Lean on Me: A Leader’s Impact on Wellness

Key Points:

  1. Mental health is a vital occupational health factor that organizations should prioritize by actively developing positive leaders who reflect effective leadership styles and behaviours, implementing supportive policies, and proactively monitoring employee well-being to create a more productive and inclusive work environment.
  1. Effective leadership styles like transformational leadership, relations-oriented leadership, and task-oriented leadership, and creating strong relational and communicative ties plays a crucial role in promoting wellness and thereby impacting job performance within organizations.
  1. Destructive leadership behaviors, characterized by aggressiveness and disrespect, are associated with negative mental health outcomes and should be actively mitigated to protect employee well-being and performance.

In the world of business, leadership remains the cornerstone of influence. It’s one of the few well-studied concepts in organizational psychology that business seems to have actively prioritized and adopted into their practice. There are many legitimate reasons why businesses have placed such a high priority on leadership ranging from performance and profitability, to people and process, but recent research is showing that there’s another reason to prioritize effective leadership and strategic leadership fit for your business needs. Health and Wellness.

Why Do Businesses Care About Mental Health?

In a post-COVID world, mental health is becoming of paramount concern for organizations and business leaders due to its profound impact on employee wellbeing, productivity, and performance. Business leaders are coming to the rightful realization that people have their limits and that there are organizational contributors to wellness;  that by addressing mental health, they can mitigate issues such as absenteeism and presenteeism, attract and retain top talent, and uphold legal and ethical responsibilities. By fostering a workplace environment that shows through its actions that it values its people and their mental health, they can actively demonstrate a commitment to the people driving the organization’s success, resulting in increased engagement, loyalty, and productivity among employees. By taking a more active role to address the mental-health of their people, business leaders and organizations are better able to combat the stigma surrounding symptoms of mental illness simultaneously helping organizations to be more inclusive proactive in the sense that it actively encourages people to talk about these things more openly and be more likely to receive treatment. After all, healthy businesses are profitable businesses and mental health is a centerpiece of overall health.

Leadership isn’t just about guiding tasks; it extends to nurturing and protecting your followers and positively impacting their work experience and job performance.

Setting the Stage

Our managers have the power to promote in-fighting or to unite teammates around a shared vision or goal, they can facilitate or degrade internal communication, they are responsible for the broader decision-making of divisions and teams, and they have great potential to be the source of inspiration within an organization. They govern many people’s work-lives and so, it stands to reason, that leaders have the potential to dramatically impact the health and wellness of the people that they’re charged in service too. This is what prompted Diego Montano, Anna Reeske, Franziska Franke, and Joachim Hüffmeier (2016) to perform their groundbreaking meta-analytic research that shed light on how different leadership styles impact followers’ mental wellness and subsequent job performance. Their research examined  several well documented leadership constructs in science and practice (including transformational leadership, relations-oriented leadership, task-oriented leadership, destructive leadership, and leader–member exchange) and revealed how these leadership styles influence six categories of mental health outcomes, encompassing both negative and positive states (emotional symptoms, burnout, stress, wellbeing, psychological functioning, and health complaints). They then explored the extent to which these properties of mental illness were responsible for any relationship that leadership had on performance. They were looking to see if the decrements (or increases) in performance due to poor leadership (or good leadership, respectively) were due to changes in mental health that were impacted by leader behaviour. The study’s findings paint a vivid picture of the interplay between leadership, mental health, and job performance.

What are Task Oriented, Relations Oriented and Transformational Leadership Styles?

All three leadership styles are effective leadership styles and they focus on different aspects such as Task-Oriented Leadership focuses on achieving goals via delegated tasks, on the other hand Relations Oriented Leadership focuses on support, motivation and building strong leader-follower relationships. Finally, transformative leadership provides employees with a strong role model who embodies it through their actions, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and personalized consideration and consideration. 

What Does the Evidence Have to Say?

Wellness’ Ties to Leader Behaviour

Montano and colleagues found that all positive leadership styles and communications processes that they studied demonstrated small to moderate positive correlations with psychological functioning and wellbeing and small to moderate negative relationships with health complaints, negative emotional symptoms, burnout, and stress. On the other hand, more destructive leadership behaviors – characterized by higher levels of verbal and non-verbal aggressiveness, disrespectfulness, authoritarian, and punitive behaviors – were found to be associated with more frequent affective symptoms, burnout, and stress, and lower levels of well-being and psychological functioning. So it seems that leadership does have a notable impact on health and wellness outcomes.

Mental Health as a Path to High Performance

Their work didn’t stop there, though. Montano and his colleagues went deeper, investigating the extent to which the leadership-performance relationship was mediated by the changes in wellness, illustrating a chain of events where leader behaviour impacts wellness and this is the primary variable that impacts performance. They found that, while not an absolute bridge, mental health partially mediates the connection between leadership styles and job performance. In simpler terms, the influence of leadership on performance is, in part, due to its impact on followers’ mental wellness. However, as this research only used cross-sectional data, these findings are only preliminary and cannot definitively suggest a causal chain of events. Future research, may help us to determine the precise causal chains of events. But for now, there’s some preliminary evidence suggesting that this may be the case.

Takeaways for You and Your Practice?

The insights gleaned from this study extend meaningful guidance to various stakeholders within the organizational landscape.

For Leaders and Managers

Cultivating Positive Leadership: The study underscores the value of fostering transformational, relations-oriented, and task-oriented leadership. These styles not only enhance mental health but also contribute to improved job performance.

Mitigating Destructive Leadership: Leaders must be vigilant in curbing destructive leadership behaviors. This not only safeguards followers’ well-being but also prevents detrimental impacts on performance.

Mental Health Awareness: Leaders should recognize mental health as a crucial occupational health factor. A supportive environment that values mental well-being can lead to enhanced performance.

For Organizations

Leadership Development Programs: Organizations should design leadership development initiatives that emphasize positive leadership behaviours and styles like strong leader-member exchange, relations-oriented leadership, and transformational leadership. These programs can create a culture of communication, growth, trust, respect, and support.

Policy Integration: Policies and procedures should address destructive leadership while providing resources for stress management and burnout prevention. We especially recommend mental healthcare coverage be provided to employees wherever possible. Mental healthcare is healthcare and mental illness is deeply intertwined with physical health.

Mental Health Monitoring: Organizations can monitor employee wellness, support employees’ mental health and help by providing access to evidence-based interventions to maintain wellness before things have reached a dire state. This proactive approach can foster a healthier and more productive workforce that has their needs met more regularly (being routinely maintained as you would your car or a critical piece of organizational equipment).  If you give an opportunity for things to fall apart, they eventually may when you need them the most.

For Everyone

Fostering Open Communication: Followers can encourage open communication with their leaders, promote healthy interactions and a supportive work environment.

Taking Responsibility: Let’s face it. The hard pill to swallow is that many people aren’t going to actively care about and for the other individuals in their lives. Whether they happen to be your friends, family, or your boss, you may find yourself in poor circumstances where you fell as though you’re on your own with little support. It’s during times like these that you may have to be your own advocate, you may have to actively erect boundaries, and find help and support for yourself. Hardship is surpassed through resilience. People in these circumstances can take ownership of their mental health, use available resources and seek support when necessary.

Be the change you wish to see: even if you don’t occupy a formal leadership position, you can still embody the characteristics of a supportive or transformational leader and be a good communicator to your fellow coworkers. Not just to showcase you may be well suited for a leadership position, but to bring about the culture that you wish to see within your organization… a culture that promotes wellness.

The research done by Montano and colleagues presents a groundbreaking exploration into the dynamic interplay between leadership, mental health, and job performance. Transformational leadership, relations-oriented leadership, and task-oriented leadership styles and strong communication and effective leader-member exchange emerge as champions of mental well-being, while destructive leadership stands as a formidable adversary that should be actively combatted at every opportunity. As leadership is found to have an effect on job performance through mental health this study underscores the pivotal role of leadership in shaping a thriving organization. Leaders have a huge responsibility and an active role to play to harness these insights to create a workplace that nurtures minds and thereby ensures productivity, using wellness to drive the organization towards success.

Trustworthiness score:

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the rapid evidence assessment we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We can conclude the meta-analysis we covered in this evidence-based summary is both rigorous and highly trustworthy (>80%).

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Montano, D., Reeske, A., Franke, F., & Hüffmeier, J. (2016). Leadership, followers’ mental health and job performance in organizations: A comprehensive meta-analysis from an occupational health perspective. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(3), 327–350. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2124

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