Job Stress: Working for a Mentally Ill Supervisor

The absence of identified illness does not guarantee health, happiness, success or satisfaction in life. The presence of it, however, can render any workplace intolerable.

Most clinicians, in their day-to-day contact with people who come for help, hear a great deal about work problems. Rarely are the issues related to the specific type of work. Most commonly, the depression and stress is being caused, at least in the eyes of the patient/client, by an immediate supervisor who they feel is treating them disrespectfully and unfairly. Since the job and skills of the therapist do not include changing someone who is not in the office, the focus is on helping the person cope as best they can with the situation.

Having been an employee in many situations over the years and having heard from hundreds upon hundreds of my own clients, friends and colleagues about problems they are experiencing in the workplace, it seems reasonable to accept the fact that there are supervisors and managers who have significant mental health issues of their own who are, deliberately or inadvertently, causing hurt and damage to those they are responsible for supervising. There is really no social or legal control of this phenomenon. Employees with high resilience can do OK with a mentally ill supervisor while those with compromised resiliency (the ability to bounce back from a bad situation or experience) can be driven out of their jobs and/or into mental health clinics with their self-esteem deeply demolished.

The most common mental health issues a supervisor can manifest that are apt to cause trauma to his/her staff are 1) The presence of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (“I am right all of the time. You are ALWAYS wrong. If you disagree with me, there is something wrong with YOU.”); 2) Insecurities that manifest themselves as ‘control’ issues where the employee is micro-managed beyond the point of casual irritation; 3) Too much power in the hands of a person with too little knowledge or real skill. Most people find it difficult to report to a person who they believe is less competent than they themselves are, and 4) Depression or anxiety that cause the supervisor’s actions, reactions and judgment to be skewed in a way that makes the jobs of the people who report to them distracting, unpredictable or disruptive.

Job stress can be caused by many different things, but the actions of a mentally ill supervisor are certainly among them.

The stress created in a worker’s life by working for a supervisor who seems to fit into one or more of those groups tends to spread beyond the workplace and into all other aspects of the worker’s life. The stress and discomfort of job stress can, literally, metastasize like a cancer and invade all other areas of life.

Relationships at home, with friends get disrupted. The ability to enjoy recreational activities becomes compromised. Sleep and appetite can be impacted. In short, job stress driven by the actions of a mentally ill supervisor can push a worker in the direction of developing a depressive or anxiety disorder of their own!

It is no joke. Clearly, a key responsibility of senior management is to monitor for and be alert to the variables that the styles and conditions of their middle managers bring to the workplace.

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