Mental health

'Transformational managers' may be bad for workplace health

"Managers who pressurise their staff to go that extra mile risk harming their employees' health," the Daily Mail reports.

New research suggests "transformational managers" – charismatic high achievers – may increase levels of sickness in the workforce.

Supporters of transformational management would say it combines individual charisma and the ability to motivate staff and stimulate employees with being able to gauge the strength and weaknesses of staff members on an individual basis.

A poster boy for transformational management would be the late Steve Jobs of Apple fame.

But playing devil's advocate, you could argue that some managers who try to adopt this style fail to get their approach right, and it's more intimidation than motivation.

Think of the fictional boss from hell, Miranda Priestly, as played by Meryl Streep in the film The Devil Wears Prada. 

Researchers followed Danish postal workers for three years. Those with line managers displaying a transformational leadership style had more sick days off work a year later – about four days more a year. The link was not seen in the subsequent year.

They report some staff members were coming into work even though they were ill – what's known as presenteeism. This could exacerbate health problems and lead to long-term problems with productivity.

So overall, this study shows that transformational leadership may have a dark side, but needs more investigation so we can better understand the link. A longer-term assessment of the effects of presenteeism would also be useful.  

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of East Anglia in the UK and the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment. It was funded by the National Work Environment Research Fund.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Work and Stress.

The media coverage was generally accurate, although the reporting tended to skate over the complexity of the relationship over time and its link with presenteeism.

What kind of research was this?

This longitudinal study followed 155 Danish postal workers over three years to track their presenteeism and sickness levels, and how these work-related measures were impacted by having a line manager with a transformational leadership style.

Transformational leadership was defined as having four main dimensions:

1. idealised influence or charisma – the leader acts as a role model and takes the lead in displaying desirable behaviour

2. inspirational motivation – the leader outlines a clear vision and the way forward

3. intellectual stimulation – the leader encourages employees to make use of their skills and coaches them in making their own decisions

4. individualised consideration – the leader acknowledges individual differences, and adjusts behaviour according to the individual's needs and capabilities

Previous research has shown leaders play a significant role in the sickness absenteeism patterns of their employees, but the question of whether a transformational leadership style increases sick leave has not yet been answered.

The research team thought the added pressure of this leadership style might encourage employees to come to work while unwell, potentially prolonging their own illness and actually increasing the overall number of sick days on a long-term basis. They set out to test this hypothesis.

What did the research involve?

The study interviewed a group of postal workers three times over three years to find out their line managers' leadership style, the number of days they took off work sick, and presenteeism.

To assess sick leave, employees were asked to say how many days they'd taken off work because of personal illness in the last year.

Estimates of presenteeism came from asking employees the question: "In the past 12 months how many workdays have you gone to work even if you were sick?"

Absence and presenteeism levels at year one were used as the reference level, so changes in year two and three were relative to this starting point.

Transformational leadership style was assessed by the employees using the Global Transformational Leadership Scale, a seven-item leadership questionnaire at year one only.

Response rates to the surveys from the postal workers were high in each of the three years, not falling below 86%.

Many eligible people were excluded from the analysis because of missing data on absence or presenteeism, which is a potential problem.

However, the researchers analysed both the included and excluded groups and found them no different in terms of absence or presenteeism rates.

The final sample analysed was 155 workers from 22 teams. The average age was 42 years and most (60%) were men.  

What were the basic results?

The results showed a changing relationship between leadership style and employee sickness over time.

Transformational leadership in year one increased sickness in year two, but not year three.

Postal workers took an average of 11 days off in year one, which increased to 14 in year two (a statistically significant increase) before dropping back to eight days in year three (statistically no different from year one).

The researchers found presenteeism levels in year one modified the link between transformational leadership and sick leave in year three, but not year two. 

A closer look at this relationship in year three found those who reported an average of 14 days more presenteeism in a year than their co-workers were more likely to be negatively influenced by transformational leadership in terms of taking more days off sick.

Groups with less presenteeism were not affected in the same way.  

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said that, "A large body of literature has found positive relationships between transformational leadership and well-being cross-sectionally (Skakon et al 2010), but it would appear that over time transformational leadership may also have negative effects on employees.

"Our results suggest that transformational leadership behaviours may have an adverse effect on those employees who frequently show up for work while ill.

"The constant pressure from transformational leaders to perform 'above and beyond the call of duty' and the accentuated pressure from the work group may prevent followers from recovering from the pressures at work, and as a result lead to sickness absenteeism."

In terms of solutions, they suggest: "Transformational leadership training should comprise health-related dimensions of transformational leadership.

"For example, intellectual stimulation should focus not only on developing competencies and mastery in followers [employees], but also on building their resilience and coping skills.

"Leaders could also be trained in incorporating wellbeing and health into the vision, goals, and objectives they develop for work groups. As role models, transformational leaders should display healthy behaviours and encourage followers to look after their own health." 


This study shows that a popular leadership style called transformational leadership may increase employee sick days, but this depends on employees' existing tendencies to show up to work when they're ill.

Those who tended to show up to work ill the most were also those most likely to be off sick more when a transformational leader was installed.

The researchers' theory was that those more likely to come into work when they're ill don't have a chance to recover from work and illness fully, leading to more sickness in the long term.

However, this study has a number of limitations to be aware of. Those reporting high levels of presenteeism may have been trying to appear to be good workers who would soldier on and go into work despite being unwell, which could skew the results.

Similarly, postal work – which is somewhat outdoorsy and active – is probably not a good model for most jobs in the UK, many of which are office based. This means the conclusions of this study can't be stretched to apply to all workers and settings. 

Also, sick leave was self-reported by employees, who were asked to recall the number of days they had off because of illness over the past year.

The employees' absence records would have been a more accurate source of days off work, but would not have been restricted to sick leave – also including absence because of a family emergency, for example.

The researchers appeared to have both sets of information available, and said that self-reported sick leave did correlate with employer records of total days off work as you'd expect, although only weakly.

Comparing the effects of leadership between self-reported sick leave and general absence would have given us a better idea of how much this measurement difference affects the end results.

The study was not able to tell us anything about how transformational leadership may exhibit adversely affect health. The hypothesis that this leadership style may prevent employees recovering from illness because of work pressures, leading to more sickness absenteeism, wasn't tested, so remains speculative.

Also, the estimate of transformational leadership style may not have been entirely accurate, as it was based on quite a short questionnaire. Error in this measurement would muddy the link the researchers were trying to assess, and could explain some of the lack of effect found in the short term.

Overall, this study shows that transformational leadership may have a dark side, but needs more investigation to better understand the link.

Some pressure at work can be motivating, but can eventually lead to work-related stress when it becomes excessive. This in turn can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Whatever the source of your stress, speak to your manager or someone else in your organisation who you feel comfortable talking to.

Read more about coping with workplace stress.

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