Your boss can be a lot of things: kind, ambitious, inspiring, tyrannical.
It turns out he or she can also make you sick — possibly even kill you.
“Maybe we should have on the doorway of every office [a label] like they have on a pack of cigarettes: ‘Your boss is potentially dangerous to your health,’” said Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at the University of Manchester who specializes in workplace issues and is the chair of the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work in the U.K.
Researchers have found that nearly 8 in 10 employees show physical signs of stress because of poor leaders, and that nearly one-third are more prone to developing conditions like coronary heart disease, possibly leading to heart attack. A recent report found it’s not just physical ailments — ranging from insomnia to diabetes to cancer — that are created by such stress but also mental illness. In fact, 3 in 5 employees say their job impacts their mental health more than any other factor.
Cooper suggested why so many bosses make people sick: Too many of them shouldn’t be in leadership roles in the first place. Just because an individual rises to the top of the C-suite doesn’t mean he or she necessarily possesses the qualities that make for the kind of supportive, empathetic leader required in today’s working world, he stressed.
“Most people get to a managerial role based on their technical competence, not their people skills,” Cooper explained. “Bosses can be technically very competent in what they do but may lack the social skills to recognize that they are assigning unmanageable workloads and unrealistic deadlines [to their people]. It’s the thing that differentiates a successful manager from the less successful ones.”
A good boss, for example, may recognize when an employee is struggling and ask that employee to go have a cup of coffee and talk about it, Cooper pointed out — while a bad manager might be oblivious that there’s even a problem, or unsympathetic to it.
The result could have employees choosing their well-being over their job — and heading for the exits at a time when companies are desperately trying to hold onto talent. “It’s like the old saying: People don’t leave a job — they leave a boss,” Cooper said.
“A boss’s mood is contagious,” added Jayne Gardner, an executive coach based in Dallas. “Just like your boss comes to work with Covid and you know to avoid him or her, avoid your boss when they are sick emotionally. Emotions are just as lethal, and sometimes as invisible, as germs.”
A leader’s ability to sustain a high emotional set point (ESP) under stress, be it due to the state of the business or a problem with an employee, is no longer merely a “soft skill,” according to Gardner, “but a necessary requirement for business survival.” Emotional intelligence, she explained, is “carried through an organization like electricity through wires.”
As there’s no pill or patch for the kind of malady caused by a bad boss, what is the remedy then? Gardner shares the following advice:
Be aware of gaslighting behavior. If your manager appears to be using psychological methods to manipulate you and others and to make you question your own powers of reasoning or sanity, you might be the victim of gaslighting. That can lead to an environment in which “you will get sick eventually, because it causes deep resentment and anger,” according to Gardner.
Practice processing your emotions. Say you are, in fact, being gaslighted, or neglected, taken for granted or verbally abused. When it comes to how you’re feeling, talk about it, write about it, or release your stress by exercising. That said, if you find you are spending more than 10 minutes a day processing your boss’s emotions, it might be time for another boss, as Gardner sees it.
When all else fails, just move on. If your manager is making you sick, consider a lateral move in the company, or seek work elsewhere. “Most likely, that boss will not change, because bullies find great power in hurting others, and this power is very provocative and addictive,” Gardner said. “Few bullies want to give up their power.”
As for what a horrible boss can do to change his or her ways? Amazon is chock-full of business books on emotional intelligence, while universities including Harvard, Cornell and Case Western all offer courses and in some cases certificate programs around the topic.
As Gardner advised: “Learn how to use your emotions to motivate people rather than make them sick.”