Bosses behaviors impact employee health – for good or for ill

Research shows that the way employees are treated by their employers impacts workers’ overall health and wellbeing.

An increasing number of companies are providing worksite wellness programs such as smoking cessation, onsite gyms, cholesterol screening and stress management classes in an effort to improve employees’ health. And while these programs can be helpful and improve health outcomes for some people at the personal level, research indicates that more is needed at the interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels. According to Stanford University researcher, Emma Seppala, Ph.D., it’s actually the overall quality of the workplace culture—including the behaviors of bosses that really makes a difference on the overall happiness, health and wellbeing of workers.

The everyday behaviors and actions of supervisors have a significant impact on the way employees experience their jobs—and ultimately these behaviors affect workers’ health. For example, research involving more than 20,000 people from five countries showed that perceived poor leadership at work poses a health risk. When workers experience their leaders or supervisors as authoritarian, harsh, dishonest or distant, they tend to get sick more often, take more sick leave and have a higher risk for having a heart attack.

Seppala’s research also indicates that while high-pressure, high-stress work environments grounded in a culture of fear may provide short-term excitement and engagement for some, in the long run these kinds of cultures increase the negative impacts of stress. This often leads to lowered productivity and employee disengagement which is critical because research shows that 70 percent of the American workforce is disengaged at work. Too many workers feel exhausted, overwhelmed, disgruntled and burned out in today’s organizations.

On the other hand, when employees experience their bosses and workplace culture as supportive, caring and inspiring they tend to be happier, healthier and more engaged at work. Positive work climates tend to lead to employees having lower blood pressure and heart rates and stronger immune systems. Seppala

Seppala encourages leaders to foster positive climates by modeling value-guided characteristics such as:

Social connections: Positive social interactions and relationships at work (and at home) are essential to overall health and wellbeing. Place a high value on social connection. Reach out to employees and take the time to learn about their families and their lives outside of work. Foster a sense of belonging in the workplace and do what you can to encourage co-workers and colleagues to get to know one another and genuinely care about each other as human beings.

Caring and Empathy: Be present with people and show genuine care, concern and compassion for employees. Research suggests that compassionate bosses foster resilience through tough times at the personal, interpersonal and institutional levels.

Safety: Encourage a culture and climate of emotional safety by being someone that employees can come to with their questions, problems and concerns. Be mindful of your words and responses and practice deep listening. Be open, inclusive and humble—and encourage workers to speak up and ask for help when they need it. Promote a climate of safety that fosters risk-taking, innovation and engagement.

In the face of very real pressures and stressors, bosses have an extremely important role to play in setting the tone for the whole organization. In addition to offering quality worksite wellness programs that focus on emotional wellness, stress management and nutrition education, leaders can impact the overall health and wellbeing of people and organizations through their own actions and policies that model kindness, compassion, self-compassion, openness, gratitude, safety, trust and inclusion.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources and educational sessions focused on social and emotional health including RELAX and Stress Less with Mindfulness

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