When a toxic boss activates your anxiety

Toxic bosses are people who abuse their power and merge their personal and professional boundaries. They will try to undermine people in the team to boost their power base. They will focus on the negative aspects of your performance and will be quick to shift blame. The toxic behaviour spreads among the ranks and can set the tone and culture for the whole organisation. In a toxic work environment, employees tend to protect their interest and not offer any ideas when in meetings and the best employees will want to leave.

A toxic boss can often recreate their own dysfunctional family unit in the organisation they run. There is usually a blame culture and employees often compete with each other to take the credit for pieces of work.

Numerous studies have shown that working for a toxic boss increases your chances of suffering a heart attack by up to 50%. The anxiety of trying to do things perfectly will mean you are less likely to delegate work out of fear that others won’t be as precise or as accurate as you would be if you done the work yourself. Your reluctance to delegate can compound your anxiety levels as your workload mounts up as a result.

Spotting the signs of a toxic boss:

  • Actively engaging in harming others.
  • Poor personal boundaries and engaging in inappropriate language.
  • Gossiping, smearing the name of their colleagues and ganging up on one person (scapegoating) in team meetings.
  • Embarrassing employees in meetings or in open plan offices.
  • Managing a team by intimidation and fear by setting unrealistic targets.
  • Overseeing a culture of sarcasm and put-downs.
  • Moodiness, unpredictability and aggression.
  • Shouting their instructions and keeping you guessing about which version of them they will present.
  • An underlying addiction and a shadowy past.
  • Never apologising when clearly in the wrong and often exhibiting narcissistic and psychopathic traits.
  • Lacking empathy for other employees and only having their own interests at heart.
  • Having favourites in the organisation that must be looked after in spite of their obvious incompetence.
  • Like most bullies, they can avoid confrontation and will often get others to do their dirty work for them or they insinuate things in conversations rather than being direct.

Working for a challenging boss who pushes you to perform better and more productive is different to working for a toxic boss. Working for a challenging boss will ultimately make you feel good about yourself, as your career will develop and prosper, whereas a toxic boss will destabilise your mental health and leave you under emotional strain. There are never any expressions of gratitude for your hard work. They will seek to chip away at your self-esteem by alluding to how your work performance should be improved without undertaking formal agreed goal based reviews.

How to improve your situation in a toxic work environment

It is important not to adopt a victim role when dealing with a toxic boss. It might be tempting to view your plight as powerless and helpless (they are the boss after all), but you can empower yourself by bringing greater psychological insight into your situation. Try to stay in an adult to adult mode of communicating when responding to unreasonable and excessive requests. Stick to the facts when under attack or intense scrutiny. Toxic bosses will seek to undermine by disputing your version of events, thus questioning your sense of reality. So, it is important to maintain accurate note-taking in order to remain aware of facts and timelines.  

Toxic bosses are usually micromanagers when it suits them and when they want to exert their control. Refuse to allow your micro-manager’s obsession with minor details to produce a sense of personal inadequacy. This would only lead to further anxiety, stress and potential underperformance. See it as a game. It is important to remind yourself that a good report is still a good report, even if the report is missing a staple. If you practice self-awareness and better manage your emotions, you can choose your battles carefully. You can rationally choose which battles are worth fighting and which ones you should just try to let go.  

Therapy can be a place where you can regain your power in personal relationships and learn to better deal with toxic bosses. By devising effective communication strategies, you can engage more fully with your life and the people in it. A therapist can help you to make sense of a toxic workplace and how best to manage your anxiety levels. You can potentially transform your anxious state and learn to better cope with challenging work environments.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited clinical psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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