Sophie* and Malusi* are in two different industries and have different backgrounds. Sophie (27) is in advertising and Malusi (21) is in retail, but the one thing they have in common is the reason they left their jobs.

Their mental health was being negatively affected by a toxic work environment and culture. 


I was excited when I landed a position for a social media manager at an advertising agency, on the same day that I went for the interview. However by the time I left the company, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and would have to take medication every day.

I applied for the position because I am passionate about advertising. So I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to create digital content and gain new skills. My excitement slowly started to fade once I realised my work environment was toxic. 

At first I thought that it was my lack of knowledge and understanding, so I tried my best to pull up my socks. But as time went by I realised that I wasn’t the problem, the people were. 

It is the seed of the agency that’s rotten and the fruit it produces.

Someone I considered a direct senior and was eager to learn from because of their decade long industry experience, contributed to making the work environment toxic. Being at the agency for a decade, gave her a pass from the founders and managing director to bully other people.

Multiple daily incidents occurred, especially in the presence of other colleagues. This included verbal abuse, subtle racism and belittling in front of other colleagues.

I wasn’t coping at all. I would cry everyday. I felt unworthy and I felt like a failure.

My anxiety was starting to affect my ability to do my job and I would procrastinate, make multiple mistakes and have sleepless nights which would affect my concentration. 

I reported the incidents but received little to no support in the matter, including from colleagues or management. The agency had no organisational structure. 

The MD played multiple roles. She was the MD and HR and was also “friends” with the person who bullied me. When I explained the situation to her, she’d shift the blame to me. There was never a solution.

After 12 months and another intense day I decided it was time to resign. That decision alone gave me so much peace. I was in a place of uncertainty and didn’t know if I wanted to return to that industry because at times it can be a very cut throat industry but now I’m in a place where I am ready to get back into it. 

I know longer have panic attacks and coping with my anxiety is easier, now that I am no longer in a space that heightens it.

Your mental health and emotional well-being should be your priority. 

You spend most of your life working. Do not invest in a toxic work culture. I know it’s a hard call and depending on your situation it may seem like it’s all you have. But it’s not. There is more. You are more. 


In March 2023, I left my job at a clothing store without any savings or plan on what was next. 

All I knew was that my mental wellbeing was far more important at that stage.

At home I’m responsible for food, toiletries, transport and medicine for my 73 year-old grandmother. My aunt helps with school essentials for my 15 year-old brother.

Before our mum passed away, when I was in Grade 11, I already knew that I was going to have to work part-time and study because of the financial situation at home.

On the first day of training my manager told me that the store had cameras and our boss would be watching as a test to see how I interacted with customers, and thereafter he would call to give me feedback and advice.

This went on to become a weekly activity for the next month, and my boss became more critical. Every day felt like I was being watched and judged, which would make me nervous, anxious and scared to make a mistake. 

He would say negative things about my work ethic and constantly nitpick even when customers would leave good reviews online about the customer service at the store. 

I started to have daily anxiety going to work everyday, knowing that I would be watched on camera and then be discouraged on the phone by him.

I understood the passion he had for his brand and its success but still felt like the work environment was a very authoritative and controlling one.

I felt fearful and at times would literally go to the storeroom after every call and cry. 
I wanted to quit after the first month but had to think about all my financial responsibilities. 

The stress from my studies, home responsibilities and work just made my anxiety even worse and I had a panic attack after a customer had an issue with a clothing item and left a bad review online. 

That day I got home stressed and anxious thinking about the call I was going to receive from my boss the next morning because of the bad review. 

My chest started to tighten up and my throat felt like it was closing. I was gasping for air and felt like I couldn’t breathe. Tears started to roll down my face and my family tried to calm me down.

My aunt who was there that day had witnessed someone else having a panic attack, so she knew how to help in a way.

I felt embarrassed about the panic attack, as well as being belittled at work.

I didn’t want to tell my family about the heavy anxiety I was feeling because of work but I feel like the panic attack forced me to address it and be open about it with my family.

Everyone agreed that the work environment at the store was toxic and told me to leave, even though I didn’t know what was going to be next for me financially. After just over three months I resigned because of daily verbal abuse, and micromanaging from my boss. 

I feel more at peace and relieved to have left the store and now I’m working in a space that values their employees.

I feel more at peace and relieved to have left the store and now I’m working in a space that values their employees.

According to Professor Renata Schoeman, Head of Healthcare Leadership at Stellenbosch Business School, employees are seeking workplace environments where management cares as much about their productivity as they do about their emotional well-being.

“Emotionally well-supported employees are happier, less stressed and anxious, more creative, productive and have higher levels of job satisfaction which leads to low staff turn-overs and less conflict”, she says.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) offers multiple support groups for mental health. Reach out and seek help if you are struggling. – Health-e News.