Mean bosses are often cast as villains of the workplace, but real office-related stress might be coming from somewhere a lot more insidious — your own coworkers.
Study after study seems to imply that coworkers are responsible for more workplace-related stress than direct managers. A 20 year-long study by Tel Aviv University tracked 820 adults – between the ages of 25 to 65 years – drawn from a wide variety of professional fields. Starting with a health exam in 1988, it regularly quizzed them regarding various conditions of their job. These included the behaviour of their boss, relationship with colleagues and their work environment. Their health was monitored.
The results were unexpected. The study revealed that employees’ health was neither affected by the number of hours they spent at office nor how mean their boss was. The factor most closely linked to health was the support of co-workers: the meaner a colleague was, the higher their risk of dying. It was found that middle-aged workers with little or no ‘peer social support’ in the workplace were 2.4 times more likely to die during the study. In contrast, the niceness of the boss had little impact on mortality.
The study was conducted by Dr Sharon Toker and others of the Department of Organizational Behaviour at the University and published in the journal Health Psychology in 2011. The participants belonged to various fields including finance, health care and manufacturing. One third of them were women. During the study, 53 participants died, largely those who had negligible social connections with their co-workers. The study concluded that peer social support was a protective factor, reducing the risk of mortality.
Similarly, an Employee Engagement Survey conducted by TINYPulse in 2013 based on 40,000 anonymous employee responses brought out that employee happiness was more dependent on co-workers than direct managers. Employee happiness was 23.3% more correlated to connections with co-workers than direct supervisors. Another survey by WorkWorries.com found that co-workers were a bigger source of stress than bosses: 62% of participants reported that co-workers caused them more stress than bosses.
Such studies have brought out the important role of co-workers in determining your overall well-being. A 2015 paper from Harvard Business School describes what are called ‘toxic workers’, who bad-mouth you to work colleagues behind your back, angrily demand the impossible from everyone but themselves and make unwanted comments about your attire. These ‘toxic people’ drive other employees to leave an organization faster and more frequently, which generates huge turnover and training costs, and they diminish the productivity of everyone around them.
The next time you’re stressed out at your job, look around — it might not just be your boss at blame.