You come home from the stereotypical “bad day at the office” feeling like you need a drink to calm down. You eat a big meal – bigger than normal – to take some comfort and forget about the stresses of the workplace. That night, you have trouble getting to sleep, replaying the previous day’s workplace stress in your head. Happens to all of us, right?
If that happens routinely, you might be getting “skunked” by a dysfunctional boss, or a dysfunctional workplace. That’s the term coined by Brad Shuck, an associate professor in the University of Louisville’s Department of Educational Leadership, Evaluation and Organizational Development has coined for bad workplaces that literally can be hard on your health.
If you’ve ever come across a skunk in the wild and felt the full brunt of their natural defense mechanism, you know what a smelly situation it creates. You let off an odor that affects those around you, and you need help and time to get that stench off.
The effects on your long-term health from working in a challenging environment can be similary damaging.
“Think about incredibly high stress, high pressure work environments,” Shuck said in a recent radio interview
. “The mechanisms that people use to cope with that stress – excessive drinking, overeating, a lack of exercise – can directly contribute to long-term health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Shuck, a renowned expert on employee engagement, is co-author of a study on the topic entitled “Skunked: An Integrative Review Exploring the Consequences of the Dysfunctional Leader and Implications for Those Employees Who Work for Them
.” He developed the term, along with co-authors Dr. Kevin Rose, Dr. Matt Bergman and Dr. Devon Twyford. In the study, they noted that somewhere between 13% and 36% of employees in the United States work with a leader whose approach could be described as dysfunctional.
That’s trouble, not only for the employee, but for the company when you consider long-term healthcare costs.
“The essential idea is this: when you work in a place that is dysfunctional, meaning high chronic stress and lots of negative things going on, that impacts your long-term health,” Shuck said. “Leaders who work in these kinds of places are called ‘stinky’ leaders.”
Shuck jokes that “stinky” is not exactly an academic or highly technical term, but sees it as fitting.
“A dysfunctional boss will do the same to their employees as a skunk does to people in the wild,” Shuck said. “It takes a real effort and intentional healing to move on from a dysfunctional work situation.”
The good news is that for the first time, research by Shuck and others is able to show a real return on investment for companies who intentionally develop engaging places to work. If employees are engaged, feel appreciated and are happier at work, they’re healthier. Productivity and profitability go through the roof. Higher levels of engagement equates to better workplace health.
As Shuck notes, even for a medium-sized company, the potential savings in healthcare costs alone run into the millions.
So if those bad days at work are becoming more frequent, and leading to unhealthy behaviors, he stresses that employers and employees alike should be aware, and make sure they’re not getting skunked in the workplace.