When running a business, you want your managers to encourage, to coach, to mentor and to transform their teams. But new research shows that inspiring staff to work above and beyond could also have some serious health downsides.
The study, led by the University of East Anglia’s Professor Karina Nielsen, found that constant pressure from “transformational leaders” could increase employees’ levels of sickness absence.
Good leadership is more usually associated with good employee well-being, better sleep and less sick leave.
But the study, published in the journal Work & Stress, suggests that staff working for a boss they admire could push themselves to come to work when sick – what is known as presenteeism. This gave them less opportunity to recover and risked spreading infectious diseases like colds.
Ms Nielsen, professor of work and organisational psychology at UEA, says: “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”.
The findings come from a survey of 155 Danish postal workers: they were asked to rate their boss and report their work absence and presenteeism annually over three years.
It found that sickly workers, who forced themselves to go to work for 14 days more than other colleagues each year, were most likely to end up absent. Sickness peaked in the second year for most but in the third year for the most vulnerable, suggesting that workers were eventually forced to take time off sick when they could no longer ignore their symptoms.
Tara Cherniawski, who runs the Dubai training and coaching company Inspirus Learning, says that, as transformational leaders are “empowering their group to make effective decisions for themselves”, employees also need to take ownership of their health.
“Having a firm grasp on the status of one’s own stress levels, health and productivity is an important contribution to any high-performing team,” she says.
UAE culture is shifting towards flexible working practices, she adds, “where the contribution of employees is the focus, and the number of hours put in at the office is becoming of lesser significance”. This should hopefully make presenteeism a thing of the past.
q&a a matter of compromise
Suzanne Locke reveals how employees working for inspirational leaders can manage their health more effectively:
What can a caring manager do to keep employees healthy?
After busy periods it’s important to wind down, says Ms Nielsen – for example, an accountancy firm ensuring people take some time off after year-end. Her co-lead in the research, Kevin Daniels, a professor of organisational behaviour, says: “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”.
Could managers have an ulterior motive in wanting to reduce sickness rates?
Some leaders may have a self-interest in showing that their management is having an effect on sickness, Ms Nielsen warns, particularly if they are themselves rated on absence levels.
What am I entitled to in terms of sick pay by law?
According to UAE federal law, the maximum sick leave for any year is 90 days (whether consecutive or not): the first 15 at full pay, the next 30 at half pay and thereafter without pay. Any more and your employer has the right to terminate you.
When are people most likely to be off sick?
According to a study by the consultants Mercer, in the UK more than a third of all sick leave is taken on a Monday. It also found the highest rate of absence occurs in January, at an average of half a day per person. The first Monday in February has also been cited as the highest day.
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