Career advice

Be a smarter leader by looking after your staff

Are you working for a transformational leader? The sort of person the NHS desperately needs who will enthuse and inspire all around them with 100 ideas a minute and boundless energy? Yes? Exhausting isn’t it?

Are you working for a transformational leader? The sort of person the NHS desperately needs who will enthuse and inspire all around them with 100 ideas a minute and boundless energy? Yes? Exhausting isn’t it?

Picture credit: Getty Images

You are not alone if you are feeling shattered and under the weather by the end of the week – but do not want to call in sick. New research shows that leaders who inspire their staff to go beyond the call of duty can also have an adverse affect on their team’s health.

University of East Anglia researchers looked at the relationship between transformational leadership, taking time off work and ‘presenteeism’ – when staff feel they need to be at work even when unwell.

Their findings suggest that the pressures of working for transformational leaders can result in greater levels of sickness absence. It was thought that transformational leaders were associated with improved employee wellbeing, better sleep, fewer symptoms of depression and reduced absenteeism.

Be aware of what you are asking them to do – is it feasible or will they have to burn the midnight oil to produce that report or audit?

Make it clear that they will not be judged for taking time off if they are ill and that coming in may put patients and other staff at risk.

Encourage staff to think about their own wellbeing and health. Set examples of this in your own behaviour.

Do not pass stress on to your staff unnecessarily. Develop ways of coping with it but do not let it become their problem.

But it appears the impact is more nuanced, and some staff are at risk of increased sickness absence if they push themselves to turn up at work while unwell. ‘Transformational leadership may promote self-sacrifice in vulnerable followers by leading them to do work while ill, leading to increased risks of sickness absence in the long term,’ the researchers concluded.

The ‘average’ nurse will be off work unwell about one day a month. However, there is evidence that work-related stress is becoming more common: numbers of staff reporting feeling unwell because of stress at work has increased in recent years and is thought to account for 30% of sick leave.

Karina Nielsen, one of the researchers, says the findings will be relevant to nurses who are the type of workers who do not just do the hours, go home and forget about it.

She suggests two mechanisms by which staff health can be affected. One is if team members come to work with a minor illness – such as a cold – and then pass it on to colleagues and patients. The second is the longer term cumulative effect of pushing yourself to work when unwell.

‘Rather than focusing on performance when a leader formulates a vision for the team, it needs to be about smarter ways of working,’ Professor Nielsen says.

Leaders also need to clearly express the values they want their team to live by – including that they do not want them to come to work when unwell – because pressure from the top will permeate through the team.

She suggests leaders use coaching and mentoring opportunities to talk to people about how they can become fulfilled in their work without health and wellbeing suffering.

RCN senior employment relations adviser Kim Sunley says research shows nurses go to work when ill because they do not want to let colleagues down, and are concerned about punitive absence policies. ‘Culture is set at the very top of the organisation and managers lead by example’.

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