We all know that work can make us stressed, and sometimes even depressed. Past research has shown that working under transformational leaders — bosses who are inspirational, charismatic, and motivational — can combat these issues, and they’ve been associated with employee’s wellbeing, improved sleep quality, fewer depressive symptoms, and reduced absenteeism, or playing hooky. Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA), however, have discovered that transformational leaders may actually harm employees' health in the long run because they might encourage them to work too hard.

"The assumption that 'more transformational leadership is better' does not hold over time,” said Kevin Daniels, a professor of organizational behavior at UEA's Norwich Business School, in a press release.

The researchers analyzed the relationship between transformational leadership, absence rates due to illness, and presenteeism (the act of attending work while sick) by asking 155 participants to rate their immediate manager and answer questions about their attendance. The researchers found that transformational leadership increased the amount of absences due to illness in workers who also tended to go into work despite being sick.

"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," said Karina Nielsen, a professor of work and organizational psychology at UEA. "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. ”

In other words, the more positive effects of transformational leadership can be found among staff in the short-term, but workers who are more vulnerable to presenteeism are likely to experience negative health consequences in the long term. The researchers reported that a lack of recovery time from illness may explain the effect. When employees are encouraged to work harder, they may ignore their symptoms for too long, and end up becoming sicker, spreading their illnesses to coworkers.  

“As role models, transformational leaders should display healthy behaviors when motivating people,” Daniels said. “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 wellbeing."

Nielsen said, “Such leaders express values to perform above and beyond the call of duty possibly at the expense of employees' health because they have a self-interest in demonstrating low sickness absence rates in their work groups. This pattern may be a particular problem in organizations where managers are rated according to their ability to control sickness absence levels."

To avoid the health risks associated with transformational leadership, the researchers advised corporations to include health-related elements in managerial training. They also stated that leaders should incorporate workers’ health into the vision, goals, and objectives they develop for work groups.

Source: Nielsen K, Daniels K. The relationship between transformational leadership and follower sickness absence: the role of presenteeism. Work & Stress. 2016.