Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology University of East Anglia
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Do transformational leaders make you sick?

30th Oct 2018
Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology University of East Anglia
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Transformational leaders communicate a clear positive vision for their teams and offer a way forward, they walk the walk and talk the talk and display desirable values, and they function as role models. Transformational leaders challenge existing mindsets and encourage their employees to engage in independent decision-making.

Finally, transformational leaders act as mentors and coaches and help employees reach their full potential.

The basic tenet of transformational leadership is that such leaders encourage employees to “perform above and beyond the call of duty” and to “sacrifice their own self-interests for the betterment of the group”.

Is transformational leadership always a good thing?

We know from the stress literature that high levels of activation can lead to poor health and wellbeing.

This poses the question of whether transformational leaders who encourage their followers to perform above and beyond the call of duty and to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the group can have a negative impact on employees’ health over time.

A recently published study has explored the levels of sickness absenteeism in groups of employees who reported rated their leaders’ transformational leadership behaviours.

It was found that in groups where employees reported having a transformational leaders, employees were more likely to have higher levels of sickness absenteeism one year later.

The study also looked at the effects of transformational leadership among “vulnerable” employees.

More transformational leadership is not always better.

Vulnerable employees were defined as those employees who show up for work while ill. It was found that vulnerable employees who worked in groups with a transformational leader reported higher levels of sickness absenteeism two years later.

So what does this mean?

The results of this study indicate that more transformational leadership is not always better and encouraging employees to perform above and beyond the call of duty, possibly at the expense of their health and wellbeing, can over time lead to increased levels of sickness absenteeism.

Leaders can formulate a vision that incorporates performing well with considering your health and wellbeing.

The results also indicate that for vulnerable workers, that is those that show up for work while ill, the negative consequences of such behaviour take longer to kick in, possibly because of the habit of showing up for work while ill and thus ignoring symptoms of ill-health (postponing actual time off work).

What can leaders do?

It is not all bad news though. There are things leaders can do to consider their employees’ health and wellbeing.

Leaders can formulate a vision that incorporates performing well with considering your health and wellbeing.

Leaders can also function as role models and make sure they themselves don’t turn up for work when they are not well and they can express values along the lines of “work is not so important that you should ignore symptoms of ill-health”.

Finally, they can encourage employees to work in such a way that it does not have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing.

They can make sure that employees take some time to recover after periods of time with excessive time pressure. Finally, they can also - in their coaching and mentoring - encourage employees to reach their full potential, but without sacrificing their health and wellbeing in the process.

Reference:

Nielsen, K & Daniels, K (2016). The relationship between transformational leadership and sickness absenteeism: The role of presenteeism. Work & Stress. doi.org/10.1080/02678373.2016.1170736.

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