11 ways to deal with the boss from hell

The archetypal boss from hell can make you feel stressed and helpless. Follow these simple tips to take back control and make your workplace your own.

What makes someone the boss from hell?

The boss from hell is someone who abuses his or her position to make you feel powerless. Some of the most commonly reported complaints from employees are that their boss:

  • Does not make clear what he or she wants them to do, or is hopelessly indecisive.
  • Gives them too much work, micromanages or expects perfection.
  • Does not give feedback or gives only negative feedback.
  • Humiliates or embarrasses them, sometimes in front of colleagues.
  • Speaks to or touches them inappropriately.

Why a bad boss causes stress

An ongoing series of studies of UK civil servants, The Whitehall Studies, found that “people in jobs characterised by low control had higher rates of sickness absence, mental illness, heart disease and pain in the lower back”.

The medical community now recognises that a lack of autonomy is often key to why people feel stressed at work; those in managerial positions generally report lower stress levels than more junior workers.

So how can you take back control if you’re stuck with the boss from hell?

1. Rise above it

Confronted with negative events or people that are outside of our control, it’s easy to feel victimised. The one thing we may be able to change, however, is our attitude. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Maybe your boss also has a boss from hell – in which case their behaviour may be nothing personal. Try not to overreact. Remain calm and do your job to the best of your ability.

2. Don’t argue

Never argue – you won’t win and you’ll just get more stressed. By remaining calm, you’ll hold the moral high ground and counteract your “victim” status. Bear in mind that your boss might move on or go on maternity leave, so the situation may not last and could end up being to your advantage

3. Share your concerns

Bottling up your feelings will just make you more stressed and can lead to a spiral of anxiety and worry. Try talking to a trusted colleague about your concerns – you may find that others are in a similar position. If there is no one at work, try to create a support network among friends and family.

4. Don’t self-medicate

Resist drinking, smoking too much or taking drugs to calm you down. This will not only likely worsen your stress levels but could also damage your health. Create your own switching-off mechanisms from the boss from hell like meeting friends, going to the cinema or getting some exercise – great for working off inner tension.

You can take our stress tests to help find therapies to alleviate stress, and you can also try our 6 quick therapies for stress.

5. Keep a diary

Keeping a diary is another way to let off some of the tension you may be feeling. Plus, if you try to tackle the problem, it will be useful to have precise examples of your boss’s behaviour. Include dates and names of witnesses.

6. Use email

Don’t be afraid to email your boss if he or she isn’t explaining tasks clearly or keeps changing his or her mind. Outline politely what you think you are supposed to be doing and ask for confirmation. Putting things in writing often works better than just speaking. And remember, emails could be a useful written record if you ever do take your complaint a step further.

7. Speak to your boss

If you are confident enough, you may find speaking to your boss could help. Try and express your feelings in the first person. Instead of saying, “You never explain clearly what you want me to do”, use the more immediate-sounding, “I am concerned because I don’t understand what exactly I am expected to do”. Bullies often back down when they’re challenged.

8. And visualise it going well…

Executive coach Fran Moscow, director of FM Consultancy, suggests thinking back to a past success before going into a tough conversation. Think about how you achieved this success, rehearse the forthcoming conversation in your head and visualise a positive outcome.

“Ask a friend or a partner to ask you any difficult questions that can come at you from left field,” adds Moscow. It’s also important to listen to how the boss talks. “Is he or she a ‘detail person’? If so, respond with detail. If their eyes glaze over when you give information, you will frustrate them; learn to respond with bullet points if applicable.”

9. Seek help internally

If your company has a HR department or healthcare scheme, you should be able to speak to someone in confidence. Again, emails, notes of events, times and witnesses will put you in the driving seat. Colleagues may have taken similar action without you knowing and it could lead to your boss being disciplined or even sacked.

10. Take it a step further

If your boss has been treating you unfairly, you may have legal grounds for compensation. Your written evidence will be essential if you decide to take things further and you should seek professional advice. The following organisations are well placed to help:

11. Move on

If things show no signs of improving, it might be worth considering a change of company. Sometimes, even just looking for another job will you to feel that you are exercising some sort of control.

Hilly Janes

About Hilly Janes

Hilly Janes is an award-winning former health editor at The Times. She has 20 years' experience on national newspapers and magazines and is the author of Latte or Cappuccino? 125 Decisions That Will Change Your Life (Michael O’Mara Books, 2012).

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