Bad Bosses Follow You Home


Stress and tension caused by an abusive boss at work (rudeness, public criticism, tantrums) filters through to an employee's relationships and ultimately affects his or her entire family.

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Bad bosses. You can't even leave them at the office. They follow you home and stress out the entire family.

A study from Baylor University found that the stress and tension caused by an abusive boss at work also filters through to an employee's personal relationships and ultimately the whole family. When people reported having an abusive boss, their significant other was more likely to report increased relationship tension and family conflict at home. One positive note was that the longer the partners' relationship, the less damage an abusive boss caused to it.

Supervisor abuse generally includes rudeness, public criticism, tantrums, and other inconsiderate actions.

The study surveyed 280 full-time employees about their bosses and then surveyed their significant others about their marital/relationship problems. Questions used to pinpoint supervisor abuse included "How often does your supervisor tell you your thoughts or feelings are stupid, put you down in front of others, tell you that you're incompetent or express anger at you when he/she is mad for a different reason."

Questions asked of the employees' partners included ones about their frequency of irritation or resentment at their partner's actions and the amount of tension they felt from fighting, disagreeing, or arguing.

Like a Swedish study from 2008 that found bad bosses increase employee heart attack risk, the Baylor study puts the onus for fixing the problem on the organization, the same organization that hired and promoted the abusive boss.

People with an abusive boss are usually advised to first try speaking with him or her and if that doesn't help, to take the problem to higher management. This often fails because it's a rational approach to an irrational problem. Establishing a healthy relationship would require willingness on the part of both parties to do so. And higher management has already spoken by promoting the abusive boss.

Surveys indicate that these traditional approaches aren't working.

In a 2007 Zogby poll, 37 percent of American adults said they had been bullied at work. And another study by the Employment Law Alliance found that 44 percent of U.S. employees say they've worked for an abusive boss.

Most of this abuse is perfectly legal. Workers who are abused based on their membership in a protected class, such as race, nationality, or religion, can sue under civil rights laws. But there's no legal protection against general viciousness.

That may change soon.

Legislatures in 12 states have introduced versions of a healthy workplace bill that would make abusive conduct at work illegal. In 2010, bills were passed by the State Senate in both New York and Illinois.

The New York State bill defines abusive conduct as conduct that may include, but is not limited to, repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets; verbal or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature; the sabotage or undermining of an employee's work performance or attempts to exploit an employee's known psychological or physical vulnerability.

The bill provides legal incentives for companies to prevent and take action against abusive employers. And it allows employees who have been subjected to such abuse to seek legal relief.

And while many people agree that the last thing the U.S. needs right now is more lawsuits, the Healthy Workplace Campaign website points out that the U.S. is the only western democracy without a law forbidding workplace bullying. Scandinavian nations have had such laws on the books since 1994.

An article on the Baylor study appears in the Winter 2011 issue of Personnel Psychology.

Image: Ford Photography/Shutterstock.

This article originally appeared on, an Atlantic partner site.

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