Leadership – research, mental health and what true leadership is.

Scandinavia produces some of the best research into OHS issues.  However, due to the social structure of Scandinavian countries, the research has little direct and practical application outside the region.  The research is best taken conceptually as it will need to be evaluated closely to determine local applicability.

(TIP: whenever an OHS researcher says “recent Scandinavian studies show….” remind the researcher which country they are in and ask them to explain the practical application in the local context)

In early 2009, there was a bit of media attention about research that found, according to researcher Anna Nyberg

“Enhancing managers’ skills – regarding providing employees with information, support, power in relation to responsibilities, clarity in expectations, and feedback – could have important stress-reducing effects on employees and enhance the health at workplaces.”

In October 2009 Anna Nyberg’s thesis on the issue was released.  According to the abstract to her thesis

“The overall aim of this thesis was to explore the relationship between managerial leadership on the one hand and stress, health, and other health related outcomes among employees on the other.”

Nyberg’s thesis details the needs for some adjustments in the research to allow for “staff category, labour market sector, job insecurity, marital status, satisfaction with life in general, and biological risk factors for cardiovascular disease.”  These adjustments are important to remember when reading any of the media statements about Nyberg’s research.

There were five studies within the thesis and, according to the abstract, they found the following:

“Attentive managerial leadership was found to be significantly related to the employees’ perceived stress, age-adjusted self-rated health and sickness absence due to overstrain or fatigue in a multi-national company.”

“Autocratic and Malevolent leadership [in Sweden, Poland, and Italy] aggregated to the organizational level were found to be related to poorer individual ratings of vitality…. Self-centred leadership … was related to poor employee mental health, vitality, and behavioural stress after these adjustments.”

“… significant associations in the expected directions between Inspirational leadership, Autocratic leadership, Integrity, and Team-integrating leadership on the one hand and self-reported sickness absence among employees on the other in SLOSH, a nationally representative sample of the Swedish working population.”

“… significant associations were found between Dictatorial leadership and lack of Positive leadership on the one hand, and long-lasting stress, emotional exhaustion, deteriorated SRH [self-reported general health], and the risk of leaving the workplace due to poor health or for unemployment on the other hand.”

“In the fifth study…a dose-response relationship between positive aspects of managerial leadership and a lower incidence of hard end-point ischemic heart disease among employees was observed.”

But what can be done about the negative affects of poor leadership on health, safety and wellbeing?  The thesis is unclear on this, other than identifying pathways for further research in this area.

The SafetyAtWorkBlog  recommendations, based on our experience, are below

  • Carefully assess any training provider or business adviser who offers leadership training.
  • Ask for evidence of successful results in the improvement of worker health and wellbeing, not just a list of client recommendations.
  • Look beyond the MBA in selecting senior executives.  If you expect executives to establish and foster a positive workplace culture, they need to have to be able to understand people as well as balance sheets.
  • Remember that the issue of leadership as a management skill is still being investigated, researched and refined.  It is not a mature science and may never be, so do not rely solely on these skills.
  • Some say that leadership cannot be taught and cannot be learned.  Some say that leadership, as spruiked currently, is not leadership, only good management.  Leadership only appears in times of crisis and manifests in response to critical need, not in response to day-to-day matters.

This last point needs a reference – page xiii of “Seventh Journey” by Earl de Blonville

“… leadership cannot be taught.  If it is being taught, it may just be management, rebadged at a higher price.  The second discovery was that leadership is not about the leader, which will confound those with a needy ego.  There were two more things that revealed themselves to me: leadership is all about paradox, which is why it resists attempts to tame it into a curriculum, and at its core leadership is lonely, requiring the strength that could only come from a grasp of its intrinsic paradox.”

Kevin Jones

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