We feel uneasy in environments where we constantly have to make choices that are outside of our comfort zone.

I think we all have experienced pressure at work, at school or in a community. Pressure makes it difficult to say no or voice our needs.

Some of us have worked overtime with no sleep and rest, for the sake of ambition. Some of us have worked in an unpleasant work environment without even knowing what exactly made us uncomfortable.

All of this can lead to burnout.

For instance, when we have to reply to work messages late at night, ignore health issues or feel exhausted and drained after talking to coworkers.

This article is about such environments. I have interviewed people who work or have worked in companies with stressful psychological climates to understand the experience.

At the end of the article you will find my recommendations for people who work in this kind of company.

I have talked to both corporate and individual clients. This is my first article on psychological climate and it focuses on employees. The next one will focus on organizations.
Psychological Climate in a Company
A company, a community or any organization is a network of interdependent relationships: employees and their colleagues, managers and their teams, owners and thecompany as a whole, company and its clients, contractors and competitors. Interestingly enough, the same communication patterns repeat themselves in all aspects, like ripples in water.
The phrase "psychological climate" contains a meteorology term "climate", which takes us to mood.
In sunny weather we feel good, we want to walk, smile at passers-by and pay less attention to obstacles. Don’t we?
And if it rains all day we get wet and want to stay in. Cold and dampness affect all our daily activities.
As we once stated in my organizational consulting study group, you can tell a lot about a company by opening its fridge. The way people treat this shared space reflects the system of interactions in general.
Psychological climate in a company is a system of perceptions of its employees. In other words, it is a system of our interpretations of events, structures and processes. Kurt Lewin, the author of field theory, wrote about "life space" in organizations.

We check the weather forecast before stepping outside. However, we often fail to check the psychological climate in our workplace in advance.

We usually perceive companies through their products, our own results, our managers and coworkers or through the prism of events. I suggest looking at a company as a structure of relationships.
Part 1
Why Do We Get So Fascinated?
Euphoria of Grand and Meaningful Goals
In companies or communities that eventually make us feel uneasy there is often a honeymoon phase. Something about those companies is just so appealing. We stay and do not notice any pressure yet.

Our sense of significance at work, our team or the products we create are among those special appealing things. After all, we want to do more than just work. We want to bring something important to the world.
Sometimes we get inspired by people who work with us and become our friends. Sometimes work fills the void in our lives. A lack of friends, for example. This is not bad, but it can get difficult if we have to compromise our needs.
Companies like NGOs, startups with social mission or companies from education and cultural sectors often set ambitious and meaningful goals.
We Are Special
Family Values
The Rescue Team
The Final Push
A common rhetoric can be as follows: "We are all exceptional here, we are the cream of society and no one outside this company understands us".
I have seen a community where people call themselves special and separate themselves from "normies", regular people outside the community. This distinct narcissistic atmosphere can be very alluring at first glance.
Some companies describe themselves as families where everyone is very close and caring.
However, this closeness can, in fact, blur the lines of hierarchy, power dynamics and privileges, leading to confusion and complicated relationships where we can’t voice our needs.
Think of a manager who is very friendly, nice and is always overloaded with work. Most certainly, we will want to help this person out, even though it means staying late and working on weekends.
Or imagine a company on the brink of collapse. We will probably try to save it.
The feeling that it’s all temporary is often the only thing that keeps us in a company. Just a little more work before New Year, just a little more effort until we release a new product.
The important thing here is that the long-awaited stability never comes. The company always lives in a startup environment and we never have time to relax.
Part 2
Tension in the Workplace: What Does It Feel Like?
My interviews with people pointed out some recurring feelings that can indicate a high level of tension in a company.
Feeling valued only when we go above and beyond.
This kind of company often makes us feel unvalued. To become valued we need to constantly strive. We pretend, put on masks, try very hard to meet expectations and usually never reach a point where everything is okay.
Some highly competitive companies with rapid growth rates only value the employees who exceed KPI. Sometimes it is stated directly.
During performance reviews I feel like if I haven’t saved the world or gone above and beyond, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just do my job well and  omplete tasks on time.
In other cases we have to work very hard to justify inflated expectations of our manager or the entire team.
I faced a very high level of trust and expectations that I thought I did not meet. That’s why I had to put in a lot of effort. Plus, my coworkers and I were very close, almost like a family. I was constantly afraid of letting people down, so I worked very hard.
Managers can have similar feelings. The pressure of expectations does not depend much on status.
When I lead a team I always feel like everyone sees my mistakes and judges me. Like, if I say something wrong, employees talk about it behind my back and write resignation letters. But very few of them understand the reality of my work as a founder (financial instability, being responsible for everything) and my life as a person (tremendous fatigue, constant tension, burnout, losing heart because no one else wants to take any responsibility).
Sometimes tension is caused by a very competitive environment.
I feel the most pressure from my dissertation advisor and lab colleagues because of high expectations, strict regulations and rivalry. All of us try to publish as many articles as possible as fast as possible. As a rule, my dissertation advisor only sees projects and their potentials and expects amazing results. The rivalry and the desire to show my professionalism add to stress. I mean, there’s no conflict or abuse. But I feel a lot of pressure, both external and internal.
Physical exhaustion that we often overlook.
In some companies we seem to lose control over our physical well-being. Work takes up all of our time, leaving us less time for sleeping, going on vacations, or spending time at home with family.

At first we are in euphoria, a desire to contribute to the common good, but then our human needs and limits take over. Big amounts of stress cause physical exhaustion. It takes weeks to come back to senses.
I was a bit lost and anxious when I just started working as a learning experience designer because it was all new to me. I had to dive into 2 complicated topics. My perfectionism eventually caused sleep deprivation and apathy.
When physical exhaustion reaches its peak, employees isolate themselves from the outside world. They have no energy left, and the company doesn’t encourage rest.
Feeling guilty or helpless like a child.
We feel like helpless children in situations when we face something bigger than us and deal with people who have more power than us. Every organization has a hierarchy. There are coworkers, managers or clients who are more powerful. Even if we don’t talk about it, it’s implied and causes tension. We lose ground and stop feeling equal. It often signals the need for support.
I often notice that when business founders hire me, they act all friendly and nice. But then they stop behaving and allow themselves to manage me and boss me around. They basically start treating me like a schoolchild. If I make a mistake, they shove it in my face and guilt trip me for spending the company’s money. Even if I suggest fixing my mistake, they agree but then say: ‘Well, I’m upset, you know'.
I feel useless and clueless, like I am getting in their way. I made a mistake when I allowed them to put me in the position of a child and talk to me like I was a stupid little girl. For example, they discussed my wrongdoings in front of other people during meetings. It was stressful.
Leaving important things unspoken.
In some companies people prefer to ignore external events or hide the truth. The lack of communication creates the feeling of "the elephant in the room".
One of my coworkers is an Israeli citizen. We’re going on a team trip to Egypt and I’m a bit worried about her. I asked our founders if they had any ideas on how to ensure her safety. They said that employees should focus on work, not politics.
It is important for us to understand what is going on. That is how our brains work. We constantly "make sense" of the world around us. When we do not understand or discuss a situation, we come up with our own explanations, often based on our worst experiences.

Similar things happen when people do not react to unusual events and never express surprise, outrage, fear, empathy or care. For example, when a scandal occurs or managers make an unpopular decision to fire a whole team everyone acts like nothing happened. We get used to it and know that we can not expect adequate reaction to our actions either. Reactions are always unpredictable.
Experiencing personal criticism, bullying or other aggressive behaviors.
Personal criticism and bullying or harassment in the workplace is the worst form of work tension. In countries like Sweden people get prosecuted for such actions.

Bullying involves direct attacks, personal criticism, spreading rumors, isolation, etc. We usually notice violence or bullying but it is harder to see more subtle and manipulative actions and gaslighting.
Part 3
Why is It So Difficult to Voice Our Needs?
No space to voice them.
There are companies where people simply don’t talk, and communication is purely transactional.
Fear or Threat.
No time to think.
No reaction or action to your requests and needs.
There are companies where employees are afraid to voice their needs or make choices because of consequences. A lack of promotion and even open violence, bullying or threats are among those consequences.
Employees do things but no one understands what exactly they do. Everything changes very quickly and there is no time to react.
Some companies are hard to leave. We think that it will let everyone down or affect the product. Often leaving feels like betraying a manager who is almost like a friend.

I’ve seen organizations where a manager was sick and an employee could not leave because they could not afford to lose everything they had worked on.
Sometimes managers promise that everything will get better when a project, a sprint, or a quarter ends. But that future never comes.
Things were constantly changing! Every year we had a new mission and new goals. First we were going in one direction. The following year we went in the opposite direction. There wasn’t enough time for reflection and dialogue.
My manager’s actions really bothered me. We would agree on something and then she would do the opposite. I asked her: "Please don’t send me voice messages at night, it’s no longer okay for me, it makes me anxious. Don’t schedule meetings for 7 pm. Let’s make sure I have a real vacation". She said yes and literally 2 hours later she broke those agreements. Everyone else behaved in the same way. It was considered normal, it was corporate culture.
They told me once: 'How can we consider you a high-performer if you don’t take your laptop with you when you go on vacation?'
I felt guilty for moving to another department. I thought I betrayed my old team to get more money. Sounds silly now. The manager of my old team supported that impression and turned everyone against me. No one from my old team spoke to me afterwards.
Part 4
What Should We Do About It?
Find support.
One of the first questions I get is "Can I change the system if I am not the CEO?"

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But you can start by understanding the structure of communication around you.
We need someone on our side: a family member, a therapist, a coach, a friend. Someone who sees us as a person, not a set of functions and tasks.
Engage in dialogue with your manager, colleagues or people who make you feel stressed.
Notice what goes on around you and realize that you can’t deal with pressure "on credit".
Notice the consequences, evaluate the long outcome.
If you have concerns about the climate in your company in general, talk to HR. It is a challenge. A dialogue without a mediator is often impossible. But you should start, express your opinion and listen to your opponent’s opinion. Each case is different. But a chain of changes often starts with a dialogue.

Sometimes our internal work causes changes in the environment.
Someone once shared an anti-burnout recipe with me: "If I endure stress in the moment I endure it always."

Shift your focus from the situation in general to your emotions and reactions. Ask yourself:
  • At what moment do I lose touch with my own needs at work?
  • What forces me to agree and give in when I don't want to?
  • How do I feel physically in the office?
  • Or in a conversation with a specific person?

Awareness helps us open perspectives for solving the problem.
Observe. Maybe your coworkers experience the same things. There is a connection between our perception of the work environment and the outcomes, such as satisfaction, burnout and work achievements.
Sometimes our internal work causes changes in the environment.
When I was creating a mini-course for coaches as a freelancer I learned about several techniques. I tried applying coaching analysis to my emotions and beliefs. After I started working on my emotions, analyzed them and identified my negative beliefs about work, career and professionalism, my situation began to improve. When I started having good results on one of my projects, my colleagues stopped looking tense. It was quick and effective. A complicated situation resolved naturally. I watched that with interest.
Sometimes life events radically change our values and priorities.
And sometimes changes happen due to external events that shift values and priorities in a company.
I went on maternity leave when I was 9 months pregnant. I left a work meeting and headed to the maternity hospital and it didn’t cause any problems. But when I returned, priorities changed. I realized that I couldn’t go on like that. I started looking for a new job because I understood that my child was more important to me. I wanted balance and I wanted to see my child grow. At that time life-work balance was crucial for me. So I started having job interviews.
I talk to my former colleagues now. They went through a rebranding, and new managers came instead of old ones. The company slightly shifted towards production and sales. They hired specialists in innovations, research and development. Corporate culture became softer. Probably, it’s because the company really needs those specialists but there are very few of them in the job market. Obviously, the company had to change.
In this article I have covered the feeling of psychological tension in companies and the reasons for it. I have tried to understand why employees stay in a stressful work environment.

The main conclusion here is that even ordinary employees can improve stressful situations. All we need to do is start a chain of changes.

The next article will focus on the ways to improve psychological climate in companies on the organizational level.