November 10, 2014 Vince Molinaro

A while back I was having a heart-to-heart chat with a client, a mid-level leader who was really struggling with his boss, a high-ranking executive.

When I say struggling, I don’t mean typical conflicts that can arise between employees and their bosses.

Instead, my client was working for what can only be described as a psychopath – a mean-spirited individual known to mistreat his employees.

I could see that it was taking a toll on my client and I advised him that he really had only two choices. “You either have to learn to somehow deal with this person,” I told him, “or you have to leave. But do something. This is killing you.”

He struggled with this advice because of his loyalty to his company.

After that chat, my client went radio-silent. I hadn’t heard from him for months when I learned he had become physically ill and was forced to take a long stress leave. He eventually left that organization, but not without considerable suffering.

I was upset about what happened to this client. But I wasn’t surprised. I have always known that abusive bosses can make their employees sick. There is a growing body of scientific research showing just how much of a toll bad bosses can exact on their employees.

In a recent Washington Post article, the author lists a number of seminal studies showing that abusive leadership can, over time, contribute to higher rates of heart disease, heart attack, and angina. These studies also show links to sleep problems, high-blood pressure and a wide-range of mental health problems, including depression.

So it’s clear: abusive behavior by leaders can manifest in physical ailments among employees. But if this is something we all know – either anecdotally or by reading scientific studies – then why are more leaders not changing the way they lead?

Perhaps it’s a lack of self-awareness; these bosses are so clueless about the impact their leadership is having on their employees, they never make the connection between the way they treat people and the propensity for illness. As a result, they never feel the need to change anything.

Perhaps they would be more motivated to change if they considered something else: abusive leadership not only takes a toll on employee health, it also affects organizational health.

I’ve met many leaders who believe that abusive behavior whether in the form of constant criticism, belittling or verbally abusing their employees – can be justified because it “produces results.” While that might be true in the short-term, it’s not a sustainable leadership strategy.

In that same Washington Post article, the author quotes Jonathan Quick, an instructor at the Harvard University Medical School, who has just written a book called Preventative Stress Management in Organizations. Quick looks at the link between abusive leadership and employee illness, but also examines the way this kind of leadership affects organizational performance.

“The evidence is also clear that despite the rationalizations some leaders may use to defend their stress-inducing, unsupportive style, such behavior by leaders does not contribute to improved individual performance or organizational productivity,” Quick said in the article.

The idea here is not to create a stress-free environment. Stress drives us to higher levels of performance, but there’s a point where extreme stress coming from the leader can have negative consequences.

As a leader, you want to have high expectations for your employees’ performance. You will also need to be tough when employees are not performing. However, you do not want to drive your people into the ground. That is not good for their health, and it will not drive organizational performance.

As leaders, it’s incumbent on all of us to take a moment and look at the people we lead and ask: are my people engaged and happy, and most importantly, are they healthy?

I’ve learned through my own leadership experiences that the people we lead are barometers to the way we actually lead. If your people are reporting alarming rates of stress leaves then you need to own up to what you may be doing to contribute to these problems. Either it’s a message about your own leadership style, or another leader in your own company.

This week’s Gut Check is important both for the health of your employees and your organization: Are you making your employees sick?

Join me @VinceMolinaro

About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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Gut Check: Are You Making Your Employees Sick?
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