A toxic boss is not just one that makes you feel bad –– they’re a serious threat to your wellbeing.
One of the main ways this type of bad boss can wreck your health is by making you feel anxious all the time. Anxiety “is a state of being where you are very future-focused and that future is bleak,” said Tanisha Ranger, a Nevada-based clinical psychologist.
In this way, she said, a toxic boss can trigger anxieties you already had or give you new ones.
Dread, worry and fear become your constant companions at the thought of displeasing your boss. “If you suspect your anxiety is related to your toxic boss, look for connections between the anxiety and your interactions with your boss,” said Shannon Garcia, a psychotherapist at States of Wellness Counseling in Illinois and Wisconsin. “Anxiety often manifests in our behaviors and in particular can result in avoidance of what is causing us anxiety.”
Here are some of the ways that anxiety shows up in your body and thought patterns when you have a toxic boss –– and what to do about it.
1. You have stomachaches, chest tightness, breathing changes and other physical symptoms when thinking about your boss.
Your body may know before you fully do that your boss is having a toxic effect on your wellbeing.
“We spend a lot of time at work, so having a toxic boss in your life can result in various physical signs of anxiety such as stomachaches, fatigue or your chest feeling heavy,” Garcia said. “I once had a client whose eye would start slightly twitching on her way into work. It would last the work day, and it would stop upon leaving work.“
Breathing is foundational to our survival and it can change, too, when a toxic boss is in the room.
“People’s breathing patterns will change when they are coming into work or when they’re in front of the boss, because they’re feeling that sense of anxiety. That’s a really big sign that people need to be aware of,” said Adriana Alejandre, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Latinx Therapy in Burbank. “For some, it will be more shallow and slow, and for others, it will be more rapid breathing.”
Alejandre also noted that other bodily symptoms can include being sweatier than usual, feeling flushed, having a different body odor ― and behavioral changes like stuttering in front of the boss or colleagues who are close to the boss can trigger the same response.
2. You feel increasingly alienated from your co-workers and isolated at work.
When you have a toxic boss that is equally horrible to everyone on the team, that can sometimes inspire solidarity in the group. But if you’re the only one being bullied by your boss, it can feel like you are being gaslit and cause you to doubt that what you are experiencing is actually happening.
“If you can sit in a meeting and see that this person speaks differently to other people than they speak to you, that feels very isolating, that feels very alienating. You feel disconnected not just to the boss, not just to the company, but also to your co-workers, because they get a different experience than you,” Ranger said. “You worry that if you say something, they’re going to be like, ‘That’s not how that was. That’s not what they meant.’ Or ‘Are you sure?’”
This can then, in turn, cause you to stop talking to co-workers and feel even lonelier at work, Ranger said.
3. You frequently feel on edge and irritable.
If you find that every little thing at work now has the power to set you off, it could be traced back to how your boss is making you feel.
“The irritability is about trying to control what you can’t control,” Ranger said. “You have no say. You’re here at somebody’s pleasure and if that whim changes, you’re done. That is a terrible feeling. It is incredibly stressful.”
The people you love could be getting the brunt of your irritability, because we tend to show less favorable feelings and behaviors to those we’re more comfortable with, Alejandre said.
4. You wake up dreading the work day, and it makes you unable to sleep at night, too.
If good days or bad days are measured by how much you’ll see your boss at work, it is a warning sign you should not ignore.
“Oftentimes, the dread that you feel when you wake up for the day is about, ‘Is today the day that shit hits the fan?’” Ranger said. “You don’t know what’s coming at you, and you don’t know the intensity of what’s coming, and it fills you with dread. That dread is anxiety. It is... the strongest belief that something terrible is coming.”
Ranger noted that this dread can also cause sleep problems later at night, too.
“If anxiety is not dealt with in the work environment, it will lead to burnout.”
5. You avoid your boss and the tasks they ask of you.
Avoidance is another way anxiety can manifest, Garcia said.
“With a toxic boss, you may notice that you put off asking them a question you’re needing answered for work,” she explained. “You may take a different route to avoid going past their office. If an email comes in from them, your anxiety heightens.”
You may find yourself choosing your words extremely carefully and speaking up less in meetings out of fear that they will lash out at you.
6. You become more distracted and forgetful.
Having a toxic boss takes over your brain and makes it harder to focus on doing your actual job.
“If all of your energy is dedicated to [your toxic boss], you’re going to miss stuff,” Ranger said. “You’re going to walk into the copy room and have no idea why you walked in there... Your ability to stay focused and remain organized becomes impacted by anxiety.”
7. You lose interest in things that used to matter to you.
Feeling increasingly disengaged in the world around you is a big red flag for how your toxic boss is worsening your psyche. It also has long-term health implications.
“Lack of interest is connected to anxiety, burnout and depression,” she added. “These symptoms... can also lead to hopelessness.”
8. You feel burnout.
“You spend so much time worried that it drains all your energy,” Ranger said. “Your work will suffer because you can’t get comfortable, you can’t feel secure in this position.”
Burnout is chronic workplace stress that can result from your toxic boss pushing you past your limits, among other things. “It’s emotional, physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion caused by overworking or being overworked,” Alejandre said.
“People don’t usually realize that they are burnt out until it’s too late,” she said. “If anxiety is not dealt with in the work environment, it will lead to burnout.“
Some of the red flags that you are experiencing burnout can include skipping meals, skipping self-care, making more mistakes than usual, forgetting tasks, and not feeling up to engaging with others emotionally or socially, Alejandre said.
How to address your toxic boss-related anxiety
If these signs of anxiety are resonating too much, there are ways to mitigate a toxic boss’ influence over your life and cope until you find a solution.
Understand where your boss is coming from. Toxic bosses can chip away at your self-worth, which is why it’s important to remember that your boss’ behavior is not because of you. “You are a human being who is worthy of decency and respect, and the fact that this person is not giving it to you is not because of something [that] is intrinsic to you. It’s about something that is going on with them,” Ranger said.
“Ask yourself, ‘What is theirs vs. what is mine?’” Garcia said. “Don’t make your boss’ toxicity about you. For example, if they micromanage their employees, that could be a reflection of their own anxiety about their performance as a boss and ability to manage a team. While it affects you, it’s not about you as an individual.”
Lean on your network for gut checks and support. “You have to have people you can commiserate with and people who will be like ‘Alright, let’s stop talking about that terrible place, and let’s do something positive,’” Ranger said.
She also said finding a mentor who is not associated with the company you work for is an ideal way for you to ask if what is happening between you and your boss is normal.
Having a toxic boss can make it hard for you to speak up. If you are finding it difficult to share how your boss is treating you, Alejandre suggests telling people you trust or colleagues with authority, such as human resources or a manager other than your boss, that you’re experiencing difficulties with your boss or your boss’ treatment of you, and that you would like to understand and request some help.
Create time for respite and joy. Garcia said it is important to find ways to make your workday more enjoyable despite your toxic boss. “Try to form relationships with your coworkers. If it’s allowed, leave the building for lunch even to just sit in your car. Take time off,” she said.
Quit. If moving to a different boss is not possible, and asking for help has not been helpful, it may be time to plan your exit strategy from your company.
Garcia said that choosing to leave a job because of a toxic boss is a decision only you can make, but some questions to ask yourself when making such a choice can include, “How much is this anxiety affecting you each day? Is it [manageable] or are you falling apart at the seams? Are you able to put up boundaries that provide some relief?”
“If things are not changing at work, don’t feel guilty about considering a job change,” she said. “While it may sound simple, a list of pros and cons for each of your options can be incredibly helpful. If you do this, write down everything, big and small. Your wellbeing matters.”