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Toxic boss at work? Here are some tips for coping

Vicki Webster, Griffith University and Paula Brough, Griffith University

In Australia, workplace health and safety legislation effectively holds employers responsible for ensuring the emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing of employees.

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Mental stress claims lodged by affected employees against their employer increased by 25% from 2001 to 2011. Although the proportion of stress claims specifically relating to “poor relationships with superiors” was not reported, a Medibank Private commissioned study reported that in 2007 the total cost of work related stress to the Australian economy was A$14.8 billion; the direct cost to employers alone in stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism was A$10.11 billion.

A recent study into the impact of systemic toxic behaviours exhibited by managers found that even one or two toxic behaviours, such as manipulating and intimidating, was enough to cause significant harm to employees’ mental and physical health.

The most common toxic behaviours exhibited by managers include:

Constantly seeks and needs praiseHas to win at all costsLapses into time consuming, self-praising anecdotesCharms, cultivates and manipulatesPlays favouritesTakes credit for others’ workLiesBullies and abuses othersIncessantly criticises others publiclyHas mood swings and temper tantrumsTreats all workplace interactions as a fault-finding exerciseTakes all decision making authority awayMicro manages everything you doPromises to take action but later renegesIgnores requestsImpact on wellbeing

Negative consequences for wellbeing reported by participants in the study included:

Psychological

Anxiety, depression, burnout, cynicism, helplessness, social isolation, loss of confidence, feeling undervalued.

Emotional

Anger, disappointment, distress, fear, frustration, mistrust, resentment, humiliation.

Physical

Insomnia, hair loss, weight loss/gain, headaches, stomach upsets, viruses and colds.

 

Image sourced from shutterstock深圳桑拿,

 

One way to deal with toxic managers is to escalate the risk and report it to senior management. However, a common theme in the study was frustration felt by participants when no action was taken after reporting the leaders’ toxic behaviours. Sometimes organisations are reluctant to take action against the offender, perhaps because they hold important relationships, bring in significant revenue, or for fear they will become litigious if challenged. Organisations that choose to ignore toxic leadership behaviours are likely to incur increased stress claims and litigation costs.

How can employee wellbeing be preserved? First, it is necessary to understand whether the offending leader is well intentioned, but unaware of their dysfunctional behaviours. If so, one strategy is to outline the specific behaviours that are causing distress to the leader in question, to let them know the impact of their behaviour through performance management processes. However, if it is felt there is deliberate intent on their part to get their own way at the expense of those around them, other options should be considered, such as commencing disciplinary action.

Individual coping strategies

If you are experiencing toxic leadership, and feel you are not in a position to report it, or leave the organisation, coping strategies reported in the study as helpful were:

Seeking social support from colleagues, mentor, friends and familySeeking professional support, i.e. Employee Assistance Program, counsellor, psychologist, general practitionerSeeking advice from Human ResourcesUndertaking health and well-being activities, i.e. diet, exercise, meditation, yoga, breathing exercisesRestructuring your thoughts about the incidents in question to maintain a sense of calm and manage your state of mind.What not to do

Coping strategies that were reported as having negative consequences or prolonging stress and fear of their leader were:

Confronting the leaderAvoiding, ignoring or bypassing the leaderWhistle blowingRuminating on the wrongs done and reliving the feelings of anger and frustrationFocusing on workTaking sick leave (short-term relief only).

Individuals regularly on the receiving end of toxic behaviours commonly start questioning themselves, doubting their capabilities and feeling locked into their current situation/role/organisation.

To protect against such frustration, ensure you have an up-to-date career plan, clearly outlining your strengths, achievements, personal values, work preferences, development opportunities, and employability. Keep your resume and online profile up to date and ensure you are well networked in your occupation and industry – all part of a contingency plan to exit the toxic workplace situation should it become untenable.

Paula Brough receives funding from the ARC.

Vicki Webster does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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