The findings by researchers from University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK show that constant pressure from these ‘transformational leaders’ may increase sickness absence levels among employees.
They also indicate that some vulnerable employees in groups with transformational leaders may in the long term have increased sickness absence rates if they ignore their ill-health and frequently show up for work while ill, known as presenteeism,They looked for the first time at the relationship between presenteeism, transformational leadership and sickness absence rates. The results have implications for how organisations might effectively deal with employees’ health and well-being.
Transformational leadership has previously been associated with positive employee well-being, better sleep quality, fewer depressive symptoms and reduced general absenteeism in the short term. The study suggests that a transformational leader who encourages their group to make an extra effort at work may exacerbate sickness absence, as high levels of presenteeism may result in reduced opportunities for recovery along with the risk of spreading contagious conditions, such as the common cold, in the long term.
“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 from 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,” said Nielsen.
Researchers focused on postal workers and their managers in Denmark over three years. In total there were 155 participants in 22 work groups. Employees rated their immediate line manager at the start of the study and were asked about their sickness absence and presenteeism for the previous year. Sickness absence was assessed again in years two and three.
Researchers found that transformational leadership increased sickness absence when workers exhibited 14 more days of presenteeism than their colleagues.
Transformational leadership in the first year was related to higher levels of sickness absence among staff in the second year, but not the third, researchers said. Employees working in groups with a transformational leader and who had high levels of presenteeism reported the highest levels of sickness absenteeism in the third year, but not the second, they said.