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ScaryBossQuestion: I’ve been the VP of HR for my company for the past 8 years. A few months ago, the Founder/CEO left and a new CEO from outside the company took his place. At first, the new CEO was polite and professional. But, now he’s acting in a very disruptive, even abusive manner. He yells, intimidates, and even makes fun of people. He makes demands in our staff meetings one week, then denies that he did so the next week. Every day, employees tell me how scared they are of the new CEO. I’m in a position of having to counsel employees while being respectful of the CEO.  After months of doing this, I find myself stressed all day every day, and I’m getting sick of constantly caring for the walking wounded. Can you give me some advice about how to handle this situation?



ToxicWorkAnswer: Unfortunately, what you’re experiencing is not uncommon. There is a term for the position you’re in – the “toxic handler.” Research published in the Harvard Business Review describes the toxic handler as someone “who voluntarily shoulders the sadness, frustration, bitterness, and anger that are endemic to organizational life just as joy and success are.”

What’s important is that you take care not to drown under the weight of everyone else’s stress. Here are three ways that you can continue to emotionally support your coworkers without sacrificing your own wellbeing.

1. Put the oxygen mask on yourself first. You can’t help others if you pass out from lack of oxygen first. Remember the preflight safety instructions, and take the best possible care of yourself.  Stress eating, heavy drinking, and lying awake all night worrying about work is only going to make matters worse. Take care of yourself first, so that you can be your best self to take care of the office.

2. Pick your battles. The researchers found that toxic handlers often find themselves in every fight. Try to focus only on issues where you can make a difference. Walk away from situations that can be handled without you.

3. Say no. It can be hard to say no, but setting boundaries is important for a toxic handler. If a colleague comes to you for help, and you can’t deliver, don’t feel guilty. Instead, tell them you’re sorry for what’s happening, explain that you can’t be helpful right now, and if possible, refer them to someone else who can.

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