'Corporate psychopaths' are costing companies dearly, says Stellenbosch prof

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So-called "corporate psychopaths" and bully bosses are costing businesses and SA's country's economy dearly, according to Dr Renata Schoeman, a psychiatrist and associate professor in leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

In a statement for Corporate Mental Health Week, Schoeman said that in some cases the very leaders who should be at the forefront of reducing workplace conditions that lead to stress and burnout instead contribute to the problem.

Corporate Mental Health Week, which is running from July 1 to 5, is an awareness week turns the spotlight on work-related stress. 

"We are not talking about the 'difficult' boss here, but the boss who is a bully," Schoeman said.

When employees face a bullying boss, this can have disastrous consequences. "The bullying tactics of corporate psychopaths increase conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism; reduce productivity and collective social responsibility; and erode corporate culture and ethical standards – diminishing shareholder value and returns on investment."

The IDEA study by the London School of Economics and Political Science found in 2016 that workplace stress cost the SA economy R40bn a year.

Schoeman, citing the study, added that work-related stress can be linked to some 40% of all workplace-related illnesses in SA. At least one in four employees are diagnosed with depression, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

Schoeman says workplace bullying is a major cause of work-related stress, citing a 2017 survey in the US which found that adults were being bullied at levels similar to teenagers. The study found that 31% of adults had been bullied at work and almost half believed that bullying behaviour was becoming more acceptable in the workplace.

Psychologist and executive coach Paul Babiak's 2010 book Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk argued that chief executives have the highest prevalence of psychopathic traits of all jobs – a rate second only to prison inmates.

While it is estimated that one in 100 of the general population have psychopathic traits, this rises to one in 25 in business leaders. 

This is because some of the traits characteristic of psychopaths, such as charm, fearless dominance and boldness, can in fact help them get ahead in business. The difference is that in a psychopath, it is in a "darker personality" structure which can "create highly toxic environments".  

Success doesn't equal psychopathy

"Not everyone who with loads of confidence and who is successful, even if they have a brash approach to people, has a personality disorder," Schoeman emphasises.

Citing the same US survey on bullied adults, she adds: "70% or more of bullying victims had experienced stress, anxiety or depression, 55% reported loss of confidence, 39% suffered from lack of sleep, 17% called in sick frequently, and 19% had suffered mental breakdown.

"Emotional stress can also cause or aggravate physical illnesses such as gastrointestinal problems (such as irritable bowel syndrome) and cardiovascular problems (such as hypertension), while victims of workplace bullying had double the risk of considering suicide in the five years following."

Schoeman advises employees dealing with a difficult boss to stay neutral, calm and professional, to remain alert, and to realise their behaviour is not personal. 

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