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The Dark Side Of Transformational Leadership

  • Published
  • 22 April 2016
  • Category
  • News


The spring edition of WorkCare’s quarterly newsletter, Vitality Atlas, examines the employee health and business benefits of volunteerism.

Volunteering time and expertise to help others is connected to an improved sense of personal autonomy and well-being. Conversely, employees who feel pressured by others to do more or have limited control over their work environment are linked to lower productivity, stress-related complaints and poor morale.

Transformational Leadership

Similarly, the management style known as “transformational leadership” is often associated with positive physical and mental health effects. However, research published today in the international journal Work & Stress suggests a potential unintended consequence: Transformational leaders who exhort their employees to devote 110 percent of their creative energy to work may be diminishing, not enhancing, productivity.

In a three-year study, 155 Danish postal employees on 22 work teams were asked to rate the leadership style of their immediate line manager and report their annual sickness absence and presenteeism rates.

Researchers Karina Nielsen and Kevin Daniels found managers who are driven to inspire others may “promote self-sacrifice of vulnerable followers by leading them to go to work while ill and increasing risks of sickness absence in the long term.” For the study, “vulnerable” is defined as higher than average rates of self-reported presenteeism (being at work but not fully productive).

“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,” Nielsen said.

There are a number of related factors to consider, for instance:

  • People who come to work when they are sick may end up missing more work in order to recover from an illness than they would have if they had taken a restorative day off.
  • Working while ill may increase chronic disease risk and exacerbate co-morbid conditions that contribute to higher absence rates.
  • Presenteeism may diminish the quality of products/services, working life and relationships with co-workers.
  • Contagious diseases may be spread to fully present workers by ill workers.

According to Daniels, managers are effective role models when they display healthy behaviors while motivating workers. “They should monitor and check them, and encourage workers to look after their own health. Managers need to strike a balance; they can still encourage staff to perform well, but in a way that is not at the expense of their health and well-being,” he said.

The researchers, who are affiliated with the Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia, UK, recommend that transformational leadership training include health-related elements such as building resilience and coping skills. Leaders could also be trained to incorporate well-being and health into the vision, goals and objectives they develop for work groups, they said.

It appears that educating workers to help them make informed decisions about their own health and well-being is likely to produce favorable results, as long as there are no perceived strings attached.

The principles examined in the Danish study have applications in the realm of work-related injuries or illnesses, as well. At WorkCare, we have found that most employees make good choices about their own care when they receive appropriate medical guidance from an occupational health nurse or physician. The result is that they receive the right care, at the right time, in the right place  – improving overall health outcomes while reducing lost-work time rates and related costs.

Journal Reference:

  1. Karina Nielsen, Kevin Daniels. The relationship between transformational leadership and follower sickness absence: the role of presenteeism. Work & Stress, 2016; 1 DOI: 10.1080/02678373.2016.1170736

This post was contributed by Karen O’Hara, WorkCare’s Director of Marketing and Communications:

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