Unfortunately, horrible bosses exist, even in the mental health field where we supposedly want to make a positive impact on other people’s lives. While you may not have experienced behavior as atrocious as what’s portrayed in the movie Horrible Bosses, you may find yourself in a position that’s overseen by a person who comes across as incompetent or inappropriate in the work setting.
I recently sat on a panel that discussed finding, choosing, and getting the most out of MFT internships. One attendee stated that they enjoy their clients and like the company they work for; however, their interactions with their boss have been so negative that they’re now looking for a new position.
This type of situation can be challenging for anyone in any field of work; however, MFT registered interns, trainees, and students may find it especially difficult due to a number of factors:
What can a prelicensed MFT who is “stuck” in their current position do?
Years ago, I worked for an organization where one of the directors told clinicians to forego filing CPS reports so as to “maintain positive relationships within the community.” Of course, this would be a huge red flag for any clinician working in such a setting, as we are mandated reporters. There were times when I witnessed co-workers dissolving into tears of frustration, as they wanted to do the right thing but also feared the director would retaliate against them, possibly even terminating them from their positions at the organization. On multiple occasions, the director could be heard yelling at clinicians, accusing them of “ripping families apart.” It’s no wonder that clinicians left the organization as quickly as they could.
You analyze your clients, so why not analyze your boss as well? Maybe you’ve already done this to a small extent and concluded they’re the perfect case study for narcissistic personality disorder. While slapping a label on your boss may be satisfying initially, it won’t resolve the issue at hand. Instead of stopping here, consider exploring what fuels the behavior you’re witnessing at work. What does your boss seem to be passionate about (other than making your life miserable)? Is it clear they prefer some work-related tasks over others? Do they appear to be more/less relaxed when certain factors are at play?
In the case study mentioned above, the clinicians who worked within the organization were primarily concerned with supporting their clients. The director, on the other hand, was concerned about generating enough funding to support the various programs offered through the organization. The director spent much of their time networking with prominent and affluent members of the community, convincing them to donate to their organization. The director also seemed to become more volatile as grant/contract deadlines approached, and if funding was reduced for any reason, the director would be inconsolable.
Understanding what motivates your boss can help you to phrase questions and statements in ways that will be more readily received by your boss. In the case study, the director’s “language” was money. A savvy clinician could have used this to their advantage by making a counterargument using the director’s “language.” The clinician could have acknowledged the director’s concerns, noting that some clients and their family members do become upset after learning a CPS report has been filed. However, the potential consequences of filing a CPS report (family no longer attends sessions and/or organization receives a negative review) would be trivial compared to the potential consequences of repeatedly failing to file CPS reports. Failure to comply with legal and ethical requirements could result in the organization facing lawsuits and losing support from its patrons.
The “language” your boss speaks may vary, depending on the setting and where they are within the organization’s hierarchy. The owner of a private practice may speak the “language” of referrals, whereas the program manager of a county-funded organization may speak the “language” of productivity. Once you understand your boss’ “language,” you can begin to advocate for change. Even if the changes are small, those little steps can go a long way toward making the work environment more tolerable.
Burnout is commonly defined as “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” In his book On Being a Therapist, Jeffrey A. Kottler states “the question, then, is not who will experience burnout but how long the next episode will last.” A horrible boss can bring about numerous episodes, or one very long episode, of burnout. When a therapist is experiencing burnout, they become increasingly ineffective in the work place. Ironically, they may begin to exhibit many of the same characteristics that they complain about their bosses possessing – indifference, carelessness, and so on. As therapists, it is our responsibility to address burnout for the well-being of ourselves and our clients.
The list of self-care techniques is endless, and many of these techniques can be utilized both within and outside of the work place. Leaving It at the Office: A Guide to Psychotherapist Self-Care by John C. Norcross and James D. Guy, Jr. addresses many stressors that are specific to those who work in the mental health field. Its very title serves as a reminder that therapists should avoid taking their work – and boss – home with them!
There are many reasons why an MFT registered intern, trainee, or student may decide to stay in their current position, regardless of how horrible their boss is. However, everyone should have limits when it comes to putting up with a boss’ behavior, and it’s important for you to have a clear understanding of what those limits are. Know your physical and emotional/mental limits for tasks your boss may assign to you. Know your values/beliefs and where to draw the line when asked to do something unethical or illegal. Know how to remove yourself from a situation that makes you uncomfortable, without stooping to your boss’ level.
There may come a point where you’ll need to leave your current position, even if it means being unemployed and delaying your accrual of hours toward licensure. Appeasing your boss at the expense of your professional registration is never the way to go. You can always find another employer, but you may not have another opportunity to become an LMFT if you’re found to be in violation of the CAMFT/AAMFT Code of Ethics or BBS regulations.