Weekly Wrap: What a Bad Boss Can Do to an Employee’s Health

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Oct 31, 2014
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Is the boss making people sick?

It’s a question I saw posed in a recent Washington Post headline, and it’s one of those things that people ask but don’t really want the answer to.

That’s because if the answer “yes,” as it frequently is, it’s usually followed by another question, something along the lines of, “Well, then why are they managing people in the first place?”

The toll bad bosses take on employee health

Of all of the various forms of managerial malpractice, making people who work for them physically ill is the worst thing a bad boss can do.

The Post story quotes Jonathan Quick, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the book Preventive Stress Management in Organizations. Quick gets to the heart of it:

The evidence is clear that the leadership qualities of ‘bad’ bosses over time exert a heavy toll on employees’ health. …  The evidence is also clear that despite the rationalizations some leaders may use to defend their stress-inducing, unsupportive style, such behavior by leaders does not contribute to improved individual performance or organizational productivity.”

Yes, bad bosses aren’t about improving performance or increasing productivity — they’re about imposing their will and terrorizing anyone in who they think are resisting. And The Post adds:

Difficult bosses can come in many forms, including hypercritical micromanagers, inept managers, bosses who push blame for problems onto others or hurl obscenities, and those who make unwanted sexual advances. But researchers say that whatever the type, when employees deal with a bad boss day in and day out, negative health effects often begin to pop up.”

“Nasty, brutish, and short”

I’ve had many bad bosses in my career — and a lot of good ones, too — but as with so many things in life, sometimes the negative is much more memorable than the positive.

The worst boss I ever had was a stout, fire-plug of a man whose great claim to fame, and the reason he was promoted into a high leadership position, was his skill in helping break the union at a newspaper in a a pretty pro-union city. Now, that’s a skill all right, but it has nothing to do with getting the best out of people.

He was a master of the glower. He’d call people into his office just to berate them, and one of his techniques was to stand above you, fists clenched, with a look on his face that made you think you might get punched.

He was equal opportunity bully as well, because women had this reaction as frequently as men. And, this was his standard posture if you simply questioned something he said.

I was his favorite object of abuse because I had been in charge of the operation on an interim basis before he got there. To make matters worse, all the middle managers had gone as a group to lobby the president of the company on my behalf, arguing that I should get the top job permanently. As nice a gesture as that was, all it did was put the bullseye on me when the new boss arrived.

He was a bully and a thug, nothing more, and had no talent for anything other than breaking people down. He was, as they say, nasty, brutish and short.

Did he affect my health? You bet. I couldn’t sleep and felt stressed all the time. Plus, I had anxiety attacks whenever I had to go into his office.

But it wasn’t just me. One day about four months into this guy’s tenure, someone from HR called me with a question: “What is going on down in your department?”

As bad as they come

When I asked what she was referring to, she said that HR had just gotten a call from the company’s EAP provider wondering why the number of people from my department seeking counseling for emotional problems and stress had jumped by 600 percent over the past three months.

I wish I could tell you that I outlasted this guy, but I didn’t. I got out about eight months into his tenure, and he continued to abuse and terrorize people there for another three years or so before the company got tired of his tactics and strongly urged him to take “early retirement.”

He was as bad as they come, but as The Washington Post makes clear, it’s hard for people in such a position to get away from it. They note:

People who have bad bosses often describe the situation as a living hell, says E. Kevin Kelloway, Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health Psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was lead author of a 2010 review of studies about the effect of leaders on the psychological and physical well-being of their subordinates. “From the time you get out of bed, you’re dreading going to work.”

This produces a fight-or-flight response, which causes your body to pump out adrenaline and other stress hormones — just as it would if you were running from a tiger baring its teeth, Kelloway says. Your breathing quickens and your heart beats faster as your body prepares to spring into action. When this stress response goes on too long or occurs too often, it can take a toll on the body by destabilizing hormone levels and promoting other physiological changes that can increase the risk of chronic disease.

“If a tiger is chasing you, then it’s appropriate to run away,” he explains. “But you don’t get to run away from your boss.”

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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