Your Nightmare Boss Could Be Making You Sick

Illustration for article titled Your Nightmare Boss Could Be Making You Sick

No one needs to tell you that having a mean boss sucks, but studies examining the impact of uncivil workplaces on your stress levels and immune system are a decent reminder of what it really means for you when there’s a dick in charge. A few possibilities: Ulcers, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and cancer, all of which look incredible on a resume.


In a roundup at the NYT of some of those studies, covering 20 years of research, Christine Porath—who says most people are treated rudely at work about once a week—sums it up succinctly: “How we treat one another at work matters. Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance and souls.”

This is, again, not news to anyone who has ever held down a job, or understood on a cellular level the difference between showing up at a workplace where you feel liked, valued and appreciated and showing up at an office where it’s all you can do to endure the raging, terrible, toxic monsters you call your coworkers and/or boss. And yet, we must bear witness to every last sling and arrow to understand exactly what, in these bad cases, is being lost.

In one cited study from 2012 that followed women through stressful jobs for a decade, researchers found a 38 percent increase in the risk of a “cardiovascular event,” which I am fairly certain does not mean a party for your heart. As for what, exactly, makes a job stressful, Porath notes there are a thousand cuts by which to experience this particularly defeating death:

Bosses produce demoralized employees through a string of actions: walking away from a conversation because they lose interest; answering calls in the middle of meetings without leaving the room; openly mocking people by pointing out their flaws or personality quirks in front of others; reminding their subordinates of their “role” in the organization and “title”; taking credit for wins, but pointing the finger at others when problems arise. Employees who are harmed by this behavior, instead of sharing ideas or asking for help, hold back.

Porath looked into why people are such jerks at work by interviewing hundreds of people in 17 industries. There are all kinds of possibilities at play, such as the fear of being taken advantage of if you’re too nice (supported by the notion that being a jerk pays off, depending on the circumstances). In her survey of those industries, she found that more than half said they were just too “overloaded” to not act like literal jackals, and over 40 percent told her they “did not have time to be nice.”

But, you can just file that under Things Dicks Say. As Porath correctly notes, nice is not time-consuming. It’s all about the execution. A nice person is not trying any harder than a dick, they are just a different sort of person—one that gains power and acts more, not less humane.


In the defense of the Workplace Dick, though, workplaces by design don’t exactly foster niceness. We all approach our jobs knowing we’re supposed to leave our personal problems at the door; in the interest of productivity, we put a worker face that’s occasionally less than human. While this makes all sorts of sense for getting down to business, it also means that the work self that remains is inherently, deliberately less tolerant of human problems, whether it’s someone latest breakup, so-and-so’s divorce, what’s-her-name’s ailing pet, etc.

Add to this the prevailing economic attitude that we are all supposed to be so grateful to have jobs at all as well as the fact that most of us still work in hierarchical cultures, and you end up with a situation in which the so-called “ideal worker”—one aspiring in good faith for Teflon-like immunity to the jibes and stings of working life—is also a prime victim over which a shitty boss may run roughshod at will.


Let’s admit that, in most cases, that’s simply the cost of being a worker today. And in all cases, being a grownup means dealing with shitty people. So get your game face on because you gotta stack paper, right? But what this article talks about is the real, measurable cost in the loss of workplace focus, which in certain industries translates into literal lives lost. Porath writes:

According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27 percent tied such behavior to patient deaths.



From those 17 industries, Porath noted the following rude behaviors:

These are the rude behaviors by bosses most often cited in a recent survey, in descending order of frequency.

• Interrupts people

• Is judgmental of those who are different

• Pays little attention to or shows little interest in others’ opinions

• Takes the best and leaves the worst tasks for others

• Fails to pass along necessary information

• Neglects saying please or thank you

• Talks down to people

• Takes too much credit for things

• Swears

• Puts others down

And of course, while bosses clearly have a unique opportunity to ruin your actual physical health, mental wellbeing and future job prospects, we should never underestimate the power of the shitty coworker to do the exact same thing. It’s been a failure of many workplaces to operate under the perception that one or two toxic people are a manageable or an inevitable presence—when, in fact, one shitshow can poison the entire ecosystem all by its shitty self.


These were the rude behaviors employees copped to in Porath’s study:

• Hibernates into e-gadgets

• Uses jargon even when it excludes others

• Ignores invitations

• Is judgmental of those who are different

• Grabs easy tasks while leaving difficult ones for others

• Does not listen

• Emails/texts during meetings

• Pays little attention to others

• Takes others’ contributions for granted

• Belittles others nonverbally

• Neglects saying please or thank you

Either way it all adds up. (There’s an accompanying quiz with Porath’s piece you can take to see how toxic your work environment is.) Other measurable costs of being treated badly include a reduction in the ability to brainstorm new ideas (in one study, 39 percent fewer ideas), which is, ironically, the very thing you were hired to show up and do. To say nothing of the fact that, after being mocked or screamed at or otherwise injured enough by a tyrannical boss, most people just stop contributing ideas altogether to stay out of the line of fire.


I had a boss like this once—not terribly mean to me, his assistant, but abrasive and temperamental with his other employees. They were all so used to him lashing out under pressure that they learned to work around it, and even developed admirable coping skills, like secret tallies on the white board for every time he passed gas in the vicinity, which was a lot, even for a windbag. Once he noticed the tally and asked what it was, and they told him, “Oh that’s for every time we order fast food for lunch.”

Humor is a good salve, always, but it won’t solve everything. Eventually you’ll have to leave that job and keep trying until you find one more merciful, one better suited to your temperament, one more careful to cull bad seeds on the front end out of respect for the team. Workplaces like that are real, and when you find one, you’ll actually experience that gratitude you were supposed to be feeling all along at those shitty jobs. I can tell you right now—it is marvelous.


Porath insists that increasing incivility is a modern problem, likely the result of the distractions from technological overload. One exec she interviewed instituted a new no-technology policy during company meetings and found that, once people had to engage with each other again, the meetings eventually became drastically more productive and even fun.

As for dickish bosses themselves, Porath found that in many cases, they’re not being malicious as much as they are being oblivious, like the surgeon cited in her piece who simply didn’t know he was such a jackanapes until told. (I still think that most unhappy workers are working not for needfully stressed surgeons in high-pressure environments, but rather, needlessly dickish office execs and shift supervisors who simply have decided to wield their power in a bad way.)


And since, as Porath notes, we tend to define ourselves through the way others treat us—and since workplace dicks are not incredibly likely to change—the smartest thing we can do to immunize ourselves against increasing rudeness is to actually work on becoming Teflon. Not being rude, but becoming stronger—and not for the benefit of work, for the benefit of ourselves. That’s the underlying lesson, and in some ways, a mirror of the original problem: if no one else is putting you first, you’ve got to, every time.

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Illustration by Tara Jacoby


Tequila Mockingbird

My nightmare boss gave me PTSD. Nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, took me years to get over.

Nothing could ever be discarded. She made us print out all our emails and save them in binders. These were not sensitive or important emails. No one was ever going to subpoena these emails.

She hated learning. She called IT and yelled at them for an hour about a MS Office update because it changed the program icons “And now I can’t find anything!”

You could not be late OR early to work even though our work was not time-critical. Many on our team commuted through heavy traffic, so if they wanted to be to work on time, they had to leave super early in case there was a traffic backup. But if traffic was good and they arrived an hour early, they weren’t allowed to start work until their normal start time. They couldn’t even come in the building. They had to sit in their cars and wait.

She loved to play favorites. There was always the shining star and the goat, and god help you if you were the goat. She would get practically fangirl about the shining star, but would literally roll her eyes and cut off the goat mid-sentence if they dared speak, which they rarely did.

She hated new ideas because implementing them might cause her to work or have to learn something, so nothing could ever, ever change.

And yet somehow she kept succeeding. She’s like a fucking nuclear cockroach.

Maybe I’m not quite over it.