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A Bad Employer Can Be Bad for Your Mental Health

New research reaffirms the suspicion that bullied underlings are depressed, unsatisfied underlings.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: TheMuuj/Flickr)

Despite a number of stories in recent years on the consequences of domineering, psychotic, or otherwise lousy bosses, there remains quite a lot to learn about the consequences of terrible supervisors on their employees. But, finally, we’re starting to get a clearer picture: A new report confirms that psychopathic and narcissistic bosses really are bad for business.

Lots of people have had horrible bosses (there’s even a movie about it). The topic has received a good bit of attention lately, particularly with regard to the health effects of malevolent managers: They may be making us sad, lazy, and fat; messing with our family dynamics and raising our risk of heart disease; and generally causing us to be less productive and happy. But that evidence is largely preliminary, a 2012 review argued, because of a series of methodological limitations present in most published studies on “business psychopathy.”

In response, Abigail Phillips, David Hughes, and their colleagues at Alliance Manchester Business School recruited a total of 1,200 workers through a professional networking website. The researchers asked the participants about their job satisfaction and mental health, along with a description of their bosses—specifically, whether the employers displayed characteristic signs of psychopathy and narcissism, and how they behaved toward those they were supposed to be supervising.

Unsurprisingly, narcissistic and psychopathic managers were more depressed—in the clinical sense—and less productive employees, according to an analysis Phillips is presenting at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology’s Annual Conference in Liverpool, England.

But the more interesting finding, Phillips, Hughes, and their colleagues report, is the role managers’ actual behavior (as opposed to their psychological make-up) plays: Not only are psychopaths and narcissists more likely to bully their employees, but that bullying is a “major mechanism through which the effects of dark traits are transmitted,” the researchers write.

Curiously, when the team looked at psychopathy and narcissism at the same time, only the former seemed to matter, “suggesting that the aspects of narcissism related to employee outcomes considered are those that overlap with psychopathy,” the researchers write.

In particular, superiors perceived to be manipulative or callous accounted for much of the variance in employees’ experiences, consistent with the idea that those specific traits form the core of the so-called Dark Triad—psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.