Are Your ‘Transformational’ Leaders Making Everybody Sick?

There are many different leadership styles, but some are less effective—or even more detrimental—than others. So-called “transformational leaders” sometimes pressure their reports to tough it out and come to work when they’re sick, and according to new research, this may actually harm their employees’ health over time.

The findings of a new study from the University of East Anglia (UEA), published in the journal Work & Stress, suggest that while constant pressure from these “transformational leaders” may initially decrease absence rates for employees in their groups, but in the long run, they may actually increase absence rates. This is because employees ignore their ill health and become sicker, or they will frequently show up for work while ill in what is known as “presenteeism.”

According to a press release on the study, transformational leaders have been defined as those who:

  • Encourage their employees to perform above and beyond the call of duty.
  • Formulate a clear vision of what is to be achieved by the team.
  • Encourage employees to seek out challenges at work and engage in proactive problem solving.
  • Function as role models.
  • Consider the needs of employees on an individual basis.


Transformational leaders have previously been credited for positive employee well-being, better sleep quality, fewer depressive symptoms, and reduced general absenteeism among workers.

However, lead researchers Karina Nielsen, professor of work and organizational psychology, and Kevin Daniels, professor of organizational behavior at UEA’s Norwich School of Business, looked for the first time at the relationship between transformational leadership, presenteeism, and sickness absence rates. The results have implications for how organizations might effectively deal with employees’ health and well-being.

The study findings suggest that a transformational leader who encourages his or her group to make an extra effort to being at work every day may exacerbate health problems in that workplace.

High levels of presenteeism encouraged by transformational workers may result in increased risk of the spread of contagious illnesses, such as the common cold and flu, and reduced opportunities for workers to stay at home to recover as they hurry back to work before they are completely well.

Nielsen said the relationship between transformational leadership and the number of sickness absences was complex. “It is possible that high performance expectations pose a risk to both healthy and vulnerable employees, [so] the motivational aspects of transformational leadership may backfire,” she said.

“Transformational leaders may promote self-sacrifice to vulnerable employees for the ‘greater good of the group’ by encouraging them to ignore their illnesses and exert themselves. This can lead to increased risks of sickness absence in the long term.

“Such leaders express the value to perform above and beyond the call of duty possibly at the expense of employees’ health because they have a self-interest in demonstrating low sickness absence rates in their work groups.

“This pattern may be a particular problem in organizations where managers are rated according to their ability to control sickness absence levels.”

The research focused on postal workers and their managers in Denmark over 3 years. At the start of the study, employees rated their immediate line managers’ behaviors on a scale from 1 to 5 and were asked about their own absences for illness and presenteeism for the previous year. Sickness absence was assessed again in the second and third years.

The authors found that transformational leadership increased sickness absence when workers exhibited 14 more days of presenteeism than their colleagues. Transformational leadership in the first year was related to higher levels of sickness absence among staff in the second year but not the third. Employees who had high levels of presenteeism reported the highest levels of sickness absenteeism in the third year, but not the second.

The findings suggest that more immediate, short-term effects can be found among staff, but for vulnerable workers, the increase in adverse effects takes longer to materialize. Lack of recovery time may also explain these findings, leading workers to eventually take a sick day because they can no longer ignore their symptoms.

“The assumption that ‘more transformational leadership is better’ does not hold over time. As role models, transformational leaders should display healthy behaviors when motivating people; they should monitor and check them, and encourage workers to look after their own health. Managers need to strike a balance, they can still encourage staff to perform well, but in a way that is not at the expense of their health and well-being,” said Daniels.

The authors recommend that transformational leaders receive training in health-related issues. Leaders should also be trained in incorporating well-being and health into the vision, goals, and objectives they develop for their work groups.