SUMMARY: Some wonder what to do if their boss has a mental illness or is acting in ways that are toxic to those around them. While bosses are also susceptible to mental health problems, the power imbalance makes some believe there is nothing they can do to intervene. In fact, there is a lot you can try.

What if the source of your stress at work is your boss? This is not an uncommon occurrence and in fact, it could be that your boss is struggling with their own mental health issues. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier for you, but there are things you can do to try to make your own situation better.

When your boss used to be okay

When the behaviour of your boss has changed to become challenging, the initial response should be the same as it would be for anyone you suspected was dealing with stress or illness. You might say, “You do not seem to be yourself lately. Are you feeling okay?”  This alone may cause your boss to recognize that they may not be coping as well as they should with their own issues. If the issue is a mental illness like depression or anxiety, we know that a lack of insight can be part of the health condition.

Even if there is no mental illness, chronic stress can lead to negative changes in our thoughts and behaviours of which we are not immediately aware. One boss went into a colleague’s office to say she was angry with one of her employees. The colleague said to her, “You seem to be angry with everyone lately.” This statement upset her, but the boss said that she came to realize it was true. She went to her doctor who said that there was nothing wrong with her, but she persisted in asking for testing. It turns out that rather than a mental health problem, she actually had a problem with her thyroid which also causes chemical changes that may result in negative thought processes. So, we may not know for sure what is causing someone to be unwell and to behave differently, but as caring human beings, asking about someone’s health is a way to help them seek the help they need.

If possible, provide examples of what has changed from their past positive state rather than their current negative state. For instance, rather than saying, “You are so miserable lately,” you might want to say, “You are not your usual cheery self,” or “You seem less energetic,” or “You had always been steady as a rock, even with all the stressors you have here at work.” By focusing on the positives that may be currently lacking, you provide perspective and hope that things can return to where they were before. The intention is to encourage and motivate your boss to reach out for help to become well again. In addition, you avoid the blaming and shaming that can arise when we accuse someone of being negative, critical or volatile.

Coach up and help your boss help you

If you are not successful in helping your boss look into his or her health or well-being, there are a few more things you might try to reduce the stress they may be causing you. In the following video, a conversation is outlined by Mary Ann Baynton about “coaching up,” which is helping your supervisor help you to do your job successfully.

Supervisor Support
Helping Your Supervisor Help You

Approaches to try if your boss is…

Sometimes improving our understanding about diverse personalities or management styles allows us to work for people very different than us. Below are several descriptions of types of bosses. Find the one(s) that most closely resemble the challenges you are facing and see if the approaches to try might be helpful.

Can be overly emotional, volatile, intense, intimidating, unpredictable, reactionary or even bullying.
Approaches to try: Stay calm and resist responding until they are calmed down again. Often with individuals like this, their stress levels are high, and any unwelcome or unexpected response can make the situation worse. Once they are calm you can try to clarify any expectations they have for you.

Rarely trusts anyone to do anything right, feels that employees or upper management will let them down or are out to get them.
Approaches to try: Do not challenge or question them. Provide ample information about your work whenever asked. Do not take risks or try things without getting permission first.  

Risk Averse
Usually afraid of being judged or criticized so may be afraid of taking even reasonable chances. May avoid change and want to explore ideas extensively before they are ready to take action.
Approaches to try: Slow down and stick to the procedures and responsibilities given to you in training. Point out any risks associated with not doing things differently if you want to influence change.

Brick Wall
Seems hard to read and not very social. Does not demonstrate empathy or emotion. Only communicates when necessary and even then, it is quite limited.
Approaches to try: Sometimes this type prefers written communication to allow them time to think about and articulate their response. Try to give them space and limit any spontaneous communication if possible. Resist confrontation.

Hot and Cold 
This type may act like they are agreeable to your face, but then may go against you behind your back. They may have a difficult time simply stating their opinion, so they avoid conflict by seeming to get along while quietly resisting or even sabotaging things they don’t like by dragging their feet or not doing as they said.
Approaches to try: Don’t argue or debate with them.  Ask what they want and how they want it. Do not assume that they agree or will provide you with support when needed. 

This type may act like it is always all about them and that this is how it should be. They do not react well to criticism and rarely will admit to making a mistake.
Approaches to try: Flattery usually works well and conversely you will probably regret ever questioning or blaming them for anything that goes wrong. Simply state the issue you have and seek their wise counsel on how you might solve it.

May seem to enjoy being the center of attention or may focus their attention only for a short period of time on any one thing before they are excited or upset about something else. 
Approaches to try: Pay attention when they are in front of you and let them have the floor. Resist giving any advice or taking focus away from them. 

This leader could have many strange, unreasonable, or impractical ideas. Their visions could be impossible to execute, or they may not communicate them well.
Approaches to try: Try to understand the intended outcome of their ideas and look for ways to help get to that result. If the ideas involve you, ask what is specifically required to you and how they will measure success so that you know your part is being done well, even if the rest is not.

This type is probably motivated by fear of being judged or criticized themselves, so they worry obsessively about most details of the work that anyone is doing for them. Their demands may seem impossible or they may slow you down by wanting to be involved or aware every step of the way.
Approaches to try: Of course, you will want to pay close attention to detail with this boss, but you also may want to find ways to assure them that your work will be up to agreed upon standards.

Adapted in part from

Being kind to a stressed-out boss

This may not be in your job role, but trying to implement stress-reducers into your boss’s day without being obvious can have a positive impact on not just you, but your co-workers too. Depending on your relationship, circumstances, knowledge of your boss’s likes, and comfort level you might try to:

  • speak and react in calm ways, even when the boss is obviously agitated
  • bring them a cup of tea or hot chocolate 
  • tidy their office space, have your work ready in advance of the deadline, remind them of upcoming tasks or events
  • ask if they would like you to take messages or respond to emails for them so that they can have some uninterrupted time to do their tasks
  • suggest you go for lunch, a coffee, or even a walk
  • offer to take on any of their tasks that you know you can handle

Reach out for help

If your boss continues to deteriorate, speak to someone who may be able to help. You may wish to express your concern for their well-being rather than implying that you are reporting on their performance or attitude. The latter approach can be viewed as subordination on your part and disloyalty to your boss. Rather, you might say that your boss has not seemed to be him or her self lately and you are concerned that they are putting their health at risk.

Of course, this would not be the process if there are any threats, violence, bullying, or harassment. In those cases, follow the policy process in your organization and/or contact the appropriate authority.

Ask if they have noticed and if they would mind just making sure that your boss is okay. This could be any of the following:

  • your boss’s boss
  • someone on the board of directors if your boss is the CEO and especially if you happen to
  • know a director personally
  • a trusted colleague or peer of your boss
  • an occupational health professional if your organization has one
  • a human resources professional if your organization has one
  • your union representative if you have one
  • an employee assistance plan (EAP) provider if you have one

If you do have an employee assistance plan provider, you can call and speak to someone there about your boss’s situation and receive some help for your own stress at the same time.

Often mental health problems are temporary and people who get treatment can recover and be well again. The two-pronged approach to take when your boss may be experiencing mental health issues is to 1) find strategies that reduce the stress their illness causes for you; 2) do what you can to encourage your boss to seek wellness.

Take care of your own well-being

If nothing you do improves the situation, your focus needs to be on taking care of your own mental health. While you may value your job, if you are not enjoying it anymore because of this relationship and if it is negatively affecting your own well-being, you may need to make the decision to find another job. Do not see this as failure or giving up, see it rather as an important strategic decision for your own health.

It is highly unlikely that your boss’s intention is to cause you daily stress and anxiety, but if that is your reality, you may be experiencing higher levels of potentially damaging biological chemicals such as cortisol. These chemical changes occur in our bodies as a direct result of chronic stress or anxiety and are responsible for all sorts of health problems ranging from heart disease to auto-immune disorders to mental health issues. If you are able to give some of the earlier suggestions a try, you may be able to help your boss work towards his or her own wellness. The Canadian Mental Health Association says that there is no health without mental health. And that includes your own.

Adapted in part from an article When the Boss May Have a Mental Health Issue, written by Mary Ann Baynton on behalf of the Canadian Mental Health Association and Mental Health Works.