How bad bosses can make you sick

We've all heard the story of the egotistical boss or the one that terrorizes and intimidates employees. Are the days of selecting that kind of person as a leader and the tolerance for them by younger employees coming to an end.(link is external)? There is increasing evidence that there is a clear link between bad leaders and employee health problems, which is turn, can be a huge liability for organizations. In effect, bad bosses can make you sick.

In an earlier article in the National Post, A Guide For Dealing With, Well, "Difficult People"(link is external), I cite the work of Dr. Robert Sutton of Stanford University who wrote: The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't(link is external). He says in business and sports it is assumed that if you are a big winner, you can get away with being a jerk. He says such bosses drive good people out. Among the companies that keep the jerks out are Google's "no jerk" policy and business software company Success Factors, instituting a "similar rule, which includes lengthy job interviews and probing questions designed to uncover brow-beating tendencies."

A jerk in the workplace is defined as someone who oppresses, humiliates, de-energizes or belittles a subordinate or a colleague. Sutton distinguishes between "temporary" jerks, and the "certified" jerks who are routinely nasty and pose the greatest threat to a company's culture. Their dirty tactics include: personal insults, invading one's personal space, uninvited personal contact, threats and intimidation (verbal and non-verbal), sarcastic jokes and teasing, public humiliation, rude interruptions, dirty looks, treating people like they are invisible and two-faced attacks.

Sutton claims this behavior affects the bottom line through increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment and performance. He says the time spent counseling or appeasing these people, consoling victimized employees, reorganizing departments or teams and arranging transfers produce significant hidden costs for the company.

According to Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant(link is external), bad boss behaviour seems to be pandemic and now, a new survey reveals that self-oriented bosses are more prevalent than ever. In a survey Taylor commissioned of 1,002 adults, 86% of Americans felt that too often, bad boss behaviours fly under the radar until it's too late, affecting too many people. According to an earlier study, 70% of workers said they believed employees must be careful when managing up with bosses, or they could lose their jobs. A five-year, national study compared bad, childish traits, including stubbornness, self-oriented, overly demanding, impulsiveness, interrupting and tantrum-throwing in bosses between 2004 to 2009, and found "self-oriented" spiked by 50% to the top spot in that period. In the same study conducted by a global research firm, seven in 10 Americans said "bosses and toddlers with too much power act alike."

In my work as an executive coach and leadership trainer, I am seeing increasing prevalence of leaders who engage in trash-talking, or "smack-talking(link is external)," about their opponents or competitors. While we're familiar with seeing that behavior in professional sports and politics, it is spreading.

A study by Dr. Noreen Tehrani, who counseled victims of violence in Northern Ireland, soldiers returning from overseas combat and victims of workplace bullying all exhibited similar psychological and physical symptoms-nightmares and extreme anxiety, and a variety of physical ailments.

Swedish researchers, led by Anna Nyberg at the Stress Institute in Stockholm, have published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine on the issue of leaders' behavior and employee health. They studied more than 3,100 men over a 10 year period in typical work settings. They found that employees who had managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative, the employees were 60% more likely to suffered a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition. By contrast, employees who worked with "good" leaders were 40% less likely to suffer heart problems. Nyberg said, "for all those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don't understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this develops into a health risk."

A study of 6,000 British office workers found employees who felt that their supervisors treated them fairly had a 30% lower risk of heart disease. A 2008 meta-analysis of the connection between health and leadership by Jana Kuoppala and associates concluded that good leadership was associated with a 27% reduction in sick leave and a 46% reduction in disability pensions. The same study concluded that employees with good leaders were 40% more likely to report the highest levels of psychological well-being including lower levels of anxiety and depression.

In an article by Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins and Harvey Greenberg, published in the Boston Globe, they cited numerous research studies regarding leadership style and the health of employees. They concluded "your boss can cause you stress, inducedepression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illnesses. It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the lackadaisical and mediocre who put employees on the sick list." And the cost is huge in terms of lostproductivity, healthcare costs and employee turnover. The authors argue that a whole new field of litigation in the U.S. is developing-"lawsuits against 'bad bosses' and the organizations that negligently allow them to supervise."

With tough economic times already producing considerable stress for employees in terms of increased workloads and expectations for greater performance, the physical and mental health of employees is of paramount importance. A key strategy for addressing this issue is ensuring that executives and managers have positive and healthy relationships with employees. The cost is too high to endure any longer, "bad bosses."

Courtesy: Psychology Today
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