Can you get PTSD from work?

Flickr user bark

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Years ago, I had a lunatic for a CEO. He once called me an incompetent loser, except he used far more colorful language and went on about it for some time. That wouldn't be so bad, except he said it to my peers while I was standing right there. That was surreal.

For weeks he would only refer to me in the third person during executive staff meetings, and not in a good way, either. Six months later, it was like nothing had ever happened. What a nut. He was a founder who built a great company who, for whatever reason, went off the rails. The board eventually canned him -- not soon enough.

I've got loads of stories just like that one. I bet some of my employees have a few about me, as well. The point is that when it comes to dysfunctional bosses from hell, I've been there, and on both sides of the equation, I'm afraid.

Here's another point. In my experience, and I've got an awful lot of it, I'm not unique. I'm not even unusual. I bet about half of you can tell one or two stories of your own, even if you haven't been around for decades like I have.

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I probably handled it better than most because I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, New York. My family was also dysfunctional so you wouldn't be too far off if you said I grew up more or less in a war zone. I'm sure that contributed to me being too hard on people -- on myself, too.

Now, I know that children who grow up with trauma come up with some pretty creative coping mechanisms, not all of which serve them well in adulthood. I also know that soldiers and others who've been through traumatic events can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

What any of that has to do with adults who've experienced consistent abuse from dysfunctional bosses, I honestly have no idea. I'm not qualified to say if they're related or not.

But I do know one thing: When I was in the middle of that bizarre stretch with the lunatic CEO, executive staff meetings were pretty darn stressful for me. And I know it was the same for others, especially the engineering folks who were regularly ripped apart by the guy in monthly operations reviews.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, I've written quite a bit about the practical side of how to handle a bad boss and I wanted to sort of round out that advice with some commentary on the more emotional side: The stress, anxiety and burnout that abusive bosses and dysfunctional workplaces can cause.

In fact, the most common emails I get from readers are on that very subject. I particularly empathize with all the overachievers or folks with a strong work ethic who rack their brains in a vain attempt to understand and attempt to fix a situation they really can't. While there are nuanced paths you can take, which I describe here, at the end of the day, there really are only two ways out.

The first is well articulated by an old Japanese proverb that goes something like, "If you stand by the river long enough, you'll see the body of your enemy float by." That of course means be patient, hang in there, and in the long run, something will change and all will be well.

In the case with the nutty CEO, that's exactly what happened and I'm glad I stuck around. But you and I both know that the "stand by the river" strategy is at best a roll of the dice. You never know.

And that just leaves the other alternative: Cut and run. Of course, you'd be well advised to make up your mind that you're going to leave, which relieves quite a bit of stress in itself, and then settle into what I like to call "maintenance mode" while you start to network and shop around for a new job.

Interestingly, most of you don't find that alternative very attractive. Again, it's always the overachievers and those with a strong work ethic who hate the idea of quitting. Also, a lot of people do wonder if maybe it's them. Then there's the tough job market. I'm sure there are loads of reasons why people stick around longer than they should.

In any case, I did want to provide this perspective because it is a real issue, it happens all the time, and even though I think some folks whine and complain about their bosses way too much and maybe feel entitled to more than they should, I also realize that a lot of you are good, honest, smart, hard-working people who don't deserve to be treated the way bosses sometimes treat you.

Image courtesy of Flickr user bark

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