COMMENT

You know those novelty coffee mugs that say, "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps"? Perhaps it's time to throw them out.

The Jami-Lee Ross saga was a cringey debacle for everyone concerned but it may have left us with one useful outcome. It seems we are starting to question how much we can reasonably tolerate in toxic workplaces.

In our "what are ya?" culture it used to be a badge of honour how much you could put up with. If you work in a high-pressure environment and you're not coping it's your fault. You're too sensitive, a snowflake. You need to harden up, get some grit.

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Now that we are a smidgen more enlightened you may be able to admit you need some "support" but only so you can patch yourself up as quickly as possible, get yourself fixed and get back in the fray. Onya.

But I feel encouraged there are signs this attitude is changing.

We are social creatures, wired to connect. And we don't become mentally ill in isolation. We are made through relationship. And our mental illness is co-created with those around us. Co-created is ghastly jargon I know, but for now I can't think of anything better.

So if you're not coping, if you're stressed or anxious or depressed you are the symptom-bearer, but maybe it's not just you. Maybe there is actually something wrong with the system itself. There are the first signs our institutions are at least starting to wonder whether they are healthy places to work.

The National Party has launched a review of its culture. The law fraternity – is it still a fraternity? I fear so – is in the midst of a painful reckoning. Sports codes are under scrutiny. The tertiary education sector is realising it has to take responsibility for desperate, stressed out students in its care.

And maybe the health sector is starting to do some soul searching too. One young doctor in the Weekend Herald a few days ago described hospitals as having such chronic and toxic work environments he became burnt-out and had to leave.

We are starting to gather the courage to look at the reality of our working lives and see how dysfunctional it is.

Academic Christine Porath was so affected by seeing her father taken to hospital after suffering from work-related stress she went on to study the effects of what she calls "civility" in the workplace.

She described incivility as anything from mocking or belittling someone, teasing people in ways that sting, to telling offensive jokes to texting in meetings. All of which sounds like a regular day at the office in the Beehive (or what I remember of school).

Of course, what leaves one person feeling disrespected is fine to someone else, but what Professor Porath did find was that there is a huge cost to incivility because it makes people less motivated.

And you don't even have to be the one who is the target of the incivility to get infected by it. Just being around rude behaviour decreases productivity. Witnesses to incivility were 25 per cent worse in their performance and had 45 per cent fewer ideas.

"Incivility is a bug. It's contagious and we become carriers of it just by being around it. We can catch this virus anywhere, at home, online, in schools, in our communities," Professor Porath said as she explained her research in a TEDx talk.

Research shows medical teams exposed to rudeness performed worse in not only all their diagnostics but in all the procedures they did. This was because the teams exposed to rudeness didn't share information as readily and they stopped seeking help from their team mates.

None of this surprised me. But what did make me think was Professor Porath's explanation for why there is so much incivility. If it has such a huge cost why do we see so much of it?

According to her research, it turns out people are "sceptical or even concerned about being civil or appearing nice". They feared they would appear less "leader-like".

It is easy to think jerks get ahead, especially when we see a few prominent examples.

Granted, I am not President Trump, but in writing this, I have to face my own discomfort about my own behaviour. Some of the columns I have written have been downright rude and uncivil. Sometimes it is simply easier to sneer. There is a cost to choosing to be civil.

And this seems to get to the crux of something important about why it is so hard to change our identity, to become more respectful.

We can't do it on our own. Kwame Anthony Appiah in his new book The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity, talks about what he calls the "liberal fantasy" that we are all free to be what we choose to be.

"If you do not care for the shapes your identities have taken, you cannot simply refuse them; they are not yours alone. You have to work with others inside and outside the labeled group in order to reframe them so they fit you better, and you can do that collective work only if you recognise that the results must serve others as well."

I'd like to send some mugs to the Beehive that say: "You don't have to be kind to work here but if you are it is a bloody miracle." But they might think they were a pipe bomb.