Dealing With A Toxic Boss

This is a HTHT submission about a toxic boss from an anonymous Zula reader.

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“Here’s a little something to thank you all for your hard work over the past year,” my boss said with a smile as he handed us all brand spanking new Apple accessories. In shock, we thanked him and looked at the gifts in our hands.

To many, this might sound like an amazing workplace, with your hard work rewarded and acknowledged by the owner of the company. But to me, it was bribery and blackmail.

In the beginning, I found my boss’ extravagant gifts and expensive team lunches to be some of the merits of working at the company. But over time, I began to resent them. I knew these were superficial fixes to atone for consistently overworking the team. I’ve come to realise that office perks do not define a ‘positive team culture’ or ‘build a family’, as my boss claims.

Is it all in my head?

After grappling with constant anger and anxiety, I needed to look at some hard facts to assess if I was indeed overworked or if it was simply in my own head.

I began recording the amount of hours I spent at work. It was 59 hours this week, 58 the last. These hours exceed the Ministry of Manpower’s 44 contractual hours a week, on a regular basis.

This Chinese New Year and last, I spent every single day of the “long weekend” attending to “urgent requests”.

“I’m sorry you had to work over the weekend,” was the email I received.

I’m a married woman with a family to take care of, as well as two sets of parents to cook and “clean house” for. I broke down while commuting from one house to the other, cracking under the sheer weight of work-life expectations, and my failure as a daughter and wife.

Working through weekends, waking up at 6am and continuing into the wee hours of the morning…I reached my breaking point after putting up with it for over a year. I’ve struggled to control my anger when my boss drops us cursory text messages to say “good job”. My standard response was initially, “haha no worries”.

Friends and family ask, “But does he acknowledge that you are working hard?” Yes, he does. Then what’s the issue? Acknowledging that I work hard and sacrifice my personal time for his company only makes me angrier. This means he is aware of what he is demanding from me, but believes that gifts or texts of appreciation will repair my emotional upheaval.

Following these messages, he often delegates new tasks to me. Ultimately, I feel stuck in an endless cycle of tasks. Try as I might, I can never break the surface for air.

Painting the perfect picture

Over the past 5 years, I’ve seen many colleagues leave. I’ve seen new hires come in and quit within a month, many stating that it was just too much for them to handle. Some even lamented that this “team culture”, which was sold to them during their interviews with my boss, was in fact false. I’ve begun to understand where they were coming from, removing my blinders of loyalty that I kept on for many years to try and support my boss and his company. 

I too was lied to at my interview. Not just about the team culture, but about the expectations and work hours, the set-up and resources that the company had. And, to tie all this together, the assurances that my boss was highly engaged with our work due to the company being very lean. 

So I have open conversations with my boss, where I detail my workload and concerns as a senior manager. For myself, and the team. We are a small company, with 3 working level staff and him, the owner and CEO. 

I try to explain to him how every business relishes the idea of generating mountains of revenue, but this needs to be measured against the existing workload and capabilities of the team.

He listens and nods, but that’s where it ends. We have this conversation regularly, around twice a month at least. Within that same day, he is likely to ask us to take on a new client or project. A few times he has told me, “Just be glad you guys even have a job.”

Those are the moments where his “good boss” persona crumbles completely. 

Also read:

Millennial Burnout Is Always Feeling Tired But Still Needing To Hustle All The Time

Burning the team out on the way to the bank

Since the day I joined, my boss has sworn at us in company group chats for underperforming (often due to sheer exhaustion). He also texts us privately on WhatsApp at all times to tell us off, no evening or weekend is off limits. I began to live in a state of fear and loathing, dreading the next text I’d receive from him while I was trying to spend time with my family.

Throughout the COVID-19 period, he often reminds us that many people are unemployed. And, as much work as we have on our plates, it’s better than being jobless. It’s given many of us extra anxiety and built even more resentment, as we feel increasingly buried in work while trying to grapple with the current circumstances. A few colleagues quit their job amidst the pandemic immediately after his tirades, leaving the rest of us to deal with the fallout; although I can’t blame them for taking that step to look after their own sanity.

Company leaders need to run the business with sustainability in mind. This ecosystem encompasses their employees, clients, partners, industry knowledge, and branding, amongst many things. To me, the strength of your employees will bolster all the other aspects and allow the business to grow with a strong foundation. This also helps with staff retention, the transfer of knowledge and expertise within the team, and ultimately, the long-term success of the company.

For a boss who is unable to see that, and has 3 elves working for his company without respite, true growth isn’t on the cards.

Saying Goodbye To A Toxic Boss And Cutting The Cord

Many employees end up in a situation where we absolutely abhor our bosses. A text message, email or phone call from them immediately has us thrown into a state of anxiety and frustration. Not to mention, sometimes they deploy a multi-pronged technological attack at us with all or more. We are cornered and defeated, and yet we need to put on a happy face because we fear the repercussions. This is extremely damaging for our well-being.

Yes, the job market is difficult and many have lost their jobs. I’ve seen it first-hand as my siblings have been let go over the last year too. But then again, it’s always been difficult to land a good job and it is often a battle. It’s about keeping resilient, knowing what’s best for you and not letting your current situation defeat you.

Toxic workplaces that are led by self-important leadership will often remove your sense of drive and confidence, making it more difficult for you to fight for what’s right. You might recognise that you need to leave, but you’re either saddled with so much work or beaten down into submission, that you end up too tired to look for a job that doesn’t ruin your life on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

Draw the line, take a week of leave and switch off. Use that time to steel yourself and look for another job. Learn from your current situation about what works for you and what you will no longer accept.

That’s what I’m doing. I’m doing that with some of the gifts my boss gave me. And I feel not a shred of remorse for it.

Also read:

Why I Chose My Mental Health Over A “Stable” Job During Singapore’s Worst Recession