Colleagues Behaving Badly: Stress of Rude Co-Worker Can Affect Home Life

Study suggests bad feelings not left at the office.

August 22, 2011, 5:42 PM

Aug. 23, 2011— -- When it comes to dealing with a rude co-worker, recent research suggests the stress can be so intense that it can affect relationships outside of work and even lead a person's partner to take those same feelings into his or her workplace.

One woman who works at a public relations firm in southwest Florida and asked that her name be withheld because her company is so small, said she remembers the distress caused by an especially abrasive colleague.

"She walked into a client meeting and started criticizing the redecorating of the office, and she even told my boss that his receding hairline doesn't suit him," the employee recalled.

Although she tried to avoid her co-worker, the pent-up emotions carried over into her personal life.

"I was definitely frustrated, and I was always venting to my friends," she said.

A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that employees who experience that same frustration over a disrespectful colleague often find their negative emotions cause strain in their relationships at home.

"The stress impacts the marital satisfaction of both partners," said Merideth Ferguson, the study's author and an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Baylor University Hankamer School of Business in Waco, Texas. "The rudeness jumps over to affect their partner's workplace and creates distraction and distress there."

Ferguson said she is unsure exactly how it happens, but theorizes that at least one reason is that the stress affects a person's ability to handle household responsibilities and in turn, that person's partner must take on more of the demands, which could spill over into the partner's work life.

"It's often a combination of problems at work that spill over to the home and problems at home that spill over to work," said Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. "It can be hard to tease them out."

Klapow was not involved in the research.

Difficult to Leave Feelings at the Office

Other psychologists not involved with the study say dealing with an ill-mannered co-worker is very difficult, but also very necessary to avoid detrimental effects on physical and emotional well-being.

"It can lead to anxiety, depression and other problems," said Nadine Kaslow, professor and vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta. "Chronic work stress is not good for one's mental or physical health. It can lead to headaches and stomach aches and other physical ailments."

Being constantly disrespected can also lead to a temporary loss of self-esteem, which can also affect a person's mood, she said.

If a company has some sort of employee assistance program, people should seek that out, or perhaps approach a supervisor or someone else who can serve as a mediator between themselves and the troublesome colleague, she said.

"Sometimes, it may be our boss and we feel as if there's nowhere to go. Then, we may have to make some really tough choices about whether to quit, which is hard in this economy," Kaslow said.

Another woman talked about her former boss, who at times used foul language in the workplace and on one occasion, lashed out at her in a profanity-laced tirade.

"My husband was definitely upset for me," she said. "At the time, we needed my income, so quitting wasn't an option to entertain. I think we did decide together that the best thing was for me to leave as soon as possible."

If it's not possible to get out of a stressful environment, finding a way to unwind after work can also be helpful, such as working out and socializing.

It's also generally acceptable to discuss workplace stress with partners as long as it's not overwhelming for either person.

Experts also say it's important to realize that strong emotions, such as stress, fear and anxiety, may not be solely the result of a difficult work environment.

"It's very important to ask yourself where these emotions are coming from, and be honest about it," Klapow said. "People tend to attribute their emotions to whatever is going on at the moment, and that may be work, but there could also be other things going on."

Ferguson said research looking into the effect of rude co-workers on the family is just beginning. This study only involved 190 subjects and didn't control for certain factors, such as the ones that may affect how stress crosses over from work to family.

"However, these findings emphasize the notion that organizations must realize the far-reaching effects of co-worker incivility and its impact on employees and their families," she said.

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