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What Kind of Boss Causes the Most Stress?

A new study suggests that an unpredictable supervisor is worse than a consistently mean one.

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You wake up at 7 a.m. You pour yourself a cup of coffee, don your most glamorous groutfit, and mentally prepare yourself for the dreadful, anxiety-inducing, soul-sucking job that awaits you. All because your boss is a cruel despot whose sole job description seems to require hovering over your desk like a stern schoolteacher, letting out only the occasional disapproving “harumph.”

But, hey, as bad as it feels to have a boss who’s mean to you every day, there are others who have it worse: A new study published by Michigan State University business scholars found that bosses who are inconsistent in how fairly they treat you cause more stress than bosses who are full-time jerks.

In the study, researchers set up a lab experiment in which participants engaged in a task and received consistently fair, consistently unfair, or inconsistent feedback from their “supervisors,” who were played by the researchers. After monitoring their heart rate, which is a common indicator of stress, the researchers concluded that it’s better to receive consistent treatment, fair or unfair, than to receive unpredictable, fickle treatment.

“Our findings essentially show that employees are better off if their boss is a consistent jerk rather than being a loose cannon who’s fair at times and unfair at other times,” Fadel Matta, lead author of the study, said. How does that Katy Perry song go? You’re hot then you’re cold, you’re yes then you’re no. Maybe all this time she was singing about her frustration with her boss’s management style.

Even without the study as evidence, the logic makes sense. Being praised one minute only to get shot down the next can do real damage to your self-esteem, and an anxious, stressed-out worker does not make a productive employee.

So even if your office is a personal hellscape that constantly barrages you with criticism, condescending looks, and disappointed emails, just remember: Someone with an inconsistent supervisor is having a harder day than you. And relish in that momentary reprieve.

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