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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Parallel Papers Session 4
Saturday 6 July 1.45pm-3.00 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP17
Presented Online

Combating the toxic work environment: need of handlers or holders?

Presenter: Prerna Panda
Moderator: Aaron Nurick

Toxic work environments are detrimental to the health and performance of the employees, yet this awareness has not been sufficient to control the rising reports of experienced toxicity in the workplace. This mandates further investigation of the factors (conscious and unconscious) that sustain the toxic work environment, especially in light of the rising discontent and clashes of civilization. Existing literature has mostly employed a positivistic approach, often ignoring the subconscious aspects of toxic work environments. Given that workplace toxicity is a covert group phenomenon, entailing potentially contagious emotions that are harmful to organizational functioning, a psychodynamic approach is suitable to advance the existing literature (Mathur, 2020). To address this gap, this paper aims to make an early attempt to develop a proposition to gain insights into factors sustaining toxic work environments using Winnicott’s ‘holding environment.’ The early mention of toxicity was found in the psychoanalytic literature as conveying the metaphorical idea of psychological ‘poisoning’ or ‘being poisoned,’ as majorly experienced by front-line workers in the service industry (Stein, 2007). Toxicity as a metaphor also appeared in a 1989 guide to leadership in nursing, wherein a toxic environment, as opposed to a nurturing environment, was characterized by role conflicts, obscure goals and values, and aggressive communication (Christian, 2023). In the organizational studies literature, a toxic work environment was defined by Frost (2003) as one in which organizational members experience emotional pain that strips them of their confidence, hope, or self-esteem; they become disconnected from their work and instead, focus, or even obsess, on the pain they feel and the perceived source of their pain. Moreover, they emphasized the role of managers as ‘toxin handlers’ who shoulder the pain on behalf of others and reduce its spread. This instigates further exploration into the role of organizational members in managing the response to emotional pain in the workplace. Employees often experience emotional pain due to work-related situations or otherwise, which renders them temporarily nonfunctioning, and in such cases, they seek out and are receptive to holding environments (Kahn, 2001). This paper argues that, in the absence of the required holding environment, the pain goes unaddressed, and prolonged exposure to such pain consequently leads to toxicity in the long. Therefore, investigating how the lack of a ‘holding environment’ in the workplace could be influencing the prevalence of a toxic work environment can add insights to the existing literature and provide practical suggestions for organizations.

Biographical Summary

Prerna Panda is a Ph.D. scholar in the area of organizational behavior and human resource management at the Indian Institute of Management Raipur, India. She is a passionate scholar,
eager to learn and explore the psychodynamics aspects of factors sustaining toxic work environments.


Christian, A. (2023, November 3). How every workplace became 'toxic'
Frost, Peter J. (2003). Toxic emotions at work: How compassionate managers handle pain and conflict. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Kahn, W. A. (2001). Holding environments at work. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 37(3), 260-279.
Mathur, A. N. (2020). Psychological containment of organisational toxicity and its spillovers. Organisational and Social Dynamics, 20(1), 60-78.
Stein, M. A. (2007). Toxicity and the unconscious experience of the body at the Employee— Customer interface. Organization Studies, 28(8), 1223–1241.