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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Taking Work Home in an Unpleasant Way

Does John arrive home at the end of many workdays seeming stressed and drained, and distant from his wife? Naturally, the reason could be that John’s work is hard and all-consuming. But it is also possible that his on-the job supervisor makes a habit of putting him down in front of others or calling his ideas stupid.

Unfortunately, if John has an abusive supervisor, it can take a toll not only on him personally at work, but on his marriage and, ultimately, his entire home life.

That is what Dawn Carlson found when she studied the “fallout from abusive supervision” in the workplace for couples and families. A new study of this was published in November by Carlson and her colleagues in the journal of Personnel Psychology.

Carlson is a professor in the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The study she led has clear implications for couples and families, as well as businesses, which are believed to incur upward of $20 billion annually in costs related to the effects of serious cases of abusive supervision, including absenteeism from work, legal costs, etc.

“I think the average married couple needs to be aware that work life impacts their marriage,” Carlson told me. She thinks that when couples conclude “they are in an abusive supervisor situation,” they ought “to do whatever they can to try and change that situation” because remaining in it “comes at a great cost” to them.

I suppose most of us sometimes hear stories about this or that workplace supervisor whose behavior, in ongoing ways, is rude or inconsiderate toward subordinates or who has a tantrum now and then – someone who undermines certain employees and, when angry for another reason, takes the anger out on someone lower in the chain of command. But I hadn’t realized how common such ways of behaving apparently are in the workplace.

The Baylor study speaks of abusive supervision as “a workplace reality” and “a powerful stressor found in organizations.”

“Research indicates that approximately 14 percent of U.S. workers work for an abusive boss,” Merideth Ferguson, the study’s co-author, told me. Ferguson is an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Baylor.

The study’s basic conclusion is that abusive supervision “creates stress, which the subordinate takes home” in ways that subsequently reduce “his or her family satisfaction.” The tension and conflict that develop within this context are experienced first between a wife and husband, and then are felt through them by other family members.

Emotional exhaustion, negative mood states and anxiety are among the effects of ongoing abusive supervision, the study observes.

Employees repeatedly subjected to abusive supervision often experience frustration and believe they are being treated unjustly. But out of “fear of punishment,” they are unlikely to take their anger up with the abusive supervisor. Instead, the Baylor study suggests, they may try to “exert aggression in a domain under their control – the family domain.”

According to the study, “the tension and strain manifested in the marital relationship and relating to abusive supervision may indicate a subordinate’s need to take out the day’s frustrations on someone besides the supervisor.”

However, a person’s capacity to relate to a spouse in positive ways might simply be diminished in light of the workplace abuse. Ferguson said, “It may be that as supervisor abuse heightens tension in the relationship, the employee is less motivated or able to engage in positive interactions with the partner and other family members.”

Central to the Baylor study is its insistence that abusive supervision does not merely influence an employee’s performance on the job, which already had been a cause of concern in businesses and other workplaces. Instead, abusive supervision has a way of extending beyond the workplace into the employee’s home.

“It is the experience of relationship tension that carries abusive supervision to the family domain,” the study says. The tension between a husband and wife gets expressed in feelings of irritation and annoyance with each other.

Carlson believes the Baylor study’s findings “have important implications for organizations and their managers. The evidence highlights the need for organizations to send an unequivocal message to those in supervisory positions that these hostile and harmful behaviors will not be tolerated.”

Why are some supervisors abusive toward some employees? The Baylor study calls attention to other research indicating that these supervisors themselves may consider their organization’s procedures unfair. It behooves organizations to ensure that its supervisors “perceive organizational policies and procedures as fair and equitable,” the study advises.

It says another option for organizations is “to provide more support for and evaluation of supervisors to try to minimize the occurrence of abusive supervision.”

But the employees, too, need attention. The study says that workplace organizations ought to encourage employees who feel abused by a supervisor “to seek support through their organization’s employee assistance program” or in other ways so that they “can identify tactics or mechanisms for buffering the effect of abuse on the family.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.