It likely comes as no surprise that work can cause significant amounts of stress. What may be slightly more surprising is learning that your boss may be intentionally causing your stress for their own gain.
While strategies such as positive reinforcement and praise may come to mind when you think of how a leader should inspire the best work from their team members, some bosses take an opposite approach. Instead of boosting the confidence of their employees, they create an environment wherein their team feels uncertain of themselves so that they work harder to change their boss’s perception. Here are five signs that your boss is intentionally triggering your anxiety:
1. They keep you in suspense.
One tactic that some bosses use to activate anxiety in their employees is intentionally keeping them in suspense. They may tell email you on Friday to let you know they want to meet with you on Monday to cause you to cycle through potential reasons over the weekend. They may wait until the last minute to respond to requests you’ve made to use PTO. By making you feel off-balance for extended periods of time, they remind you that they have the power in the hopes of awakening feelings of helplessness. Breaking you down will, in their mind, make you more likely to gain their approval and less likely to stand up for yourself or create boundaries with them.
2. You aren’t being promoted.
Promotions suggest that your employer notices your hard work and wants to reward you for it. Being locked in at one level without being elevated despite being qualified and hardworking may be a sign that your boss wants to keep you from feeling secure. By insinuating that you’re incapable of rising to a new level, they hope that you’ll keep overworking yourself to change their mind.
3. They often criticize but seldom praise you.
Constructive criticism can be healthy, but being incessantly criticized without being told how to correct your mistakes is toxic. Bosses who want to induce anxiety in their employees may work to sow seeds of inadequacy in them by preying on their insecurities. Letting employees know where they fall short without letting them know where they excel or giving them feedback on how to improve can keep them playing their insecurities on a loop.
4. They attempt to pit you against coworkers.
The workplace shouldn’t feel like Survivor episode. Bosses who instigate rivalries between coworkers or make unnecessary comparisons between employees can create friction. Employers who talk up employees in a way that makes others feel inferior may be doing so to put others into overdrive. This tactic can also lead to having a hostile environment where everyone feels uneasy about their place, so they push themselves harder to protect their position.
5. You’ve been shamed for using PTO.
Taking PTO should never feel like you’re doing something wrong—it’s supposed to be a benefit, after all. If you’ve ever requested to use vacation days or sick days only to be met with derision, your boss is likely trying to stir up feelings of anxiety. Reminding you of deadlines or bringing up other coworkers who don’t take vacations can be phrases used to indicate that you shouldn’t take time off.
If you’ve noticed that your company exhibits one or many of these behaviors, it may be time to spruce up your resume and start looking for a new job. Until then, remember that your worth is greater than how your boss treats you, and if you’re being treated unfairly, that says more about your boss than it says about you.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.