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Unreasonable Boss? 8 Ways to Honor Yourself in a Toxic Workplace

“Good bosses care about getting important things done. Exceptional bosses care about their people.” ~Jeff Haden

“I’ll need you to log your work down to the minute on this spreadsheet,” she said pointing to my computer where an elaborate timesheet was swallowing up my entire screen.

I looked up at her, confused—nope, more like utterly stunned. Was she for real? My body seemed to know before my mind that I’d just entered some sort of workplace twilight zone.

I had a sinking feeling in my gut, and it was sounding some sort of alarm deep in my chest, making my heart do somersaults. She was serious. Clearly the shock was holding my throat hostage because all I could muster was a single word…

“Okay,” I replied quietly, and off she went, oblivious to the impact her passive aggressive requests were having on me.

I had just returned to work from maternity leave, and with three children aged six and under at home, I needed some flexibility in my work schedule.

I was clocking in while it was still dark outside, long before anyone else so I could get home to my little ones with enough time for quality cuddles before tucking them in for the night.

I was trying to achieve motherhood level 100 while still trying to conquer my career. Did I mention I was also pursuing my second master’s degree? Yes, I was on a mission to prove that I could still do it all.

Of course, I knew “doing it all” was the age-old battle of every modern woman trying to be equal parts supermum and Sheryl Sandberg, but despite my husband’s very real concerns, I was doing it all.

In fact, I was working harder, longer, and smarter than most people in my department because, like most mothers returning to work, I had that unshakable guilt inside telling me that I had to prove I was bringing my very best and not taking advantage of my “mum status.”

So when my new line manager insisted on tracking my every move, decision, and waking moment I was utterly confused. I mean, there I was, delivering the project deliverables and meeting each and every deadline, and her biggest worry was that she wasn’t squeezing every possible work minute out of me?

So, I did what so many of us do to prove our value to a superior: I went above and beyond to show her I was worthy of my pay no matter what it took. But the more I gave, the more she pushed, until finally, late one night, after yet another night of venting to my poor, put-upon husband, I found myself sprawled out on my living room floor, no longer able to hold back the tears.

I was broken like a shattered glass. I realized that I had allowed her constant micromanaging to bring me to the brink, and that no matter what I did, she was never going to stop.

My health was suffering. My relationships were suffering. I was suffering. I went from optimistic, happy, and loving my job to moody, stressed, and miserable. I dreaded going into this space where I never felt good enough.

Work had begun to feel like a torture chamber. A place where the person charged with helping me succeed at my job was slowly but methodically chipping away at my confidence, and it was spilling over into my personal life.

I finally accepted the reality: I had allowed her actions to steal my joy, and it was breaking my heart with every passing day. I felt so defeated.

It became very clear to me that she didn’t seem to trust me, and seemed to like me even less. I was at a loss for what to do, but I knew that I couldn’t survive in this environment for much longer, so I had to figure something out.

I went on a mission to remove the poison that had engulfed my workplace experience and bring the light back into my life. Because the truth was that in that moment I couldn’t leave my job. For now, at least, I had to deal with her and I had to find a way to cope, no matter what.

So I went on a journey to figure out what I could do to honor myself and my happiness, because as far as I was concerned, suffering was completely optional.

I had a family that needed me to get back to the old me. And frankly, I needed that too. I needed to survive my unreasonable boss. I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you have your own unreasonable boss whose overwhelming negative energy is causing problems in your life.

I’m here to share with you the eight tools I used to get through one of the hardest times in my life so you can conquer your own “horrible boss.”

1. Find your community and ask for help.

 Dealing with an unreasonable boss sometimes takes an army, or in my case a community, to survive.

The truth is with any toxic relationship, whether it’s your boss or someone else, you go through a period of wondering, “Wait, am I just absolutely crazy that I feel this way? Is it all in my head? Am I silly for letting this mess with my emotions?”

I needed someone to give me perspective. Someone safe who would give me the space to explore, without judgment, what I was feeling–an objective observer who could reflect back to me what I was really experiencing.

What’s interesting is that even when you feel all alone, you’ll often find that you’re still surrounded by amazing people willing to help you weather the storm. I found that safety net in friends, family, and colleagues, in and outside of work, who were all willing to lend an ear.

They were quite incredible really, offering advice and helping me figure out where things may have gone wrong. They allowed me to express my anger, frustration, and even let me cry. More than anything, though, they were objective and honest with me, gently leading me toward making the right moves for dealing with my boss.

In their own unique ways, all of these people were empathetic and supportive. They were the break in the ocean keeping these waves of intensity from knocking me out cold.

If you are at a loss for whom to turn toward, though, you can always turn inward. Journal about what you’re experiencing. Journaling often allows us to work through our issues on the page. And, of course, there are always tons of wonderful mental health professionals who can help give you a safe space to talk.

2. Make relaxing rituals a part of your “job.”

 Being in a workplace with such high-pressure demands meant I was under a lot of stress. Sadly, there were days that I found myself bringing my boss’s energy home with me. The conflicts of the day ran wild through my mind, and the fear of not meeting my boss’s demands left me in constant flight or fight mode.

My anxiety was high. I knew that I needed to create rituals that would help me break away from work and make my free time mine again. Because here’s the thing: Our wind-down time is when our minds and bodies recalibrate and restore, which is especially important when you’ve spent eight hours in a toxic work environment.

In fact, I came to think of relaxing as a part of my job like meeting a deadline or completing a daily task. Because relaxation can do so much for honoring your health, including lowering blood pressure and heart rate, reducing anxiety, and improving mild depression.

For me, a long warm bath was my me-time. But relaxation can come in so many forms: reading, yoga, a brisk walk, listening to your favorite Adele tune, watching a hilarious comedy, meditation, mindfulness, T’ai Chi, Chi Kung, or even spending time laughing with loved ones.

Whatever it is, make it a big part of your self-care routine, and you’ll start to preserve your sanity in the midst of your workplace chaos.

3. Let physical activity soothe and re-energize you.

While I was dealing with my manager, there was one thing that helped me release all of the extra adrenaline I had running through my body: running. Throwing on my sneakers and hitting a long path lined with big, beautiful trees was one of my favorite things to do. Not only was it another form of relaxing me-time, it released the endorphins that I was desperately in need of at this time.

Endorphins are feel-good hormones, released through physical activity, that elevate our moods. Hacking into your happy chemicals with exercise is an incredible way to combat a stressful work environment.

Physical activity can be any number of things: dancing, trampoline jumping, cycling, baseball, skateboarding, or just simply going for a run. If you can find a community to do this with, like a team or running group, even better!

4. Focus on the big picture of abundance.

It’s true that the little things remind us how insignificant some of the tougher things in our lives are.

Have you ever stared out at the stars on a quiet night and for a brief moment remembered how truly tiny you are in this great big universe? It’s in those moments that we’re reminded that the harmful energy of one bad boss, in the grand scheme of things, is really insignificant.

We realize that it’s only a blip in our long lives on this earth, and that knowledge and perspective brought me peace.

Finding these types of moments in our lives is so crucial. It can be found in so many unexpected places and moments. For me, I found it with my loved ones—my wonderful husband, six-year-old giggly daughter, four-year-old full-of-beans son, and two-year-old love-bug baby girl. They all kept me busy and grounded and reminded me that work was such a small part of this amazing life I was leading.

There were other parts of my life that deserved my attention and energy as well, and that reminder helped me re-center over and over again.

There are so many things that can bring these awe-inspiring moments fully into focus during a difficult work phase in your life: volunteering with those less fortunate; creative outlets like painting, sewing, or cooking, camping; or any activity that brings you into nature. These are not only distractions from a difficult work environment, but also reminders that life is fun, beautiful, and worthy of your attention.

5. Feed your calm, not your stress.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive, micro-managing boss meant not only dealing with a lot of stress, but also with tons of anxiety. And with lots of anxiety, sometimes my automatic reaction was to self-soothe with Ben & Jerry’s.

Yes, I know we’ve all been there, that point of utter disappointment where all we can think to do is dive headfirst into the cookie jar.

This is where being a health professional helps. I knew using food to manage my stress and deal with my emotional issues would be a slippery slope. On top of that, foods like ice cream and cookies would only make my plummeting moods worse.

Here’s the thing: a sugary snack or baked goodie will send your blood sugar on a wild rollercoaster, which will further negatively affect your stress, anxiety, and depression. I was already dealing with one mood-enhancing rollercoaster (my boss!) I didn’t need to make things worse with my diet.

I made a plan to eat in a way that supported my stress relief by eating foods that kept my blood sugar on an even keel. I incorporated whole grain products like brown rice, protein, and berries, and avoided stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, which could make mood swings worse.

I also increased my omega-3 intake, which has been proven to reduce feelings of sadness, pessimism, indifference, sleeplessness, and low libido. You can find omega-3s in some pretty yummy foods like seafood, walnuts, flaxseed, and leafy green vegetables.

6. Worship at the altar of sleep, because it’s sacred.

With three kids, and a fourth in the form of a grouchy boss, I spent many sleepless nights stressed out. My mind would be constantly racing. The more I lost sleep, the worse things would be for me the next day.

I grew more and more irritable and angry, and was just plain exhausted, which meant going to work the next morning to face my boss was getting more difficult.

Lack of sleep meant my filters were down, and my ability to balance my mood was completely compromised. Basically, no sleep = falling into a spiral of self-loathing even at the smallest criticism from a difficult boss.

“Switching off” the stress to get a good night’s sleep can be difficult, but making it a priority can make the difference between a good day or a bad day at work.

A few things that help include trying to keep a regular sleep cycle (sleeping and waking at the same time every day) and avoiding stimulating activities before bed like TV, tablets, computers, or phones. The light given off by these devices suppress melatonin, which supports sleep.

You can also include a night-time routine that helps you get into a relaxed state, like an end of day warm bath, a massage from your partner, aromatherapy, or a night-time meditation that lets you release tension.

7. Take a step back and handle what’s yours.

When we’re in a difficult circumstance like I was with my boss, we can spend a lot of time in our heads trying to figure it all out. I would always wonder, “Did I do something to cause this? Could I have done something differently?”

The reality was that I could keep spinning my wheels trying to figure it out, but not everything was in my control. I learned to take a step back, reflect, and objectively look at the situation. I identified the real stressors I was facing, and then I went about the business of figuring out what was in my control and what wasn’t.

What wasn’t in my control I accepted and tried my best to let go of, but what was in my control I approached head on.

I looked at whether or not my coping strategies were effective and whether any strategies from past experiences could be modified to fit this situation. I also kept a close eye on my self-talk. It’s so incredibly easy to fall into negative self-talk, but I made it my mission to be kind to myself. I gave myself plenty of positive pep talks and pats on the back for any small victory. Make sure that you are doing the same to help combat stressful situations.

8. Make the right moves, confidently. 

Ultimately, your happiness and health should always at the top of your priority list. If you can’t deal with the situation with your difficult boss using any of the above, then it’s time to deal with the problem in the healthiest way possible.

In my case, I did everything I could to remedy the situation on my own, by explaining to my boss the impact her behavior was having on me and by going through grievance channels at work, which meant mediation with my boss through Human Resources, for example. But in the end, I knew that staying in the situation was causing too much harm.

When the opportunity came up to take voluntary redundancy, I jumped at it, and I spent some time with my family while I figured out my next steps. Building an exit strategy that puts you first is always something to applaud. Sometimes, the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves doesn’t look like the most practical, but it’ll save us years of heartache, stress, and ultimately, bad health.

These eight strategies helped me move through a toxic environment with a little more ease. What I came to find out, though, was that my boss was dealing with some of her own stress that she was bringing to the workplace. She was projecting her personal problems onto me, the mother with three children who seemed to “have it all.”

She was roping me into carrying the burden of her issues in these micro-aggressions of control she was laying on me. Because of this, the truth is, I was never going to win her over, and I’d venture to guess that whatever is pushing your boss to keep you down is something you may never be able to fix either. Just remember that you are not required to carry someone else’s baggage.

Your health matters, which is why I hope these tips help you find peace and health on your journey.

About Leah de Souza-Thomas

Leah de Souza-Thomas BSc MSc MPH is a health and wellness specialist who supports people to move back from the brink of a health crisis. She does this by implementing research backed strategies and techniques that deliver instinctive, effortless, and permanent lifestyle change and as a result improved health. Download Leah’s “5 Easy Ways to Prevent Your Next Health Crisis" here.

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  • Tanya

    Excellent read….i relate to it so so much that at times it felt like you were reading my mind aloud! Many of it my hubby has been telling me too…im still trying to deal with the toxic effect but I’m also trying to move my focus! Thank u

  • Leah

    You are so welcome Tanya. I’m so happy that you found it useful. Stay focused on your end goal and remember to take care of yourself…first.

  • Iman

    Brilliant article and very well written! Some great tips here!!

  • Nikki Tanyika Lewis

    This is such a good piece. So many people struggle with toxic work environments like this. I love the perspective of not taking it personally because the boss may be creating a negative environment based on her own personal issues. These tips will help many.

  • Hey, Leah!
    I would hear about toxic bosses from my friends who started work early and it seems like their bosses didn’t know what Work-Life Balance meant. I made sure never to tolerate anything like that or be like that in the future.
    Now, as somebody who is self-employed, I make sure that our managers or department heads give the employees under them a reasonable amount of work per day.
    I also allow them proper leave from work.
    I do hope I’m doing a great job. Most managers I hear seem to not treat their employees like humans. I want to avoid that.

  • Leah

    Thank you Iman!

  • Leah

    Hi Nicah! Sadly I think you are an exception, and from what you’ve said it sounds like you’re heading in the right direction. It would be phenomenal if more bosses recognised what you clearly do – that their employees are people and want to be treated as such. What’s the old saying – “treat others as you would wish to be treated”. If you haven’t already seen it, check out Jeff Weiner’s Super Soul Sunday episode he shares some amazing tips on compassionate leadership, it’s well worth watching.

  • Leah

    Thank you Nikki, I hope they do help.

  • TBR

    Thank you for sharing your story, its effect and your coping mechanisms. I had gone through something similar, where the boss had a chronic pattern of treating past and present people who reported to him in awful ways that range from micromanaging to screaming at his target in public to taking credit for others’ achievement and demeaning people’s skills/intellect. I have struggled with the decision I ultimately took, resigning from my post without a job lined up – even though I had tried for about 2 years to find another job. In the back of my mind, I know that my decision to leave that toxic work environment was the most mature, strong, and kind decision I made for me. However, here and there negative thoughts creep in. And so, reading your piece and specifically your closing statement, I believe helps me to let go of the ever present thought of “did I leave too soon and did that make me weak?”; and, redirect my mind to focus on acknowledging how I stood up for myself in a mature, kind and courageous way. Thank you!

  • Leah

    Hi TBR! I’m so glad that my story helped you. Making that decision is tough. But what taking action like that does for your mental wellbeing is invaluable and you’re worth it. So pleased that you have been able to focus on the positives.

  • LS

    Thank you for this wonderful post!! I am in the midst of leaving a passive aggressive micromanager, in exchange for a pay-cut in a temporary position. This reassures my decision for choosing personal health over trying to make it work. What particularly resonates with me is “the period of feeling crazy”. When describing the words and actions of a passive-aggressive person, they sound silly almost. Similar to describing a nightmare about an ordinary object that in a dream takes on a terrifying quality! It is difficult to relay the negative effects and intentions behind such small incidences and you truly start to wonder if you’re losing your mind. I hope your writing reaches many others dealing with these toxic environments, and encourages them to put themselves first

  • W.T.

    I had a horrible history of toxic work environments. I heard Iyanla say that sometimes you’re put in a situation to find your “no”. I finally did in my last job. It was a disgusting, toxic, oppressive environment with no integrity, leadership or ability to appreciate excellence. My boss was vindictive and abusive. I finally said “No” calmly and confidently. I was fired a month after standing up to her. It took a while, but I landed a great job at a respected organization. My department is smart and compassionate. My boss is very smart, fair and caring. I just had my review and it went very well. I feel valued. Sometimes you just have to leave or get fired, i.e. be released. Coping skills are great. I had to do that for a long time. But once I recognized my pattern, and said no, everything changed. I wish everyone in this situation strength and clarity on next steps.

  • Leah

    Hi LS, thank you for your kind words about my post and I’m so glad you are no longer doubting yourself, that you’re reassured by your decision and putting yourself first. All the very best to you.

  • Leah

    Thank you W.T. for sharing the importance of saying “No”. The immediate aftermath may not be or feel that good, but with time and with renewed positivity great things can happen. I’m so glad you’re in a much better place now. And thank you for reminding us of Iyanla’s quote.

  • Great article and some really useful tips here. I used a lot of these without realizing it when I was working in a very stressful environment. I used to listen to comedy on the way to and from work – a distraction, something to look forward to, and it gave me much-needed perspective. It took me a while to realize that your health is more important than any job.

  • Leah

    Thank you Claire. It’s great that you found positive ways of dealing with your stressful work situation and most importantly now value your health more.