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How the Ellen scandal exposed the toxic workplace problem

Ellen DeGeneres has returned to TV promising significant ‘changes’, but this scandal brings to light a persistent problem across our workforce, not just in Hollywood and entertainment.

Ellen DeGeneres has returned to TV for the first time since she was hit with allegations of abuse, bullying, and creating a toxic work environment on her popular talk show.

Speaking at the beginning of the first episode of the newest season, she said the team had made many ‘significant changes’ to start a ‘new chapter’ on set. Three top producers have been let go since the allegations gained traction early this year and it seems that systematic alterations have been made to improve employee treatment, at least on the surface.

The downfall of Ellen’s sunny and friendly public reputation has opened up a larger conversation surrounding office management and wellbeing- a serious issue that’s worsening for young employees in office jobs particularly.

The pandemic has brought new challenges and stresses for every professional position in traditional companies. Managers are having to remotely handle employee concerns, CEOs are conducting meetings across Zoom, and digital work has to be sent between staff via Slack and Google Drive. The change has brought glaring problems with office culture and work environments to the forefront of the zeitgeist, and Ellen’s public dismantling for her professional behaviours is the most prominent example.

Her apology hasn’t been met with praise, either. The Entertainment Tonight clip on YouTube is sinking in dislikes and previous employees have already described it as ‘tone deaf’. It’s obvious that her attempt to sway the public back onto her side hasn’t been successful, and shows that it’ll take a lot more than a half-jokey public statement to fix an ingrained cultural issue.

What’s the current work situation?

Stress has risen steadily over the last three decades by 20% according to a recent study by Korn Ferry, with a spike in the last five years as a direct result of poor managers and bosses. 76% of those surveyed said that workplace stress had a negative impact on personal relationships, and over two thirds admitted to losing sleep as a result of work anxiety.

The lockdown restrictions have seen a significant jump in mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety too. While not directly linked to management, a lack of employment opportunities and the fear of losing a current job has severely affected young people. An estimated 61% of employees have cancelled internship roles this year, and Victor Lipman from Forbes noted in 2019 that the slow erosion of loyalty between employers and workers over the last few decades has created a ‘near-permanent level of anxiety’.

We’re in a particularly rough period for employee wellbeing and this new fractured structure via remote working and video calls has flagged up stress problems that were already bubbling under the surface. LinkedIn found that 56% of 2,000 adults surveyed in the UK felt more anxious and stressed having to work from home full time during lockdown in May, and that overtime was commonplace despite not being in a physical office.

Mix all of that in with disruptive and mean-spirited bosses and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Studies have shown that poor managers and office bullying from higher ups has significant effects on workers, which probably seems obvious. Low morale and high employee turnovers are both direct consequences of bad management alongside higher sickness rates.

How can things improve?

Even though the pandemic has brought these issues to our attention, it has also proven that there are different ways to handle company output and employee production outside of the traditional commute and office block.

The whole concept of a physical office full of computers seems horrendously outdated when you think about it, since most of us now have access to decent desktops and high speed internet from home. This isn’t the nineties, people.

In fact, many employers have found that lockdown has saved them money, and have stated that they’re more willing to be flexible about working from home in the future. So, while lockdown and forced remote work may be causing stress, it does open up the potential for more flexible timetables. Employees could head to the office a few times per week, for example, and then work from home for the remaining days. This could help balance out work and home life much more and give people the professional socialising they need without it feeling like an all-consuming time filler.

The key is balance and healthier communication between standard employees and higher ups. Ellen may come across a little disingenuous about the ‘fresh start’ her show will now be experiencing but the scandal has gotten more of us talking about what our own experiences with managers are like, particularly during this bizarre and turbulent period.

We’re unlikely to be able to shake the target-centric work culture that’s become increasingly common, but we may see the standard definition of an ‘employee’ shift in the next decade. Coronavirus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so we’ll be using Zoom for quite a while yet.

Hopefully managers and bosses can use the opportunity for good rather than create further stress. The less Ellen’s we have running things the better, quite frankly.