Stressed Workers stress their families

The caricatures of the worker coming home and kicking the dog after a bad day at the office aren’t far off the mark, it turns out.

New research has found that workers who have a run-in with the boss and lack a way to express emotion constructively, tend to punish the less powerful around them, whether Fido or family members.

Jenny Hoobler of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Daniel Brass at the University of Kentucky conducted a survey that shows subordinates who feel abused by their supervisors tend to express their frustrations at home rather than confront the supervisor. For their September, 2006 study on factors that contribute to abusive supervision and its effects, they surveyed 210 supervisors, subordinates and the subordinate’s family members drawn from a variety of industries, including service, retail, manufacturing, small business and government.

Abusive supervision includes ongoing hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors such as calling subordinates’ thoughts or feelings stupid, putting staff down in front of others, demeaning or belittling staff or invading their privacy. Supervisors who engage in destructive criticism or reduce employee status in other’s eyes damage staff.

When these aggressive behaviours occur, staff feel frustrated and stressed. Their self-esteem drops and they experience reduced work performance and increased psychological distress. They are less committed to their work and the organization.

The researchers report that when an employee experiences this kind of hostility from the boss, he does not confront him or her for fear of further punishment. Instead, the individual takes it out on family members through such behaviours as increased arguing. These interactions reduce or undermine family members’ self-worth, in fact mirroring how the victimized employee feels. Indeed, research has shown that when a husband is stressed at work, his wife’s own stress increases.

But the researchers found that supervisors who engage in aggressive practices may not be entirely to blame. The study noted that if bosses felt unfairly treated themselves, they tended to be more hostile with staff.

When the supervisor experiences a violation of his “psychological contract” with the organization, he may lash out. A psychological contract is an implicit set of assumptions about what an individual can expect from the organization as opposed to explicit explanations of what to expect on the job, as articulated in an employee handbook or orientation program. Psychological contracts are based on explicit or implicit promises made by the employer to which the employee then feels entitled.

An example of a psychological contract might occur when the supervisor believes that if she stays in a particular position for two years and does a good job, she’ll be promoted. If she is turned down, a breach of this informal or implicit “contract” could cause her to become hostile towards subordinates.

The authors noted that these betrayals—such as when a career path is outlined and the employee follows through but the employer doesn’t, cause a significant portion of people to quit an organization. Seventy-nine per cent of people who leave reported these kinds of violations as the reason. Fifty two per cent of people who stay also experience broken promises of this nature, putting the company at risk for sabotage, stealing or abusive supervisory practices.

If the supervisor feels betrayed, alienated or exploited by the organization because he was not given his due, he feels a sense of loss and injury. But it can be difficult to identify the perpetrator of the harm. And once someone is identified as having contributed to the betrayal, the risk of demotion or discipline reduces the chances of confronting the parties involved. Hence, the supervisor becomes aggressive toward those he can control – the staff.

Plus, these supervisors are most likely to be hostile toward staff if they feel their dissatisfaction is justified (poor staff work performance) and if the aggression bolsters the boss’s reputation for being tough.

This type of boss also has a personality trait that increases the likelihood that she’ll engage in abusive supervision—she tends to interpret other people’s behaviour as hostile, even though it may be benign. These bosses tend to blame others easily and are more likely to seek revenge when they believe that the perpetrator meant to do them harm.

Interpreting other people’s behaviour as aggressive when it is not and feeling betrayed by the company can combine to increase the likelihood of abusive interactions with staff.

Raising staff awareness of how hostile interactions can affect family life can help break this abusive chain reaction. But ensuring the organization is aware of the implicit promises it makes and keeps them is important. And if it can’t, the company must engage in a transparent process. Implicit contracts are especially hard to monitor because the item may not be official policy. If it looks like a supervisor, for example, is getting short shrift, the company should act quickly to remedy the supervisor’s concern.

Even if the supervisor or employee confronts the source of their consternation, the researchers noted that this does not end the tendency to lash out at the less powerful. So, preventing broken psychological contracts and disallowing hostile behaviour towards subordinates is a good way for the company to end an abusive chain of events that could end up on the family’s doorstep.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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