guy yelling into phone

Digital Toxicity, BMW Syndrome, and How to Combat Toxic Environments

According to a recent survey, 83% of workers say they’re stressed about their jobs, and almost 50% say work-related stress is negatively affecting their sleep. Many employees report not taking time off throughout the year out of fear for being in line for the next lay off. 60% use their smartphones to continue work communications after hours, and today we’re talking about digital toxicity, “BMW syndrome,” and how to combat toxic work environments!

BMW Syndrome

We all know someone in our lives (or perhaps we might see ourselves in this) who always speaks negatively. You almost brace yourself for it ahead of time, because you know it’s coming and you put up a “shield” to prevent their toxic negativity from rubbing off on you. BMW stands for “bitch, whine, and moan” and the phrase was coined by Dr. Brian Luke Seaward, long-time expert on stress management and building healthier cultures for all organizational types. He describes BMW as a kind of grieving for the present moment in comparison of how you think or want things to be. It’s an endless loop that many people refuse to break out of. We’re not talking about constructive criticism here or truly needing to speak up when things are out of whack. We can’t and shouldn’t be 100% positive all the time, because life doesn’t work like that and taking individual responsibility for our part in our organization’s culture is a big part of all wellness practices.

Dr. Seaward was a guest on a great podcast about this subject, and also spoke about compassion fatigue of caregivers which affects many people in the healthcare world among others. Take a listen if you know someone or are someone in the care-giving field.

So what can we do to combat BMW syndrome and/or toxic workplaces?

Whether your organization is toxic or you regularly encounter BMW syndrome with someone close to you, there are tools you can use to combat it. To be honest, sometimes it’s best to let go and move on. Some work environments have become so toxic and there may not be much you can do to change it. But for the rest of us, below are some tips that may help making your organization a more positive place to be.

  • Stress management is key to developing coping skills and relaxation.  Employers should be offering meditation time, yoga sessions, newsletters and lunch and learns on how to prevent chronic stress in the first place.
  • Avoiding the chain of negativity by exiting negative group talks, deleting purposeless email chains, setting proper expectations with client timelines and co-worker “time theft.”
  • Ask yourself what you might be doing to contribute to BMW syndrome or toxic work spaces.
  • Introduce mindfulness practices throughout the day both for yourself as a coping mechanism and also for your entire organization. And actually make space and time for it or it won’t happen!
  • Educate on resiliency so that employees are better equipped to bounce back from set backs. Meditation, eating whole foods, staying hydrated, getting proper sleep, detoxing from digital media after hours, etc.
  • Confronting the BMW syndrome “spewer” head on in a professional manner. Taking responsibility as both a listener and a contributor to BMW is a big step in avoiding it in the first place. Compassionate listening sometimes means knowing when to step away.
  • Encourage employees or your teammates to take 15-minute walks or breaks outside on a regular basis. Fresh air and sunshine go so far in helping reset negative thought processes.

Digital Toxicity

Most people above the age of 30 remember a time when cell phones were used for emergency purposes only. They lived in a goofy Velcro case in our cars and had a loud, obnoxious ring which meant “EMERGENCY, PICK UP!” And of course most of us also remember a time before the only way to talk to someone away from us was to catch them on a LAN line or write them an actual letter. Our world has sped up exponentially and now every text, ding, or ring sends our brains into a mini “flight or fight” mode, thinking it’s an emergency and something we need to pay attention to RIGHT NOW. That’s rarely the case, as we know, but like Pavlovian dogs, we respond to our digital communication as if it’s all urgent. If everything is urgent, of course, nothing is.  Digital toxicity has the power to affect our sleep, our brain chemistry, and definitely up our stress reactions when it comes to our jobs.  Below are some tips to combat this ever-growing problem.

  • Turn off ALL phone sounds and email notifications and create set times to check your data on YOUR terms. Not all professions can do this, obviously, but ever since the Nokia phone sounds, those noises and alerts have driven me nuts, so I went silent years ago and never looked back. No one has ever complained I don’t reply to them quickly enough and usually I’m too quick and can slow down even more.
  • Create something in your email signature that requests clients and colleagues allow for a 24 hour turn around time. This is more than reasonable for most professions, considering that’s not the only email coming in and again, if everything is urgent then nothing is.
  • Set your “blue light” to go off on your phone after 8 PM each day. This helps relax the eyes and get the brain ready for sleep. Most all smartphones have a function for this.
  • Don’t bring work to bed. End of story.

However you find your work/life balance and hold yourself accountable for your own contributions to your organization’s environment, if we all show up together and take responsibility, I know we can change our work environments for the better!

Reach out to me for your company’s cultural audit where we dive into the day to day details of your culture that either make or break your wellness culture! 

I am not a licensed nutritionist or dietitian.  You should always consult with a nutritionist and your primary care provider before changing diets in any way or your doctor before trying out any supplement or medication. This article is not meant to cure, heal or otherwise solve any medical conditions whatsoever.  It is based on personal experience and research.  


Clients call me their Culture Coach or Wellness Guru, but my one focus is helping you create lasting holistic organizational well-being.