By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
When our colleagues don’t invite us to lunch, gossip about us, are condescending or otherwise rude to us at work, the impact can be so intense that we take our problems home, affecting our families and partners who in turn may also take the stress to their workplaces, a new Baylor University study reports.
“I didn’t expect to have such strong findings in this study. The research shows if we are treated poorly at work, we see the world as a less bright place and it’s hard to shake it off,” says study author Merideth Ferguson, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Baylor University Hankamer School of Business whose research was published online in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. “When this happens daily or chronically, it eats away at people’s self-esteem and they are less optimistic about their lives and the future.”
A stressed employee often shares work frustrations with their spouse or partner, and the partner feels desperate to fix it, Ferguson says. But that’s unrealistic, and the feelings of helplessness can build more stress. Additionally, she explains, the stressed and distracted worker may neglect family responsibilities and the ongoing issue also can affect marital satisfaction.
“This phenomenon jumps workplaces,” she says. “It goes from the workplace to the home to another workplace.”
James Powell, 36, of Detroit, understands how deeply work incivility can impact a happy home. About five years ago, as he vied for an executive-level position at a national retailer, a co-worker competing for the same position spread rumors Powell was breaching company policy and shirking his duties. He became depressed when he couldn’t figure out how to stop the jokes and gossip.
“I was consumed with work; it was my life,” he says. “I came home and complained about work every day. After a while, everybody - my wife, sisters and the rest of my family got so tired of it, they started telling me to shut up. My wife was telling me to just quit and asking how I could let people treat me that way. It really affected her.”
He says his world came crashing down soon after a holiday party, where the co-worker and others teased his wife, saying she was too pretty to be with him. He says she internalized the stress and jokes, and their marriage started breaking down. As a result, she began missing work and having problems on her job. The couple separated and eventually divorced. He got the promotion, but the work problems remained so intense that he resigned his position.
“I’m still suffering from it,” he acknowledges.
Ferguson suggests employees facing work incivility contact the human resources department, seek help from an employee assistance program or get outside counseling to help manage work-related stress. She also advises finding ways to avoid taking the stress home.
“Counseling sometimes helps you keep from stressing your family,” she says. “Exercise, go out with friends who are not co-workers, then go home to your family and be relaxed. It’s a trial and error thing; you have to find what works for you.”
Unfortunately, says Ferguson, who is working on a similar study on supervisor abuse, being treated poorly at work may lead to a decision to cut ties with your employer.
“You may have to consider when it’s time to leave,” she says. “If the culture on your job supports incivility, it doesn’t help to go to HR.”