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The Hidden Costs of Working for a Toxic Boss: Understanding the Impact on Your Health

I met Angela years ago when she worked for one of the biggest banks in Europe. She was an energetic and inspiring young woman, happy to have what she called "the career of her dreams." She was excited to learn a lot, and she was waiting for a massive promotion as the legal team leader.

Years later, we encountered again, and I was surprised to find an exhausted and cynical, still young woman who had a spark in her tired eyes.

We spent a few hours near a coffee mug, and she finally confessed she needed to quit her job. She couldn't get along with her manager anymore.

"This is not a safe place", she whispered as if she had the world burden on her shoulders.

Then, I started thinking of what makes a boss tremendous or toxic.

A supportive boss can inspire and motivate, but a toxic boss can turn the workplace into a source of dread, with severe repercussions for employees' health. Understanding the multifaceted impact of a toxic boss is crucial for employees and organisations alike.

Mental Health Consequences

1. Chronic Stress and Anxiety

- **Physiological Response**: Chronic exposure to stress triggers the body's "fight or flight" response, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, elevated levels of these hormones can disrupt bodily functions and lead to chronic health issues.

- **Behavioral Symptoms**: Employees may exhibit restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. These symptoms can deteriorate work performance and personal relationships.

2. Depression

- **Emotional Impact**: Constant negativity and criticism can erode self-esteem and self-worth, leading to inadequacy and hopelessness.

- **Cognitive Effects**: Depression can impair cognitive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and memory, further complicating work responsibilities and personal life.

3. Burnout

- **Symptoms**: Burnout manifests through physical exhaustion, emotional depletion, and a cynical attitude towards work. It often leads to decreased productivity and a sense of inefficacy.

- **Stages**: The development of burnout typically follows stages: the honeymoon phase (initial high energy), the onset of stress (realisation of challenges), chronic stress (persistent fatigue), burnout (severe symptoms), and chronic burnout (pervasive impact on life).

Physical Health Implications

1. Cardiovascular Problems

- **Mechanism**: Chronic stress increases heart rate and blood pressure, damaging blood vessels and leading to heart disease over time. The risk is higher in environments where employees feel powerless and undervalued.

- **Symptoms**: Symptoms might include chest pain, shortness of breath, and increased risk of heart attacks.

2. Sleep Disturbances

- **Types**: Common issues include insomnia, restless sleep, and frequent awakenings. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to other health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and weakened immune function.

- **Consequences**: Lack of sleep affects cognitive performance, mood stability, and overall health, making it harder to cope with stress and perform well at work.

3. Gastrointestinal Issues

- **Stress Effects**: The enteric nervous system, often called the "second brain," is susceptible to stress. Stress can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, leading to conditions like IBS, ulcers, and other digestive disorders.

- **Symptoms**: Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, and constipation, which a high-stress work environment can exacerbate.

Behavioural and Lifestyle Effects

1. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

- **Substance Use**: To escape the stress of a toxic workplace, some employees might resort to alcohol, drugs, or smoking. These substances provide temporary relief but can lead to addiction and other serious health issues.

- **Overeating**: Stress can lead to emotional eating, particularly high-calorie, sugary foods, contributing to obesity and related health problems.

2. Decreased Physical Activity

- **Energy Levels**: Chronic stress and depression can drain energy and motivation, making it harder to maintain an active lifestyle. Physical inactivity is linked to numerous health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

- **Sedentary Behavior**: A lack of exercise contributes to a sedentary lifestyle, exacerbating stress and health problems and creating a vicious cycle.

3. Social Withdrawal

- **Isolation**: Stress and depression can lead to withdrawal from social interactions, both at work and in personal life. Isolation can worsen mental health, leading to increased feelings of loneliness and depression.

- **Support Networks**: Losing touch with support networks removes an essential buffer against stress, further exacerbating mental health issues.

Mitigating the Impact: In-Depth Strategies

1. **Seeking Support**

- **Professional Help**: Consulting a therapist or counsellor can provide a safe space to discuss issues and develop coping strategies. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly effective for managing stress and anxiety.

- **Workplace Resources**: Many organisations offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide confidential counselling and support services.

2. **Establishing Boundaries**

- **Work-Life Balance**: Clearly defining work hours and personal time helps protect against burnout. Avoiding work-related activities during personal time can significantly reduce stress.

- **Communication**: Communicating boundaries to supervisors and colleagues is crucial. It involves being assertive about workload and availability without fearing negative repercussions.

3. **Looking for New Opportunities**

- **Job Search**: While searching for a new job can be stressful, finding a healthier work environment can vastly improve well-being. Networking and leveraging professional connections can make this process smoother.

- **Skill Development**: Acquiring new skills or certifications can open up new career opportunities, making the transition to a new job more accessible and appealing.

4. **Mindfulness and Stress-Reduction Techniques**

- **Mindfulness Practices**: Techniques such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi promote relaxation and reduce stress. Regular practice can improve emotional regulation and resilience to stress.

- **Breathing Exercises**: Simple breathing techniques, like deep breathing or the 4-7-8 method, can help calm the mind and reduce physiological stress responses.

A toxic boss can have a devastating impact on an employee's health, leading to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and a host of physical ailments. Recognising the signs and taking proactive steps to protect one's health is crucial.

Organisations also have a responsibility to address toxic leadership and foster a healthier, more supportive work culture to ensure the well-being of their employees.

This means not allowing their toxic managers to thrive.

woman looked from behind
photo by name_gravity on Unsplash

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