Abusive Bosses and Your Mental Health
As I’ve discussed previously, the work environment can cause or exacerbate depression. While factors such as abusive co-workers, a work environment that don’t fit your personality or the type of work you’re doing can make affect your mental health, in my mind, no one aspect of the workplace can put more stress on your day to day work existence than an abusive boss.
I’ve had my share of mediocre and/or unpleasant bosses over the years, but one stands out as being truly hazardous to my mental health, and that of a co-worker. I started a new job as an administrative assistant at a big company. Even during the inteview, I had an uneasy feeling about my potential boss, Ravi, but I had wanted to get a foot in the door at this company for years, so I ignored my instincts. Shortly after I started the job, I found out that I should have listened to them.
Ravi would alternate between verbally abusing and praising me and Katherine, a temporary worker. He actually reduced me to tears on more than one occasion, but saved most of his vitriol for Katherine. I’m not sure whether he somehow instinctively knew, but she had grown up with an abusive father and had a series of alcoholic husbands and boyfriends, so she was very vulnerable. I remember him shouting at her one time, “Can’t you do anything right?”. His ire in that case was completely unjustified, as the mistake he was ranting about had been made by him.
In the short time that Katherine and I worked for him, he had enough of a detrimental effect on her that she started drinking again after being on the wagon for a few years. Given that I didn’t have the kind of background that she did, I was upset and intimidated for a while, but eventually got angry and retaliated. Oddly enough, I saw him out in public with his wife, and he was meek as a kitten while she verbally abused him, so I guess he used the workplace to redirect the abuse he experienced at home.
In addition to being abusive, Ravi also was a micro-manager, often with disastrous results. We set up an interviewing marathon for about a hundred people to fill a number of slots in the department. Katherine and I had worked with Human Resources to put together interview packets for the managers who would be doing the actual interviewing. About five minutes before the interviews started (he had ignored the preparations until then), Ravi decided he didn’t like the order of the paperwork in the folders, and started rearranging them, as we looked on aghast.
After a while we learned that his attention span was so short that we could just go back to doing things the way we had been after he showed us his “new” way and left. But correcting the mess he made was time-consuming, and not being trusted to do things right in our way instead of his was demoralizing.
Finally, I had enough the Friday before Memorial Day. It was past 5:00, and everyone else had already left, when he decided that I had to document the flowchart he had just written on a whiteboard. (On top of being a bully, he was also incompetent. The flow chart was incomprehensible). I asked him if I could do it when we came back to work on Tuesday, as I had plans that evening. He blew up and started berating me, ending with “Go, go Get out of here!”
I cried all the way home. When my ex-husband saw my face, he wanted to go right over to Ravi’s house and beat him up. As tempting as the offer was, I decided to talk to Human Resources when I got back to work. I felt like I was on shaky ground, though, which was why I hadn’t done so before. I was brand new to the company, and here I was after only two months, already complaining about my boss. I didn’t know at the time that three other people had already filed complaints about Ravi in the three months that he had been at the company.
I told the woman I talked to in HR that I wanted to be reassigned if possible, as I felt that Ravi was not happy with my work. I told her that I wasn’t able to determine what it was that he wanted me to change. She kept asking me for specifics of his behavior, and I realized subsequently that she was trying to nail him, but I was wary of being negative. She did have me transferred to the group of managers who worked under Ravi, but he kept giving them work to pass on to me (even though he had continually criticized my work - go figure).
About two months later he was given a new job. He went from supervising 100 people to supervising zero employees - he didn’t even have a secretary. Several months later he was fired altogether. I was only disappointed that I was on vacation that week and didn’t get to see his face after he was canned.
The two months I worked for Ravi stand out as one of the most miserable periods of my life. Eight hours a day spent with someone who did his best to control, humiliate and demean me. I felt that I had made a huge mistake in taking the job. I was hard-working and a perfectionist, and even if I hadn’t always had bosses that appreciated that, I never had had one who was abusive. At one point, I actually parked outside the company I had left and considered going in and asking for my old job back.
There’s no question in my mind that this type of situation can be enough to exacerbate depression in someone who already has it, or possibly trigger it in someone who’s prone to it. After all, unless you don’t need the job, you’re essentially helpless. I was lucky that Human Resources was on alert about him and was willing to move me because of it. But not everyone, in fact probably few people, in this type of situation are able to get transferred within the same company without damage to their career.
If you find yourself in the same type of situation, I would recommend that you do whatever you need to do to get out of it. Unless you have a way to push back effectively against a work bully, which is unlikely if you’re their subordinate, the situation is not going to improve. And it is absolutely going to have a detrimental effect on your mental health.
Deborah Gray wrote about depression as a Patient Expert for HealthCentral. She lived with undiagnosed clinical depression, both major episodes and dysthymia, from childhood through young adulthood. She was finally diagnosed at age 27, and since that time, her depression has been successfully managed with medication and psychotherapy.