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Is your inspirational manager damaging your health?

Posted by: Justin Byrne

Every business looks for inspirational managers, the ones who can motivate at the drop of a hat and drive a team towards achieving collective goals.

Inspirational and transformational leaders are defined as those who encourage their employees to perform above and beyond the call of duty and who formulate a clear vision of what their team needs to achieve. These leaders encourage their staff to seek out problems and challenges and engage in pro-active solving. This leadership style has always been associated with positive effects such as employee retention, growth and positive employee well-being.

However, a recent study conducted by the University of East Anglia has suggested that transformational leaders may have negative long-term effects on staff well-being.The study considered the complex relationship between inspirational managers and absence due to sickness. The results suggest that an inspirational manager, who expects self-sacrificing ideals and has high-performance expectations of their staff, may in fact exacerbate sickness absence. A strong reason for this may be linked to high-levels of presenteeism, a condition wherein employees continue to work when they are sick. By managers encouraging staff to go the extra mile, it puts them under mental and physical strain, as well as pressure to ignore their illness over performance at work. 

The research focused on 155 Danish postal workers, divided into 22 groups and studied over three years. Before the study began, the participants were asked to complete information regarding their line manager’s behaviours and their own sickness. Following the study, the levels of sickness absence was revisited. The results of the study demonstrated that transformational leadership increased sickness absence when staff exhibited 14 or more days of presenteeism. It showed that under a transformational leader for the first year, higher levels of sickness absence were present among staff in their second year, but had reduced again by the third year. Staff who had low levels of sickness absence but high levels of presenteeism in the first two years had the highest levels of sickness absenteeism in their third year.

These findings suggest that there are short term effects; however it is the longer term effects that are more damaging. The study suggests that staff who have high levels of presenteeism are more vulnerable to sickness later, most likely due to a lack of recovery time, meaning that they need more time off in the future because their symptoms have got worse.
This study doesn’t diminish the benefits of transformational managers but highlights some of the risks that may come with it.

Kevin Daniels, Professor of organisational behaviour at UEA and one of the researchers in the study commented that, “The assumption that more transformational leadership is better does not hold over time.” He goes on to conclude that as role models, these transformational leaders should display healthy behaviours when motivating people and that includes encouraging workers to look after their health, as well as taking an interest in staff health themselves as managers. Transformational managers should also consider the wider effects that presenteeism has on the rest of the team such as, the more sickness that is brought into the workplace and the longer it lingers, the higher chance of infecting the rest of the team. Further, the research suggests that transformational leaders should also play a part in helping staff develop resilience and coping skills as well as incorporating a work-life balance into their managerial strategies.

We know that work place stress can have some very damaging health effects, but the cause of this being a motivating manager has often been overlooked until now. A constant high level of intensity in your job can cause you to burn out and could be harmful in the long run. Inspirational leaders must strike a balance and recognise the importance of staff having the time to unwind, recover and recuperate.


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