Note: Today’s discussion is about abusive workplaces, abusive relationships, and the common ground between the two. We will talk about high-control relationship models, power imbalances, and manipulation tactics. But we’re not telling any harrowing first-person stories, nor talking about physical or sexual violence. If those are topics you need help navigating, we have an article dedicated to workplace sexual harassment, and another on intimate partner financial abuse.
Earlier this year, Piggy and I delivered a speech on the subject of burnout. That there’s an appetite for advice on this subject among women’s professional associations will, perhaps, not shock you?
As I was researching the impact that burnout has on the body, I got an eerie feeling that the symptoms seemed familiar. I wondered if I’d already written something on this topic and forgotten. (We’ve written several hundred articles apiece, so it happens!)
But no! What was tripping my extremely faulty memory triggers wasn’t a past article about burnout.
It was a past article on domestic violence.
This really got me thinking about all the stories I’ve heard from you, our readers, about burnout. And I started noticing disturbing patterns in the ways those stories were told. As a result, I’ve come to a stronger opinion about the overlap between the psychology of abusive workplaces and abusive relationships.
… Which is that they’re functionally identical.
Shitty workplaces versus abusive workplaces
“Abusive” is a strong word with a specific meaning. So let’s start with an understanding of the difference between an abusive workplace, and one that merely sucks.
An abusive workplace is one that uses the tactics of coercive abuse to gain power over one or more employees. Those tactics include…
- Verbal abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Financial abuse
- Social abuse
We have a long, long list of examples of differing degrees of these tactics here. Read them and enjoy your free 48-hour Depression™ debuff!
Almost all of these tactics are either the same as interpersonal abuse, or are easily adapted for the workplace. For example, an abusive parent might insult, demean, or shame you in front of other family members or friends. An abusive boss might do the same in front of customers or coworkers.
Here’s the pattern I’ve noticed in burnout stories.
Whether it’s about tipped service work, white collar jobs, education, or charitable nonprofits, toxic workplaces can be found anywhere and everywhere. We’ve heard these stories from every corner of the labor market.
When people see I’m open to the topic, they start info-dumping. They have horror stories about being surveilled, lied to, punished. They describe awful levels of stress, exhaustion, confusion, and despair. And as they tell these stories, I can see in their eyes that their pain is not only real, but that they’re only articulating the tip of their feelings iceberg. A lot of these stories are told through tears, strained voices, and trembling hands the speaker cannot seem to control. I can see in their faces that they’re frustrated they can’t find the words to convey how seriously they’re suffering.
… Then, a really weird thing happens. After that flashpoint of honesty and vulnerability, they start to walk backwards.
- “It’s my fault; I’m being too sensitive.”
- “I shouldn’t have started out with such high expectations.”
- “Other people would love to have my job; I should feel lucky.”
- “I’m partially to blame too; I should’ve anticipated what would happen.”
- “Some people have real problems; I’m crying about a little work stress.”
- “I’m not ready to quit yet, but I will if it gets any worse.”
- “It’s just a job—I shouldn’t let it get to me like this.”
It’s not “just a job”
Anyone who’s familiar with intimate partner abuse will recognize these kinds of statements and the pattern they represent.
“I’m trapped in a system I can’t control… very bad things are happening to me… I’m not okay… I cannot seriously consider leaving because I’m stuck… and it’s not actually that bad.”
I don’t make this comparison lightly. Intimate parter abuse is a gravely serious issue. It’s clear our readers respect that. When we’ve written about this topic in the past, we’ve gotten a flood of amazingly compassionate and supportive comments.
Yet our readers have scared me when they’ve talked about their own experiences working in abusive workplaces. Through tears of stress and pain, I’ve heard person after person describe appallingly dehumanizing working experiences… only to follow up with the same sorts of self-blaming rationalizations we’re more accustomed to hearing from domestic violence survivors.
This is a troubling and widespread dynamic. But our culture hasn’t yet become receptive or sensitive to it.
The concept of burnout is fairly recent, and our culture is in the middle of a rapid evolution on the topic of mental health in general. Because I can see clearly the similarity of these trauma responses, I see the value in borrowing some of the frameworks from domestic abuse to help people escape from abusive situations outside the home.
Abusers need access to your life—and work has it in spades
… Not that your work isn’t already in your home.
If you’ve worked in an abusive environment, it almost certainly didn’t honor the boundaries of “outside work hours.” Abusive bosses usually feel entitled to call you, email you, text you at all hours. Technology has enabled them to dominate your time even when you’re at home.
When you think about it, workplaces sometimes have more access to you than an intimate partner does. If you simplify the average schedule, people sleep for a third of each day, work for a third of each day, and use the remaining third to do everything else they need to do. Especially when you consider the poor boundaries and overwork so common at abusive workplaces, that’s an amazing amount of access.
And it’s consistent enough that the toxicity can never dissipate. As your stress increases, unhappiness will creep into every other sector of your life. You can love your life outside of work, but if you’re being abused at work, the poison will eventually spread. You cannot walk on eggshells for your first, best hours of every day, then come home with a jaunty stroll and whistling a merry tune. That’s not how life works.
One of the biggest red flags for serious burnout is losing the energy to do the activities you love when you do have spare time. If you’ve reached this point, it’s time to bust out the seventh of the Twelve Holy Gifs most sacred to us here at BGR…
Although it’s been years, I still remember the well of dread that opened through my chest every night as I lay in the dark, fearing the sound of my own alarm clock. No one’s job should make them feel that kind of terror.
Control is the goal
The purpose of abuse is control. That’s true whether the entity trying to control you is a romantic partner, a parent, or an employer.
All the tactics of abuse are focused on diminishing the power of the victim.
- Community is powerful, so abusers want their victims isolated.
- Independence is powerful, so abusers want their victims dependent and subservient.
- Knowledge and perspective are powerful, so abusers want their victims isolated and ignorant.
- Money is powerful, so abusers want their victims poor.
In the context of an employer, “powerful” isn’t a trait most want in an employee.
Companies can claim their workers are a “team” or a “family” from dawn to dusk. But the reality is that companies vastly prefer employees who are isolated, dependent, subservient, and ignorant. These conditions keep their labor costs low and employee retention high. Workers can’t ask for more money (or leave for greener pastures) if they’re demoralized, run-down, and alone.
It goes without saying that employers who use these tactics may have “success” in the short term, in that they successfully enter into a high-control relationship with their victim. But they aren’t long-term strategies anyone could use to build a healthy, lasting relationship of any kind. Studies show that controlling bosses tend to drive away high-performing individuals resistant to their abusive tactics. Those who stay see their performance, self-esteem, happiness, and health deteriorate.
What sort of stress does each kind of abuse create?
A growing body of research suggests that the experience of being in a toxic workplace culture creates a kind of stress very similar to that of being in a toxic interpersonal relationship.
People in abusive interpersonal relationships suffer a lot of negative mental and physical health impacts. They report feeling confusion, isolation, shame, low self esteem, chronic stress, poor sleep, anxiety, depression, and depersonalization. They’re at greater risk for serious physical health challenges, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
And people who are stuck working in abusive workplaces?
Well, they report feeling confusion, isolation, shame, low self esteem, chronic stress, poor sleep, anxiety, depression, and depersonalization. They’re at greater risk for serious physical health challenges, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
… huh. Y’know, I was pretty good at those “spot the difference” games in grade school activity books, but this one has me stumped!
Abusive workplaces and abusive relationships differ in some ways (crucially, their potential deadliness is leagues apart). But they breed the same corrosive stress responses within the mind and body. That’s a serious issue that deserves serious support.
Why “just leave” isn’t enough for either group
Why do victims of abusive dynamics struggle to remove themselves from the situation? It’s an incredibly important yet infinitely complex question. Broadly, I think there are two groups of reasons.
The first is logistical. Can they afford to move out? Can they get a divorce lawyer without their abusive spouse finding out? Will they lose access to childcare, or even custody? If their abusive partner knows they’re planning on leaving, will the abuse escalate?
All of these logistical pressures apply to people trying to leave abusive workplaces as well. Without a steady paycheck, people can lose their cars, homes, and even children. Searching for a new job—especially in a small town or a tight-knit industry—could lead to retaliation.
The second pool of reasons is psychological. Abuse distorts thoughts. It makes the abused feel isolated, powerless, confused, ashamed, afraid, and unworthy of anything better. They may feel responsible for saving or changing their abuser. And again, all of these apply in the abusive workplace too.
Abusive workplaces teach us we can’t do anything right, that we need to learn our place, that we don’t care enough about the mission, that the team will suffer without us, that this is as good as it gets… I could go on and on with the shit I’ve heard. Under these conditions—emotionally drained, physically exhausted, financially dependent—is it any wonder that finding a new job feels like an unattainable goal?
Where is your locus of control?
Hang on to your butts, because we’re gonna get deep and fancy.
As I mentioned, I’ve often heard someone describe an abusive workplace, then immediately undercut the seriousness of their own assessment. “My boss screamed at me today because I forgot to do something. Well, maybe ‘screamed’ is too strong of a word. He raised his voice. Admittedly, it was my fault for forgetting—I just wish he’d talked to me quietly about it. But then again, you know I’m super sensitive to shouting because of my parents growing up…”
When I hear qualifications or walk-backs like that, I get massive chills because I know I’m watching the abuse work.
Why? Why do some people in abusive relationships downplay their own experiences? What makes them rationalize what happens to them—or scold themselves for their role in the dynamic?
There’s a useful concept in psychology called the locus of control. Verrrry basically, it measures how much control you feel you have over the outcomes in your life. Some people feel success and failure comes primarily from within themselves (an internal locus) based on their abilities and effort. Others feel that outside forces (an external locus) weigh more heavily, and attribute more control to uncontrollable variables like luck.
The locus of control shift illusion
People with a strong internal locus of control are easier for abusers to control, because they can be tricked into accepting partial (or full!) responsibility for the abuse. This is called a locus of control shift illusion.
“If I’d checked my email first thing when I woke up, my boss wouldn’t be so upset.”
“Damnit, HR would’ve thought my story was more credible if I hadn’t started crying.”
“If I were a better person, you wouldn’t treat me this way.”
In a way, this is the abused person seeking their own version of control. Unlike their abusers, they seek only to control themselves. But just like their abusers, they seek control from an unhealthy, potentially damaging position: within themselves, when it’s others who are to blame.
It’s rad to be gracious, fair, and objective. I applaud an impulse to give others the benefit of the doubt. But if you know you’re one of the many people who has a tendency to inappropriately shift blame for uncontrollable situations onto yourself, you need to be extra cautious. Abusive people can see this trait. And they will use it against you if it suits them.
How to get out
Ah. Now we’re in waters that have only just begun to get charted.
Disrupting the cycle of abuse in domestic settings is hard enough. Abuse distorts the victim’s thinking and warps their reality. An abused person is like a tangled pile of yarn. I wish you could just pick a spot and yank, and it would all be better. But if you pull roughly and recklessly, you’ll just end up making all the knots tighter. It requires an incredible amount of patience, knowledge, empathy, and delicacy to untangle.
Experience tells me that burnout recovery from an abusive workplace is just as complex, though it’s far less studied. Using some of the best ideas from abusive relationship theories might be the beginning of a helpful new framework.
Like abusive relationships, creating distance has to be the first major goal. It’s fundamentally impossible to change the terms of a relationship and heal from its damages while you are still trapped inside of it.
I think if you have an extraordinary amount of support and coordination, you can work together with coworkers to wield power collectively to change workplaces from within (#HotStrikeSummer). You may also decide to seek justice against your abusers by contacting a lawyer or your closest regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But the step that best preserves your health and sanity in the short term is usually to leave, so I’d suggest making that your primary goal.
Supporting victims of workplace abuse
I worked at an abusive workplace once. For six months.
Now, I consider myself to be among the most confident, multitalented, shiny-spine-having women in the workforce. (My hobby is blogging, for god’s sake. You can’t blog without hubris! That’s like cooking without salt!)
But even I needed the following things to leave…
- One tearful conversation with my manager where she begged me to quit
- Two tearful conversations with my significant other where he begged me to quit
- Six non-tearful, calm, and logical conversations with same about how to make quitting work
- Twenty or thirty conversations where friends made the horrified “that’s not normal” face when I told a work story
- Four of those friends following up and grilling me about a plan to leave
- Three offers from friends to connect me with their non-toxic companies
- Two offers to help update my resume and portfolio
- And a partridge in a pear tree
As you can see, getting out of an abusive situation isn’t a solo adventure. It requires three key things: a reliable outside perspective, emotional healing, and logistical support. People who’ve been abused have had their energy sapped, their creativity stunted, their perspectives warped, and their sense of self-worth diminished. It’s hard to envision a better future for yourself and put in the work to make it happen under those circumstances.
If you know a friend is stuck inside an abusive workplace dynamic, you can offer one or all of those forms of support.
If you are in that position yourself, I know it’s hard to ask for help. So to start, ask just one person to help you with just one thing. A therapist is a great choice for providing outside perspective. But if you can’t get one, I’ll give you a few words for free.
You have permission to free yourself
It is not okay for your job to be a source of anguish in your daily life.
No matter who you are and what you do, you deserve respect, dignity, and privacy. You get to have a pleasurable life outside of work, and you need to be paid enough money to achieve it. That’s the bare minimum of acceptable workplace balance, and you shouldn’t work anywhere that doesn’t meet that puny threshold.
Working shouldn’t leave you so exhausted that you can’t enjoy your own hobbies anymore.
Working shouldn’t make you want to come home and drink a bottle of wine by yourself.
There is no industry in which abuse is acceptable. Having coworkers who suffer just as much as you doesn’t make that suffering normal. It means you’re all stuck in a culture that’s harming you, and you’re harming each other by pretending it’s fine.
You were put on this earth to do great things. Not to suffer unnecessarily and bend yourself into knots to become a cog in someone else’s broken machine.
Know someone who needs to hear this?
I hope today’s post gave you some fresh insights about the insidious nature of burnout and escaping abusive workplaces. I desperately want our readers to recognize when they’re in an untenable situation, and to know how to get out of it.
If you find this article helpful, please consider sharing it with a friend. In my experience, people can rarely get out of these situations without a ton of encouragement and support from people they trust.
A big, big, big, huge, big thank you to our Patreon donors. This blog is reader-supported. If we’ve helped you make a positive change in your life, please consider joining our Patreon for a few months. That support is incredibly important, as it directly enables us to write more articles like these.
Readers—have you ever found yourself in an abusive workplace? Did you recognize it right away, or did you need time to understand it? How did you finally get out? What helped you most or held you back the longest? Tell us your stories in the comments below.