Dealing With a Toxic Boss During the Pandemic

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.