Article written Lauren Payne
When the work itself might not be the problem.
If you love your job and the work you’re doing, but still dread going into the office, or logging into the team group chat in the mornings, you may be feeling a bit confused. How could you be feeling anxious about your job when you love the work and know that it aligns with your core values?
The tough answer is that it may not actually be the job that’s affecting you. The work may be incredible, but the source of your workplace anxiety could be the people you’re working with, or more specifically, your boss.
Difficult bosses can appear in many different forms. Some may be relentless micromanagers, others could hurl obscenities, slide offensive remarks into conversations, or could disrespect (or blatantly ignore) their employee’s personal boundaries.
A boss could also be triggering unwanted anxiety in their employees by simply being unorganised, forgetting to provide essential information when initiating projects, love bombing their employees, or not communicating their goals clearly enough, resulting in unnecessary overtime.
Working with a difficult boss can have a significant impact on both your physical and mental health. According to Dr Amanda Ferguson, an organisational psychologist, author and the host of the Psych for Life with Dr Amanda Ferguson podcast, the impact your boss can have on your overall health can not only depend on how they’re behaving, but also on how you personally react to their behaviour.
“It comes back to the kind of person you are. If the job doesn’t really matter to you that much it’s not going to affect you presumably as much, whereas if you’re waiting on a promotion, or waiting on a certificate to get you to the next stage of your career, it really matters, so you don’t really want to lose the job.”
Research has shown that workplace anxiety, if unaddressed, can cause heart disease and possibly even heart attacks. Dr Ferguson tells me that someone who’s struggling with a difficult boss could develop a slew of health issues, depending on how they personally manage anxiety.
“Losing sleep, [developing] a phobia and not wanting to go to work. Loss of confidence, self-esteem… addiction, abuse of substances and drugs, taking out the stress on their families, having accidents, being distracted and making mistakes themselves, compromising their own relationships and friendships in the workplace, their career, their performance; there’s as many consequences as you can imagine if someone is suffering.”
Sometimes, it can be quite easy to decipher whether your boss is the source of your workplace anxiety. If they’re sliding rude remarks into conversations, bullying you, or blaming you for their own mistakes, you could instantly feel anxious and know it’s because of how your boss is treating you. However, this is not always the case.
Sometimes, your boss could be making you anxious and you may not even realise it. Dr Ferguson explains that workplace stress could stem from a variety of smaller errors your boss may not even realise they’re making.
“The lack of clear delegation and clear boundaries becoming blurred because the boss hasn’t prepared for something, [so] that their delegated part of it isn’t even clear. They’re not organised enough and then might be stressed themselves, or pass on the responsibility.
“It’s also partly what resources are being provided for the worker from the boss. [If] the boss, or the organisation, doesn’t give enough resources, it could result in overtime. Allowing [the employee that does the overtime] to come in the next morning a bit later following overtime, and allowing them to recharge, that’s [considered to be] resources. If you’re not getting that… that’s not a good sign.”
So, if you’ve discovered that your boss is the source of your workplace anxiety, how do you address it? How do you work things out, so you feel more comfortable showing up to work? If you have a good relationship with your boss, Dr Ferguson suggests addressing the issue with them in conversation.
“If you’ve got a pretty friendly relationship with your boss, then it’s going to be a pretty friendly discussion most likely, but with a little extra respect and caution. It’s often referred to as managing up [where] the employee is kind of managing their boss a bit and saying something like, ‘With all due respect, I’m noticing your stress. I’m a bit worried. How can I help, is there something else I can do?’”.
If your relationship with your boss is more on the formal side, Dr Ferguson recommends discussing the issue with someone outside of the organisation first to get their opinion on the situation.
“If it’s someone more formal and private, you’d know that [this conversation] would actually trigger them and make them uncomfortable, then it’s probably best to be more in their mode of formality. Consider talking with someone outside the organisation, or further removed from the organisation, without going over your boss’s head, or [having them] feeling that you’re going to compromise their reputation by discussing it with someone they might hate to know you’ve discussed it with.”
After this, Dr Ferguson suggests waiting for “an opportunity where the boss has maybe forgotten something, or made an error, and you can gently bring [the issue] to their attention”. Of course, not everyone experiencing issues with their boss may be in a position to discuss the issue with them. Every situation is unique, and Dr Ferguson recommends always taking care of yourself however you need to when addressing your workplace anxiety.
“If you’re really feeling worn down and any of the physical and mental symptoms are starting to occur, then you’re starting to burn out and it’s more risky to have that conversation [with your boss]. You may be in a position where you need a support person with you. You may need to have discussed it with family and friends, or even a GP or psychologist.
“Then there’s the people who are on the burnout path who need a stress certificate, or some time off – a couple of days, or even a week – and ideally would speak to a psychologist in that time and be able to work out whether you’re being advised to chat, or if it’s too much of a risk to your health and to probably find a new job.”
At the end of the day, if your boss is causing you enough anxiety that you know it’s best for you to find a new role, then that’s okay. If you’re able to resolve the issue by discussing it with your boss, then hopefully, it will result in a more comfortable and open working relationship with them.
As an employee, you need to feel at ease walking into the office or logging onto that Zoom meeting. You need to feel like you can sit down and do your work without walking on eggshells. We spend one-third of our lives working so we can support ourselves and enjoy our life as much as we can (thank you capitalism!).
So if you’re working with people who put you down, make you feel uncomfortable and don’t respect your boundaries, then you have every right to do what’s best for you to improve your work environment. Whether that involves chatting to your boss, or fully cutting ties. Your wellbeing matters most.