The horrible effects of working under toxic employers are legion. Dan Allender, the author of the book, “Bold Love,” says, “Evil…strips people of their hope.” A study found up to 15% of suicides committed in Sweden were “due to isolation and victimization at work.” It is hard to hope in a future when caught in the brokenness of workplace relationships.
The stories told by participants in my research of toxic leadership portray a range of damage wrought by abusive bosses. In my experience, there is emotional, physical, and spiritual damage done by toxic bosses to their subordinates. No one is unscathed by their abuse. And these employees suffer deeply from a lack of hope.
In a recent email, a victim described the migraines, nightmares, vomiting in staff meetings, depression, insomnia, and decision-making struggles she had while serving under a toxic church pastor. His manipulation, slander, and control had completely debilitated her by the time she resigned.
She has continued to struggle with many of these symptoms despite being under a godly pastor ever since. My own heightened anxiety prior to leaving a Christian mission organization resulted in chest pains and other physical symptoms.
One interviewee, Harris, described the spiritual wreckage from his experience. Having been shattered by a Christian organization, he struggled to regain an appreciation for the Bible, something that had been fundamental to his calling for more than thirty years of service in Christian ministry. He did not want to read his Bible during his usual morning devotional time for several months.
A recent note from another acquaintance, who had served under a toxic pastor, said,
“I was in serious denial, believing the best about [my boss], and actually holding out hope that he would be a significant mentor in my life. [He] caused all sorts of spiritual wreckage. [I] kept feeling completely inadequate and spiritually dismissed.”
My participants described all sorts of traumatic responses:
- Adam was emotionally depressed.
- Eugene lost his voice.
- Ben got hives.
- Harris described going through the stages of grief.
- Frances lost direction.
- Isaac felt betrayed.
- And Eugene and Harris shared the financial strain it placed on their families following their termination.
One particularly devastating result of workplace abuse is isolation. Where God has created man in and for community, isolation is a common result and method of control by evil leaders.
Isolation can be created, in part, by the intentional actions of the abuser or by the natural result of the victim standing up to the leader while others do not. Hare says psychopaths are effective at convincing others “it is they [the leaders] who are suffering and the victims are to blame for their misery,” thereby gaining followers and isolating the victim.
During our final two months with a toxic organization, the CEO lied that others in the organization did not agree with our position. He was seeking to isolate us from our coworkers. This may be one of the reasons that a large percentage (38%) of co-workers do nothing to help the target of bullying in the workplace. We fear isolation and will rarely stand against or for anything that may cause estrangement from our fellow man.
When there is no one to speak truth into their lives, abuse victims often believe they are all alone in their struggle. They believe there is no future for them but to “suck it up” and live with the pain.
The emotional trauma – a reordering of brain activity – will continue to increase and cause more and more dysfunction in future relationships if their backs are not stiffened by coworkers or leaders.
My family was fortunate in that we shared in our struggle with many current and former missionaries who understood the battle we were in. Standing together minimized the traumatic damage done by the leaders of our organization.
Recent sexual abuse and harassment reports in the United States have brought to the public purview the problems associated with abuse. It is extraordinary the number of women who are coming forward to tell their stories. However, there are those who continue to believe the cause of these whistleblowers is somehow deficient due to their delayed public testimonies. This situation is all too common for those who have faced any form of abuse, whether domestic or in the marketplace.
Whistleblowers rarely take a stand until they feel at least somewhat safe to out their oppressors.
With our “innocent until proven guilty” mindset, which is certainly a good and biblical judicial premise, we are hesitant to believe the evil of others. We want incontrovertible physical evidence of wrong-doing. Unfortunately, it is rare that there is such evidence, particularly after many years of dormancy. It is easy for those uninitiated to abuse to think the publicity given to these women is somehow desirable.
However, in the case of abuse, it is very rare that the whistleblower has the motive of “gold-digging.” The emotional stress created by others’ distrust in the whistleblower’s story creates an environment unlikely to give blossom to justice. Rachael Denhollander’s story of sexual abuse at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar, the convicted Olympic and Michigan State University gymnastics physician, should be a lesson to the church. [Article]
If you understand both the traumatic effects of abuse and deep struggle victims have with sharing what is often seen as shameful to them, you will believe those who are suffering or have suffered under predators. Listen to their stories and consider their claims without prejudice. Welcome their sharing.
Remember that whistleblowing almost always means humiliation and shame, though you, as an outsider, may not understand why.
Call It What It Is
After hearing these stories, the use of the term, “oppressive” to describe a toxic boss may be too polite. The lying, manipulating, deceiving, demeaning, and controlling behavior of supervisors who practice toxic leadership has long-term emotional, physical, and spiritual effects on their subordinates. The church must not allow survivors to be isolated or forgotten.
 Allender and Longman, Bold Love, 241.
 Astrauskaite, Kern, and Notelaers, “An Individual Psychology Approach to Underlying Factors of Workplace Bullying,” 223.
 “This Charming Psychopath,” under “A Survival Guide.”
 Namie, “2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.”