When we look back to early 2020, we realize how naïve we had been to expect the lockdown to only last a couple of weeks. The severity of the situation was unknown to us at the time, and we did not foresee a virus turning into a pandemic that would alter the 21st century. Whether we’re from the lucky few who haven’t yet encountered the deadly virus or we happen to have suffered through it, we each have experienced its repercussions in more than one form. It’s altered how we view safety, social interaction, and our engagement with the world. The minor flu raises an alarm, and we think twice before blessing someone who’s sneezed. It’s also taught us some lessons about our needs vs wants and how we integrate each in our lives.
With all the uncertainty around us, a change that has stood out is the concept of “office”. The office is no longer limited to a physical space and most working individuals have their set-ups away from their original office. A desk with a laptop, stable internet connection, and some software have adequately transitioned us into the remote work landscape without us realizing how permanent the shift was. If you are like me, you must also reminisce the joy you felt when work-from-home was announced; the same relief that soon turned into confusion, then frustration, and eventually blurred the boundaries of what was personal and what was professional. Over a year into it and I am confident that this enmeshment of the two has been entirely taxing and stressful.
Leaders were quick to shift to the virtual space and simultaneously restrategized communication, administration, and team management. Since then, it’s been a period of continuous trial and error, retrying, and adapting accordingly, for individuals and companies alike. Work-from-home has been beneficial and has also reduced variable costs, for all companies hence many global companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, Siemens, and Novartis, etc. have permanently adopted a hybrid policy enabling employees the choice to continue working from home.
Whilst CEOs, managers, and businessmen have made many advances to ensure operations don’t cease and the teams are adapting to the shift to the best of their ability, the mental well-being of employees has taken a downward stroll. According to research initiated and published at Kaiser Family Foundation (KKF), 4 out of 10 adults in the U.S have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic; it must be noted that the ratio was as low as 1/10 before the pandemic.
Another health tracking poll by KFF also highlights that:
Since July 2020, adults are continuously reporting increasing mental health problems and experiencing poor emotional well-being.
The symptoms include, but are not limited to, difficulty in sleeping and eating, increase in alcohol and substance consumption, and chronic conditions.
Dr. Maurizio Fava, MD – psychiatrist-in-chief at the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital – is not alarmed with the correlation between mental health and COVID-19, and believes that the rising cases of mental health problems are “quite understandable as the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cause significant stress and psychological distress for a large proportion of the population.
At the same time, a quick google search would also affirm that adults have been experiencing high levels of stress, and difficulty in adapting to the evolving workspace dynamics necessitated by COVID-19. Whilst the stress levels have multiplied due to isolation and loss of predictability, the added work pressure and the need to adapt, and the expectation to do it quickly has significantly impacted severed matters.
Amidst all this, workplace culture and cooperation play a big role in ensuring and sustaining employee well-being and a sense of stability. Culture comes from senior-most management and is at the root of organizational success and employee satisfaction. Whilst many companies have been kind and thoughtful in their approach, unfortunately, many employees have also experienced the not-as-kind leadership which has come forward in the face of the pandemic. This too is not a surprise. Humans are not perfect and tend to react unexpectedly in unexpected situations and the pandemic has been nothing short of a shock for each one of us.
However, this awareness does not justify toxic behavior in the workspace even though many employees are subjected to it in a manner that can appear common and almost routine. Toxic bosses are real, and their unpredictable behavior can make employees feel anxious and restless about work. Considering we’re still amidst a pandemic, our fears and reactions are also heightened due to the uncertainty present in the world, and almost all companies.
If you happen to be working with a toxic boss, we recommend you assess the situation and take doable action, will not put your job in jeopardy, and is helpful especially during the pandemic. Some suggestions that we’ve gathered to help you include:
Separate Personal Emotions:
I cannot put it more simply, so I will put it as I mean it – work is work, and is not personal. The work-life and personal-life equilibrium has certainly become misbalanced since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and has blurred boundaries between home and office. However, this does not entail the emotional boundary, and must not be taken as such either.
Toxic bosses are challenging and can make us doubt our ability and potential. It can feel difficult, sometimes almost impossible too, to satisfy their demands and they are hardly ever happy with the work that’s been delivered. Certainly, working under such circumstances can take a toll on our emotional well-being so our suggestion is for you to ensure emotional regulation. If your boss is unhappy with your performance, or today’s check-in call did not go as smoothly for you, remind yourself that your boss’s opinion is only their opinion and your performance is not limited to a bad day at work. How your boss communicates with you about your work is also, and must be kept, exclusive to the working relationship you both share.
“Many times a toxic boss has poor communication skills. They can be direct but mixed in their expectations. In those cases, focus on the three Cs: clarity, candidness, and control. Have clarity about the specific concerns you have, have a candid conversation with your boss about those concerns, and control your reaction to their response. Ultimately, what you learn will guide you on whether to stay or go”, suggests Bridgett Wilder – Owner at Wilder HR Management and EEO Consultant
In short, it’s not personal and must not be taken in the regard either.
Loop-in HR and Relevant Team Members:
When working with a toxic boss, feeling unsupported is valid. The pandemic has snatched the essence of team and support as is. Under current circumstances, you may also not be able to fully trust your allies and not know where to turn. If voicing your concerns to your supervisor/manager is not an option, or has not worked in your favor, you can choose to take the legal route and approach HR. Approaching HR can feel overwhelming, but often is a necessary step to secure your position in the chaos and no support is better than that of HR’s.
In approaching HR, a paper trail (email exchanges, Whatsapp messages, meeting minutes, etc.) is the best friend you must have on your side. Hence we recommend that you:
If you find yourself being the target of unacceptable treatment, workplace politics, and bullying, start keeping records of every incident and exchange. Often toxic bosses exhibit a different behavior one-on-one and put on a different front when in presence of other colleagues. Sometimes the official communication does not match what is expected from the employee and important conversations are done in passing and without following protocol. We acknowledge that their unpredictable behavior is not in your control, but documenting records and evidence is!
So the next time you receive a call from your boss in response to an email, email them back readdressing whatever has been communicated or discussed on the phone. Make sure to refer to the phone call in your email too and agree/disagree with the responsibility accordingly. Similarly, if your boss expects you to take on responsibility but has not officially communicated it to you, put on a confident front and ‘request’ them to officially communicate the task to you so you can plug it in your calendar as well.
No matter how intimidating your boss can be, try and secure yourself with what’s in your control. Open communication, asking for clarity and feedback, shooting emails to document exchanges, and requesting that all communication must be undertaken via official channels are all exhibits of professionalism that you must not be hesitant about.
If the bullying and attacks are beyond the scope of work and your JD, list all details you can pertain to the events and approach HR with the purpose of the complaint. For this, HR and employee well-being policies will be useful and you can complain to the colleague/s, and your boss too, if they are in defiance of the respective policy.
Seek Support from Colleagues:
The authority of a ‘boss’ can be intimidating, and that of a toxic boss is even more daunting. One of the evident traits of toxicity is their unnerving confidence. They carry themselves with pride and are quick to overshadow their employees. This can make the employee question if they’re indeed working with a toxic boss or are misunderstanding, overthinking, or reading into the situation incorrectly. At this point, we suggest you don’t indulge in self-doubt.
Rather, seek support and clarity from your colleagues and team members whom you can trust to be unbiased. Open communication with reliable colleagues is significant in tackling toxic situations at work, especially with those who may also be victims of your boss’s toxicity. Making notes of dates with details of incidents will help you put two and two together and identify if there’s a behavioral pattern. This identification can help you and your colleagues take matters to HR with evidence and support from each other.
Karla Refford - COO at Orpheus Cyber and Industry Coach - says and we agree, “your boss’s perspective is just that: theirs. What your boss thinks is not always fact, so seek alternative views if you are struggling with their behavior. Finding mentors or seeking leadership from different people can enable you to get the support you need.”
Having team members as allies goes a long way in not only having a safe space to rant, share your experience, and seek support but also to take appropriate action. So aim to bring collective and documented evidence against the common office bully so that HR can intervene with an action that is helpful to resolve the abusive patterns.
Don’t Gossip, or Get Drawn In:
Toxicity is multifaceted and it’s easy to get drawn in. There is a fine line between “I am only sharing about my experience” and “yes my boss is horrible and has made my life miserable”. Whilst the former is a call for support and seeking to be heard, the latter very much comes under the umbrella of gossiping.
Don’t get drawn into the gossip; you talking behind your boss’s back to a colleague, or joining a colleague gossip about their toxic boss, will not take you or your colleague, anywhere. In fact, it can cause more drama, than resolve any.
At the same time, Toxic bosses can be compelling and commonality in companies that are influenced by toxic leadership is a lot of talks and no action. You may come across your boss gossip about another subordinate/colleague with you, and about you with the same individual. Hence, the environment can feel overwhelmingly doomed with everyone talking about everyone behind their back.
In this situation, you have full control over your behavior, so make sure to focus on what’s professionally appropriate and not get drawn into the tempting aspect of “gossip”. Resisting the temptation to partake in office gossip exhibits emotional intelligence and is directly correlated with performance.
Being polite, having verbal and non-verbal boundaries, open communication, and maintaining a safe emotional and professional distance are supportive tools that will ensure job safety, and also model professionalism. It may be frustrating at times, but keeping professional relationships strictly professional and building boundaries at work, with bosses, and also with colleagues can help maneuver toxic situations from getting under your skin.
Truthfully, quitting your current job with a toxic boss may not be the easiest option. Finding a new job in the middle of the pandemic is even more challenging. So we recommend you take your time to assess the situation, gauge whether the toxicity can be managed, and what about your current job is salvageable. Firstly, secure your sanity and make sure to deliver your best at work; draw healthy boundaries, keep communication minimal with colleagues/bosses you don’t trust, and document whatever must be recorded, to secure your position in the company.
Remember, it's your stability and well-being above all!