Want to Know the Biggest Source of Workplace Stress? Check the Office Next Door

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times that, once again, has some dismal news about employee satisfaction.  Apparently, it’s at an all-time low.  Less you think it’s all about the economy, a survey of 5000 workers revealed that the major sources of dissatisfaction had to do with the job itself and, in particular, the immediate supervisor.

The annual performance review, in particular, came under fire as a major source of angst for employees.  What was interesting about the critique is that most criticisms I’ve read about performance reviews had to do either with a) the substitution of a formal annual process at the expense of providing regular, ongoing feedback, or b) the structure of the form itself (for example, a forced rating system or vague rating descriptions that provided little useful direction to the employees being reviewed.  This article, however, offers the argument that the annual review is less about the employee’s actual performance and more a reflection of how much the supervisor likes the employee (check out Paul in NYC’s ironic interpretation of his performance review ratings in the comments section).

This Job is Killing Me

Another disheartening focus of this article is the significant mental and physical health problems that arise when an employee works in a toxic environment – depression, high blood pressure, heart problems.  Not surprisingly, the immediate supervisor had an enormous impact -good bosses served as a buffer against other workplace stressors while destructive leaders amplified other workplace pressures – on the stress level of employees.

While in theory employees have avenues for dealing with a bad boss (human resources, the boss’s boss), in reality, employees often fear retaliation for speaking out against an abusive supervisor.  Unfortunately, this can tempt an employee to try to regain a sense of control indirectly, i.e., by attempting to covertly sabotage the boss (calling in sick when there’s an important deadline, turning in work late or doing a bad job on it).   This, of course, ultimately hurts the employee.

So What’s the Solution?

I wish I knew.  The most disturbing part of this article to me was the barrage of bitter, cynical comments that followed it.   While I do work with plenty of companies who hold supervisors accountable for their relationships with their employees, I encounter many more who don’t.

In the meantime, if you’re an employee stuck in a toxic work environment, the onus is on you to take the best care of yourself you can.  Find a mentor who can give you emotional support and brainstorm with you about how to handle your bad boss, keep updating your skills and marketability, exercise and eat right and, if things don’t get better, get the heck out of there when you have the chance.

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2 Comments on “Want to Know the Biggest Source of Workplace Stress? Check the Office Next Door”

  1. @Little_Lawyer Says:

    Interesting article, and a very true reflection of workplace personalities. In particular, I have to agree that often the source of that disheartening slump felt at the start of a working day is immediate management. I’ve worked with managers who treat their team as professionals and with it afford a certain degree of trust, and others who feel they have to micro manage you when you are perfectly capable and qualified to do the job you’ve been employed to do. Guess which I’m good friends with, and would recommend to colleagues?

    It’s all about team work and integrity, some managers just don’t get that.

  2. Holly Says:

    I had a career in HR before becoming an attorney and in my experience, I think part of the problem is the track-system of promotion that most companies use. Unfortunately, most companies only use one promotion track that automatically puts employees into leadership roles. Many don’t have a desire to be leaders/managers but feel like the only way to advance their careers (and their pay) is by accepting management roles. This makes for bad managers and unhappy subordinates. There should be separate, but equivalent, tracks for those who are inclined only toward technical growth and those who are interested, and have the ability, to be good managers.


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