Mental health in the workplace: A third of South Africans resign from their jobs because of a bad boss


According to a survey by CareerJunction that garnered 3 000 responses, a third of South African employees quit their jobs because of their bosses.

The survey, released last month, explored the relationship between workers and their direct line managers, and the impact the relationship has on their work and personal lives.

Lack of confidence and trust

“While people want to be able to turn to their managers for help, guidance, career growth and motivation, it turns out that many South Africans have unhealthy relationships with their bosses, which is having a detrimental effect on work morale and productivity as well as employees’ personal lives,” the online job portal found.

The survey revealed that the majority of respondents felt their managers were unapproachable and therefore didn’t feel confident in approaching them about work difficulties. This, along with a lack of trust was also a factor in many respondents quitting their jobs.

Favouritism and bosses taking credit for work that wasn’t theirs was cited as highly unacceptable behaviour. More than a third of managers requested that employees work overtime without pay, and 30% denied them a pay rise, while 25% denied workers holiday/leave without a good reason.

This is concerning, as Health24 spoke to South Africans earlier this year and found that there is a collective fear of taking time off to rest and recover from illness.

“I resigned from my previous job because of the owner that handled people like trash. I didn’t want to leave, and I loved my work, but he never gave me leave or cared about my wellbeing…” said one respondent of the CareerJunction survey.

Bad boss – bad mental health

Bad bosses can take a serious psychological toll on employees' mental health, research shows. A 2015 Gallup survey of 7 200 adults indicates that toxic bosses are the top cause of unhappiness in the workplace.

The CareerJunction survey also sheds light on the impact of having a bad boss on an employee’s health, with 27% of respondents saying the strained relationship caused them to have nightmares, while 18% sought mental health support and 12% drank heavily. 

The findings of a University of Manchester study also showed that people who work for bosses with narcissistic and psychopathic traits have an increased risk for clinical depression. 

“Workplace bullying is obviously unpleasant for the target, but also creates a toxic working environment for all involved,” Abigail Philips, a Ph.D. student at Manchester School of Business and the study’s lead author said, adding: “In short, bad bosses, those high in psychopathy and narcissism, have unhappy and dissatisfied employees who seek to ‘get their own back’ on the company.”

According to a previous Health24 article, it is estimated that while 1% of the general population have psychopathic traits, this figure rises to 4% among business leaders.

Professor Renata Schoeman, psychiatrist and associate professor in leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), says it is often the leaders (who should be at the forefront of reducing workplace conditions that lead to stress and burnout) who actually contribute to the problem, rather than the solution. Schoeman cautions employees to recognise and safeguard themselves against toxic bosses.

All of this could shed light on why over 50% of employees surveyed for CareerJunction also said that they would never want to socialise with their boss.

'Loves to play mind games'

“Very greedy, steals sales and takes credit for other people’s ideas. Loves playing mind games and playing people off against each other. His way or the highway,” said another survey respondent.

A recent study revealed that employees’ workplace safety could worsen under bad leadership, particularly bosses who bully their staff, while another indicated that stress, anxiety and burnout are on the increase among employees, and can hamper productivity if resources to help them attain better health aren’t provided by employers.

Health24 also ran a series of office horror stories earlier this year, where readers shared their traumatising experiences of bullying in the workplace. In some countries, such as Korea, workplace bullying has become so severe that toxic employers or employees face jail time if found guilty of the offence.

Read: Office horror stories: 'The lies, the trash talk, the isolation'

Other interesting findings from the survey include:

  • Only 11% rated their boss’s character as “awesome”.
  • A low 16% said they were friends with their boss outside of work.
  • 58% of respondents said they would never follow their current boss to a new company.
  • 13% thought their boss was competent and did their job well.

What makes a good manager?

Respondents were asked to rank the top five important practical things that a manager can do to enable a good working relationship, and this is what they said:

1. Provide clear performance/objective indicators

2. Provide specific feedback about my work

3. Create a learning/development programme

4. Create a clear job description

5. Have one-on-one meetings

If managers reading this are feeling concerned, there is slightly more upbeat news that a serendipitous insight of the survey revealed: workers agreed that being a boss is stressful (73%) and admitted that their managers acknowledged their hard work (61%). 

However, the overall findings are worrying as a high turnover rate can be a costly business due to factors such as hiring and training costs. Turning employee’s time at work into a positive experience is therefore critical for employee retention, and the business, in the long run.

Image: iStock

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