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Is Your Horrible Boss Ruining Your Life?

What to do when workplace stress is destroying you.

July 8th, 2011

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Is Your Horrible Boss Ruining Your Life?

People joke about having the World’s Worst Boss, (the comedy "Horrible Bosses" just hit theaters), but there’s nothing funny about having one who’s really in the running for the title.

For the majority of Americans, work tops their list of major stressors. And everyday stress (say, a nagging boss) is no friend to your body and beauty—we’re talking breakouts, weight gain and high blood pressure. Luckily, there are scientifically-proven ways to reduce stress in the workplace.

So, we’ll talk bad bosses, with tips that you can apply to all work relationships, even if your boss is your BFF.  

EverettCharlie Day and Jennifer Aniston in "Horrible Bosses"
Horrible Bosses

THE AGGRESSIVE BOSS

The “Devil Wears Prada” boss is not just in the the fashion world. It’s not uncommon to hear horror stories from entry-level employees in nearly every industry: Stories about being worked so hard they couldn’t take a lunch break, or could barely keep the food down from the stress.

“I lost 15 pounds over the course of three months because my stomach was so in knots that I couldn't eat,” Kathleen* recounted of her experience at a public relations firm in New York City. "My boss told me that I was a bad person who would never amount to anything. She used those exact words. All because I had put labels on bags in a slightly crooked way."

MORE: Get an Example of How to Use the ABCDE Method to Handle Your Boss

If your boss’s words make your stomach churn, take a step back, breathe and objectively try to evaluate the situation. It may turn out that your boss really is being unreasonable. “The most important thing about stress is that you cannot control other people’s behaviors,” said Pamela Perrewé, Ph.D., Professor of Management at Florida State University. If your boss is mean-spirited, it helps to separate yourself from the situation and know their behavior is not your fault, Dr. Perrewé said.

THE "IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES" BOSS

If a boss fundamentally clashes with personal values, some people reach their breaking point and have to quit.

“He seemed cool at first,” Jayne* said about her male boss at a female-oriented business. Jayne’s boss turned out to be a jerk. Her stress levels surged, and she used uncontrollable eating as a means of dealing with it.

MORE: Is Work Affecting Your Relationships?

Jayne recently left her job because of their differences. "The irony of being afraid of my male boss, who runs a female-empowered business, was too much to bear," she said.

HOW TO DEAL

No matter what kind of boss you have (there's also the oversharing BFF boss, the passive-aggressive boss and many more), you can take control. In most cases, you can work through your work stress by developing “political skill,” which actually encompasses many skills, like reading body language and networking with others who can help you get the results you’re seeking. The political skill construct has been recently measured by Dr. Gerarld Ferris, and was introduced over two decades ago by researchers Mintzberg and Pfeffer.

Finding a great mentor can teach you how to be more assertive with your boss. A good mentor might also encourage you to self-promote, a tactic that some women have a difficult time doing. Research shows that strengthening these skills can literally save your body from intense stress.

QUIZ: Take the Stress Quiz to See if Work is Stressing You

In a study by Perrewé and colleagues, managers who had political skill saw their work environment as less stressful, and could handle stress more effectively when it did arise. Political skill actually decreased the subjects’ physiological stress from work conflict, in the form of lower blood pressure and heart rate. So even if you’re in a position of power such as the managers in this study, being politically savvy can aid you in any work conflict.

Or you could always take out your frustration on a fax machine, a la "Office Space."

THE TRUTH ABOUT BROWN NOSING

So should you suck up? Not quite.

Research shows that little favors and flattery (ingratiation) can help reduce stress in the workplace, only if you’re politically savvy as well, a five-year survey of 215 employees found.

In other words, you have to know the right time and place to try enhancing your work relationship. It’s OK to let your boss dish about their personal life a bit, if you genuinely care and won’t spread the gossip to other co-workers. (Remembering your boss’s favorite coffee won’t hurt either, if you aren’t just doing it to score points!)

All in all, if you master being politically savvy, your genuine concern for bettering the work environment can shine through, and your co-workers will respond favorably to you as a result. Managing work stress and feeling in control can keep your blood pressure down, a smile on your face and your eating habits healthy.

*Names have been changed.

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