Effect of Abuse in the Workplace
Abuse can come in many forms and in many ways. It can even be so subtle that you don’t realize abusive behavior is being done to you. This is especially true when it comes to authority figures in the workplace abusing their position of leadership. Abusive managers not only treat their employees poorly, but they cross a line to completely unacceptable behavior.
According to Management & Human Resources Researcher, Bennett Tepper, approximately 10 percent of managers in the workplace are abusive to their staff; That’s 1 in 10 managers! That means if you work more than 10 jobs in your life, the likelihood of having an abusive manager is high. Tepper also found through surveys that individuals who work for abusive bosses tend to be less satisfied with not only their jobs, but their lives in general. The abused employees also reported to have more conflicts at work and home, as well as being withdrawn and symptoms of depression and PTSD.
Targets of abusive supervision report symptomology that bears striking similarities to those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ~Bennett Tepper
Speaking from personal experience, having to deal with an abusive boss can be demoralizing, degrading, and downright depressing. I dreaded going into work every day and having any kind of interaction with my boss. I never knew what mood she would be in, and believe me, if she was in a bad mood, everyone around her knew it! I felt as though I had to walk on eggshells around her and be careful of the everything I said. Every day was difficult as she micromanaged her staff and watched everyone closely. She would often yell or complain, both in general conversation or specifically towards me and her staff. I felt berated and criticized on a regular basis. My work was never good enough and she would accuse me of doing things incorrectly when I was just following her orders, then act as though I should have known to do it the "correct" way. In other words, she was frequently gaslighting me.
Working in that environment caused me to have severe anxiety and depression, along with symptoms of PTSD. As a survivor of an abusive marriage, I was able to spot the signs of my manager’s abusive behavior immediately. However, it didn’t stop me from feeling the devastating emotional effects from it. I can honestly say it was an extremely difficult two years of my life, not to mention the fact that I was also struggling with agonizing hip pain, caused from a yet to be diagnosed auto-immune disease and had to undergo hip fusion surgery. All of that combined, and it was a really dark time for me.
That all being said, I want to help spread the word about abuse in the workplace. In the next sections, you’ll learn ways to identify abusive behavior from leadership, making it possible for you to handle the situation appropriately without taking their negative behavior personally, and being able to rise above by remaining calm and collected in those situations.
First, let’s take a look at what can happen to you if you are in an abusive situation. These effects apply to being abused by intimate partners or by family or friends as well.
Common Symptoms You May Experience if You Have an Abusive Manager
Feeling apathetic, or indifferent towards your job, your performance, your boss, etc.
The feeling of dread when going to work
Decreased productivity/poor performance
Headaches, body tension, joint pains, muscle aches, unexplained pains
Low self-esteem/low confidence
Isolating yourself from your friends and family
Eating disorders or changes in appetite
Chronic pain, i.e., headaches, backaches, pelvic pain, etc.
Addictive behavior such as drug addiction or alcoholism
Sexual dysfunction/inability or lack of desire
Complications/loss of pregnancy
Depression/thoughts of suicide
As you can see, the side effects of being abused can be quite severe. It’s very important to identify the many signs of an abusive manager so you are able to set your own boundaries and make sure you are protected and safe. Let’s take a look at some of the more common signs of an abusive boss.
How to Spot an Abusive Manager
Where there is great power, there is great responsibility. ~Winston Churchill
There are many ways a manager can abuse their staff. Being a leader is a great responsibility and should only be entrusted to those with integrity, honesty, and compassion for others, not people who think of themselves first and care more about their image than the success of their team.
Although this list is not exhaustive, here are a few ways to spot an abusive manager.
Gaslighting This is when someone tells you one thing, then completely changes gears and tells you something completely different, while making you feel like you are the one who is wrong. Abusive bosses often give unclear instructions and may even completely change their minds on what they wanted, but make it seem like you should have known what they wanted the whole time and criticize you for not doing the job correctly in the first place.
Additionally, people who gaslight others try to convince individuals that their perception of events isn’t accurate and impose their own perceptions on that individual, oftentimes using blame, guilt, shame, etc. to get the individual to see the situation their way.
Taking Credit Abusive managers put a lot of emphasis on themselves and their own image and not on their team members. They frequently take credit or represent their staffs’ accomplishments as their own.
Yelling Abusive managers have a difficult time controlling their emotions and can be unpredictable with expressing them, including yelling at staff. This should go without saying, but this is NOT acceptable! Yelling of any kind at staff is abuse. There are ways to tell someone you are upset with them or their performance without yelling, belittling, humiliating, etc. In a professional environment, we are all adults and deserve to be treated with a certain level of respect.
Even if the yelling is not directed at you necessarily, but your boss is often bitter or angry and just complaining and yelling in general, it is still not acceptable behavior in the workplace. Emotions are contagious and when someone is frequently giving off negative emotions, it absolutely 100% affects the people around them, and can cause others to be in a bad mood as well. The best way to prevent this is by creating an Emotional Barrier. See Additional Ways to Cope with an Abusive Manager.
Micromanaging When a manager oversees and tells you how to do your own work, making you feel undervalued, unappreciated, and incapable of doing things on your own, this is called micromanaging. They may nitpick your work and find fault in just about everything you do. We are all capable of coming to reasonable, logical conclusions and solutions on our own without the pressure of someone watching over us or making sure we do it their way.
Another thing abusive bosses can do is gossip about people, including their own staff. They may also spread rumors about others and can even turn to ostracizing certain people for any reason they want. The often play favorites with their team and they may even stir the pot to cause drama and sit on the sidelines to watch the chaos the created.
Stepping Over Your Boundaries
An abusive boss will have no problem disrespecting your boundaries. Aside from emergencies, managers should not be contacting you after work hours. In addition, your manager should not be your friend. Abusive bosses may try to force a friendship on their staff, ask inappropriate questions or pressure you to answer questions that you feel uncomfortable answering, or make you feel guilty into accepting their friend request on social media.
It’s never ok to belittle, diminish, insult, bad-mouth, or berate staff. An abusive manager may put down their staff either privately to that individual, or publicly in front of other staff members. It’s common for them to insult or yell at individuals in meetings or they many even disregard them altogether.
How to Handle an Abusive Manager
Realizing that you are being abused is the first step towards finding a solution. Now that you’ve seen some common ways a manager can abuse their staff, let’s review some things you can do in those situations in order to stand your ground, set your boundaries, and keep your emotions in check.
Having been through it, the best advice I can give you is to get out of the situation. If you can leave your job, and get away from your abuser entirely, that’s the best action you can take for your own health and wellbeing.
Of course, I also know from experience that it isn’t always possible to leave your job, and it could take some time to find another position. So, what do you do in the meantime? The next best piece of advice I can give you is to change your perspective. That’s right, take a look at your situation from a different perspective. It is extremely important to realize that the way your abuser treats you has absolutely nothing to do with you, but it does demonstrate their own weaknesses and inability to control their emotions.
Important Note: Abusers and Personality Disorders
Abusers commonly suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and/or other personality disorders that can cause them to behave inappropriately and be insensitive to others. Personality disorders are classified as mental illnesses in which an individual has a deeply ingrained, rigid, and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning, and behaving, which deviates markedly from the norms of what is generally accepted.
It is common for individuals suffering from personality disorders to have inflated feelings of superiority and self-importance, believing that they are special or above others, a sense of entitlement, inappropriate displays of intense anger, unpredictable changes in mood, finding pleasure in gossiping and creating drama or chaos, an angry or hostile reaction to innocuous comments or situations, plus many other unhealthy ways of displaying their disorder. They often blame others for their problems and have a difficult time taking responsibility for their own emotions.
Understanding more about personality disorders can be an incredible tool for helping you cope with your abuser’s behavior and learn better ways to interact with them if you can’t leave your job. It also helps you look at the situation from their perspective and perhaps you may even empathize with them.
There are many different types of personality disorders, all with various symptoms, so I recommend taking a look at some of the articles in the Resources Section below for a better understanding.
Additional Ways to Cope with an Abusive Boss
During moments when your manager is displaying abusive behavior, emotions can get heated, and people react to being abused in different ways. Some fight back, some take it silently, and others personalize and internalize the situation, blaming themselves. In the moment, it is best to maintain professionalism and keep your cool. Below is a list of coping tips that you can begin practicing today.
Pause before you respond to your manager. Take 3 seconds in your head to decide the best course of action or response. By allowing yourself this short amount of time, you are able to shift your thoughts and perspective. Take a moment and briefly remember that their behavior is not about you!
Calmly react to your manager and provide factual information in your response, avoiding a display of your emotions. It is okay to express your emotions by stating how their actions made you feel, but it is NOT OK to project those emotions back onto your manager.
Let your manager know what you need by stating your expectations clearly and assertively. For example, if they yell at you, tell them calmly that there is no need to yell and that you don’t appreciate being spoken to in that tone. You should also tell them exactly what you need in order to successfully perform your job.
Keep a record of every incident of abusive, offensive, or inappropriate behavior observed or personally experienced by your manager. Document times, dates, any witnesses, and a detailed description of the incident. Provide to your HR department to demonstrate a consistent pattern of abuse.
Disengage from unnecessary interactions with your abuser and imagine an emotional barrier between you and them. Remember that emotions are contagious! This means, if you are being yelled at, it can evoke anger, rage, or resentment in you, and you may want to respond with those same emotions. See image below. Instead, visualize an emotional barrier so those negative emotions cannot penetrate your zone. Keep your emotions separate in your zone and your abuser’s emotions in their zone. Now if you react calmly, rationally, and respectfully, your abuser will find your emotions contagious and start to calm down, thus defusing the situation. FYI, I know from personal experience that this tool actually works!
Seek help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your Human Resources department and ask for assistance. Also, be sure to seek mental health treatment if applicable. There is absolutely no shame in seeking treatment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an estimated 53 million adults in America, or every 1 in 5 Americans, suffers from mental illness but only 46% of them actually get help. Many employers provide mental health benefits through their health insurance programs. Contact your Human Resources department if you are unsure about mental health coverage in your plan.
See above section, Additional Ways to Cope with an Abusive Boss (#5), for details.
No one deserves to be treated with disrespect or be abused, especially in the workplace. You were hired based on your talents, skills, creativity, experience, and personality, so let those all shine through in your work, whether it’s in your current position or you move on to greener pastures where you can be appreciated and given the tools to grow.
Finally, if you are being abused by someone at work, please seek help through your Human Resources department, through therapy, if appropriate, and by speaking up for yourself. You are worth it!
Writing this blog article did not come easily as this particular topic caused me to experience anxiety and it brought up unhealthy emotions and memories from the past. However, I hope that by sharing my experience, I can help others learn to cope, get help, and get out of their abusive situations. Thank you for reading!
Resources for Coping with Abuse
Resources on Personality Disorders Borderline Personality Disorder (NIMH)