Leaders and their impact on mental health and performance

If any of you have seen the film ‘Horrible Bosses’ you’ll see the extreme lengths that three employees are driven to by their nightmare managers. Jason Bateman’s character, in particular, is driven to the edge of sanity following a change in leadership of his organisation.

Mental health and well-being in the workplace is gaining increasing traction in the press. In the UK, the Government recently published an independent review, called Thriving at Work, which looked at mental health and employers.

Hot on the heels of this, the British Psychological Society will be publishing its own report, ‘Psychology at work: Improving wellbeing and productivity in the workplace’.

So, it was interesting to come across some research from the March 2017 Journal of Organizational Behavior which focused on the relationship between leadership, follower mental health and job performance.

The research

The researchers carried out a meta-analysis of 144 papers, dissertations and books, and 478 correlations. They limited the analysis to anything published between  January 2000 and August 2014.

At the heart of the study is the notion that “leadership is not a neutral element when it comes to occupational health”.

Five leadership aspects were assessed:

  1. Transformational leadership: Typically viewed as inspiring, motivating and charismatic leadership. Bernard Bass is commonly associated with devising this concept.
  2. Relationship-oriented leadership: Concern for the team member, supportive and respectful. Bernard and Ruth Bass wrote about this in some detail in their 2008 book.
  3. Task-oriented leadership: Focus on achievement of goals, planning, monitoring and performance. Gary Yukl has written about this in his 2013 book.
  4. Destructive leadership: Typically associated with aggression, authoritarianism, narcissism, manipulation and in some instances, psychopathy. Clive Boddy wrote an interesting piece on psychopathic leadership in the Journal of Business Ethics.
  5. Social interaction: A particular focus was given to Leader-Member Exchange Theory where it is assumed leaders and followers can develop mutually beneficial, mature, healthy relationships.

And six mental health-related outcomes were explored:

  1. Affective symptoms: These are the moods, emotions and/or feelings displayed by the person whose mental health is being affected by the situation.
  2. Burnout: This is the manifestation of prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors at work. Christina Maslach, Wilmar Schaufeli and Michael Leiter wrote a seminal piece on this in 2001.
  3. Stress: Typically this is our physical response (e.g. stomach ulcers) to external environmental factors (e.g. bullying boss), with some accompanying neurotic symptoms (e.g. paranoia).
  4. Well-being: A positive sense of self and satisfaction with life and the ability and capacity to flourish. Ian McDowell wrote a really good piece about this in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.
  5. Psychological functioning: The positive relationship between mental health and environmental conditions in relation to ability to participate in activities and interact socially. The World Health Organization published a framework in 2002 for describing psychological functioning among other aspects of health.
  6. Health complaints: This relates to general health problems, fatigue and how someone feels in themselves, i.e. how much energy and vitality they feel they have.

The findings

  1. Transformational leadership is positively associated with positive mental health and negatively associated with negative mental health.
  2. There was a positive link between relationship-oriented and task-oriented leadership and positive mental health but only where the relationships and tasks were of high quality.
  3. Unsurprisingly, destructive leadership was strongly negatively associated with positive mental health and strongly positively associated with negative mental health.
  4. Leader-Member Exchange was associated with higher levels of well-being, functioning and performance. (It’s important to note that there were a lower number of studies from which to draw this conclusion, so caution should be erred with this finding).

The researchers sum it up best when they state,

“Destructive leadership seems not only to deteriorate mental health but also to reduce the levels of positive mental health states”

Implications for organisations and practitioners

This research is important because of the burden mental health issues place on the individual (e.g. depression), the organisation (e.g. costs of high sickness absence) and wider society (e.g. additional strain on the national health system).

As the researchers say, “Leadership most likely is an important occupational health factor in its own right” and so, it is vital for leaders to be educated in their role in protecting and enhancing the mental health of their employees. Not only is the right thing to do, it pays dividends in terms of organisational performance.

Here are some practical solutions which can help:

  1. Create a high-quality feedback environment. This is related to lower job depression and reduces feelings of helplessness. Developing managers in the skills needed to give meaningful feedback could make a fundamental difference to well-being and performance.
  2. Leadership development: If rolling out a leadership development programme, focus part of it on the ‘dark side of leadership’ to educate leaders on the behaviours to watch for. I still come across programmes which just focus on the ‘good stuff’ e.g. transformational leadership.
  3. Reward and recognition: Develop approaches at different levels in the organisation. For example, one group of managers I recently worked with each developed localised reward and recognition schemes, rather than just rely on the wider corporate scheme. This can help heighten self-accomplishment, meaning and hence well-being for employees.
  4. Performance management skills: Ensure managers have the skills to set well-defined, clearly understood and agreed goals, tasks, plans and monitoring approaches to those tasks. Task-oriented leaders need to balance their style with empathy and understanding.
  5. Emotional intelligence training and development: This should be rolled out across the whole organisation. Whilst it is important to give leaders the tools and techniques to handle their employees with care and consideration, likewise ‘followers’ need tools to help better challenge and negotiate difficult situations.

Do you have examples of where leadership has impacted health, well-being and performance? What kind of tactics did you use to overcome destructive leadership? Share your thoughts, musings and ideas in the comments box below.

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