Sure your bad boss is killing your attitude and good mood, but the damage might not stop there. Studies have shown that a negative working environment can boost your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In his book Dying for a Paycheck Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor at Stanford Graduate School, attributes 120,000 excess deaths a year to stressful U.S. workplaces.
Part of the problem could be how we deal with it. A boss often sets the tone in a workplace, and when you don’t have one you can trust, it’s easy to cope by choosing bad behaviors, says workplace psychologist Dr. Andrea Goeglein, author of Don’t Die With Vacation Time on the Books.
“Stress can show up as not caring for yourself, whether that’s eating or not eating,” she says. “Instead of taking a walk at lunchtime to blow off steam, the common reaction is to eat fried foods or have a cocktail. Unhealthy coping behaviors can put you at higher risk of disease, especially if the behaviors cause you to gain weight.”
How to know your workplace is harming you
The effects of a toxic workplace can be gradual, and you may not realize that you’re internalizing the stress. Goeglein says you should pay attention to your own behaviors and question the underlying motivation when they change.
“Maybe you’re the person who likes to walk or jog, and all of a sudden, you feel like staying in bed,” she says. “Or maybe you’re the guy who normally stays away from sugar and French fries, and now all you want are hamburgers and beer. Be self-observant, and notice when your good habits are no longer being used.”
Ways to cope
If your boss is especially toxic, it may be time to start looking for a new job. However, you can also think about ways to limit how much your environment impacts your mood. “We’ve got to remember there is no perfect environment and no perfect bosses,” says Goeglein. “No matter the situation, there is a way you can rise above it. You need to tap into your capacity within.”
Goeglein suggests focusing on your own well-being. Take care of yourself by acknowledging and using your strengths and by nurturing your own positive emotions.
“If your boss has proven to you that they can’t be trusted, focus on the positive aspects of the workplace,” she says. “Maybe it’s the job you have or your relationship with coworkers. Or maybe the tasks you do might be feeding other career goals, making you want to stay.”
Instead of choosing bad behaviors, like blowing off steam with a drink or greasy food, counterbalance the stress by making time for an activity you enjoy or that helps you relax.
“If you’re a designer, for example, sit in the park and sketch during your lunch break,” Goeglein suggests. “You can also tap into an energy that has nothing to do with your work but that brings pleasure. Go to the mountains or the sea, even if it’s by [virtual reality]. Anything that raises positive emotions can help counteract the damage of a bad boss.”
If you haven’t had a vacation yet this year, get one on the books right now. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that skipping vacations is directly related to your health. “One of the most startling findings from the study was that participants who took less than three weeks of annual vacation had a 37% higher risk of dying than those who took more than three weeks,” says Goeglein.
When you’re in a challenging situation, the best thing you can do is pay special attention to your choices and make better ones, says Goeglein. “It’s easier to grab that candy bar or have a second drink,” she says. “It takes conscious awareness to recognize why we are making those choices. . . . You can never control bad bosses, but you can control how you respond.”