Management style is a serious factor when it comes to mental health in the workplace.

Do you find your boss to be somewhat lacking in the subtle arts of social skills? Is their managerial style characterised by telling you what to do rather than discussing that with you? Do they give you a task but not all of the information you need to carry it out? Or worse still, micromanage, and remove any sense of  your personal autonomy?

Could this be having an impact on your health? And if so, is that impact significant and measurable?

The answer to both of the last two questions is…. yes.

Your boss’s managerial style has been shown to have a direct and lasting effect on your wellbeing. Managers who make dictatorial decisions, say one thing and do another, force their opinions on you, shout, ridicule or even name call are actively damaging their team’s health.

In a series of five international studies conducted at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and written about by Anna Nyberg in her doctoral thesis, it was shown that perceived poor managerial leadership increases not only the amount of sick leave taken but also the risk of sickness later in life.

And .. the longer a person is the subject of  poorer managerial style, the higher their risk of illness within the next ten year time period. For example, in a ten year follow up of one of the study’s participants, there was up to a 25% increased risk of heart attack.

Not only does mental health suffer, with increased ratings for stress, emotional exhaustion and sick leave, but also physical health is affected. Of course, the two are intimately related.

Subjects in these studies were measured on parameters like self-rated stress, sickness absence, emotional exhaustion, quitting the job, and self-rated health.  There was a direct correlation between management leadership style and employee wellbeing. This has huge repercussions for businesses, which don’t really need spelling out. Since it hurts the bottom line, the profit margin, leaders really need to sit up and listen.

A more elusive but potentially equally damaging parameter, both to the person and the business productivity, is presenteeism. Turning up for work when you really would be better off staying at home. But you drag yourself in and sit there for fear of redundancy, gossip, mounting workload, and adverse reactions from your line manager.

An aggressive, authoritarian leadership style, what the study author calls actively destructive leadership, damages people mentally, emotionally and in the long run, physically. Being told what to do, being subjected to elitist values, and having opinions forced on you, take their toll, as do insincerity, and lack of integrity on the part of leaders. Other favourites include not giving people what they need to get the job done, and not explaining goals and subgoals in terms of relevance to tasks being handed out.

On the other hand, leadership styles that offered support, autonomy, and sufficient personal power in relation to responsibilities given, led to good employee health. Bosses who are perceived to have integrity, offer inspiration, and are able to integrate their teams, are good for you. Being involved appropriately in decision making, treated with respect and trust, having the information you need, and being given the authority and personal power to carry out the job, are managerial imperatives if you want your team to flourish and perform.

There is a clear need to educate those in positions of power to have the kind of skills that enable them to deliver this kind of leadership. It takes strong social and emotional competence, strong relationship-building and a strong ability to continuously read the situation and respond appropriately and effectively. This in turn implies self-awareness, emotional maturity, and adaptability.

Employing managers need to take heed. If they do not ensure that people they promote to positions of power do not have these skills, they are bedding in problems for themselves further down the line. Academic qualifications and  expertise on paper do not necessarily guarantee good leadership skills.

A third category of managerial style emerges from studies like this, one that Nyberg calls passive destructive. These are the managers who have a “laisser faire” attitude to their role, who appear self-centred, withdrawn, the “not my problem” approach, which they may try to pass off as the opposite of micro-managing. Such bosses may tend to gossip, have hidden agendas, and really be out only for their own success rather than that of the team or business.

In other words, lack of positive leadership is as significant in predicting emotional exhaustion, long-lasting stress and decreased general health, as is actively negative leadership.

Times are changing. Charisma doesn’t cut it as a leadership quality any more. A report by Collins published in 2001 of the types of leader who steered their businesses to top flight success, showed them to be humble, steadfast, fearless, hardworking, with high moral standards, and greater ambitions for their company than for themselves personally.

If we are to tackle mental health in the workplace we need to start with the leaders, the managers, the people who have the power to make their people’s lives heaven or hell. Stress, anxiety and depression are the silent, invisible epidemic of the 21st century. Work needs to be source of empowerment, connectedness and shared humanity.

Leaders need to realise fully the potential they have to damage or enable people, and realise that the powerhouse of  their business success is the wellbeing of their people.

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