How Your Toxic Boss Is Hurting Your Mental Health

Bad bosses can take a serious psychological toll, research shows.
A bullying boss can get to you -- and even make you bully others.
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A bullying boss can get to you -- and even make you bully others.

Toxic bosses are, unsurprisingly, the top cause of unhappiness in the workplace. Half of employees have left their jobs to get away from a bad manager, according to a 2015 Gallup survey, and 41 percent of American workers say they’ve been “psychologically harassed” on the job.

Anyone who’s had a bad boss knows what it can do to your stress levels and job satisfaction. But it could also increase your risk for clinical depression and even lead to bullying behavior of your own, according to a new University of Manchester study.

The findings, which will be presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference on occupational psychology, showed that employees of bosses with narcissistic and psychopathic traits are more likely to show signs of depression and to engage in bullying and other uncooperative behaviors at work.

“Workplace bullying is obviously unpleasant for the target, but also creates a toxic working environment for all involved,” Abigail Philips, a Ph.D. student at Manchester School of Business and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “In short, bad bosses, those high in psychopathy and narcissism, have unhappy and dissatisfied employees who seek to ‘get their own back’ on the company.”

The Two Types of Bad Bosses

Bad bosses fall into one of two categories, according to a study out of Binghamton University published last month: dark or dysfunctional. The bosses with narcissistic and psychopathic traits examined in the University of Manchester study are an example of “dark” bosses.

Dr. Seth Spain, author of the Binghamton University study, says these types of managers engage in destructive behaviors and hurt others for their own gain.

“[These are] people who enjoy the pain and suffering of others — they’re going to be mean, abusive and harassing in daily life,” Spain, who researches organizational behavior, said in a December press release.

Dysfunctional bosses, on the other hand, are pretty harmless ― they’re just not very good at their job, Spain explained.

Both types of bosses can be particularly toxic for employees if they lead by micromanaging. Studies have shown that employees who feel that they are being watched too closely perform more poorly, and people in demanding jobs with little control over their workflow have a significantly increased risk of premature death.

In the new study, Manchester researchers focused on “dark” bosses with narcissistic and psychopathic traits. The study’s authors recruited 1,200 workers in a range of industries and in several different countries, and asked them to answer questionnaires about their psychological well-being, their boss’s personality and the prevalence of bullying in their workplace.

Philips explained that a person with narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies is someone who shows a strong desire for power and lacks empathy for others. In a boss, this can manifest in taking advantage of employees, taking credit for others’ work, being hyper-critical and bullying co-workers. These bosses are mostly focused on getting to the top, and they’re not concerned about who they might hurt in the process.

The research showed that employees of these types of bosses had reduced psychological well-being, including lower job satisfaction and higher scores on measures of clinical depression.

A Toxic Work Environment

The findings also showed that a boss’ bad behavior can trickle down to his or her employees and affect the workplace at large, triggering a vicious cycle of bullying in a company.

This could be one factor contributing to the increased depression and low job satisfaction that employees of toxic bosses experience, but we’re still not sure exactly how workplace bullying affects employees’ mental health.

What’s clear, however, is that working for a toxic boss can lead to other types of health problems. Employees of bad managers are at greater risk for high blood pressure, chronic stress, sleep problems, anxiety, substance abuse issues, overeating, heart attacks and other health problems.

“The evidence is clear that the leadership qualities of ‘bad’ bosses over time exert a heavy toll on employees’ health,” Harvard Medical School researcher Jonathan Quick previously told The Washington Post.

If your boss is truly tyrannical, it might be time to consider a breakup. But if quitting isn’t an option at the moment, try these simple strategies from cognitive behavioral therapy for busting through work stress.

This story is brought to you by The Huffington Post’s new health reporting project, The Scope. To read more stories like this one, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Have a tip? Email us at

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