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Study asks: Are ‘transformational’ leaders a worker health hazard?

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Norwich, England – “Transformational” leaders – managers who encourage employees to go above and beyond – may inspire their workers to greater performance, but their high expectations may be harming their employees’ health, according to research from the University of East Anglia.

As part of the study, researchers examined 155 postal workers and their line managers in Denmark for three years. The workers reported their sick time and how often they worked when they were ill – known as “presenteeism” – during the previous year. Their health-related absences were measured again during the second and third years.

High presenteeism suggests workers are not taking the time to fully recover from an illness, which can lead to the illness being spread to other employees, according to a university press release.

Participants who worked with a transformational boss during the first year of the study used more sick time in the second year, but not the third year. Workers who had both transformational bosses and high presenteeism used the most sick time in the third year. According to the researchers, the results indicate that workers experience adverse effects immediately, and that “vulnerable workers” – including those with high presenteeism – also experience longer-term effects because they are no longer able to overlook their symptoms.

“It is possible that high performance expectations pose a risk to both healthy and vulnerable employees and the motivational aspects of transformational leadership may backfire,” Karina Nielsen, lead study author and professor of work and organizational psychology at UEA’s Norwich Business School, said in a press release. “Transformational leaders may promote self-sacrifice of vulnerable employees for the greater good of the group by encouraging them to ignore their illnesses and exert themselves. This can lead to increased risks of sickness absence in the long term.”

Nielsen recommended that transformational leaders engage in healthy behavior when motivating workers, check on them and encourage them to monitor their own health.

The study was published online April 21 in the journal Work & Stress.

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