. They can be shared within and beyond the organisation to elevate global workplace health.

Not all viruses are the same, and neither are toxic people.

Bacteria and viruses can cause similar symptoms, but they act in different ways and thus require different treatments. In addition, even when…

Kristen Sadler

Learning. Sharing. Running. Traveling. TEDx’ing. Advising. Speaking. Writing.