Ever work for a toxic boss? I have, a few times. The last one -- a brilliant and creative CEO -- was a classic bully with psychopathic tendencies that left employees baffled. Many of them left to preserve their dignity and peace of mind in calmer waters.

Research over the years has shown that abusive managers add insurmountable amounts of stress on employees, greatly decreasing their ability to focus and be productive. One Gallup survey determined that poorly managed work groups are on average 50 percent less productive and 44 percent less profitable than well-managed groups.

Numbers aside, having toxic managers is a serious matter. Like, heart attack serious.

The way to a heart attack, suggests science

One notable and massive study I have observed deserves another look. It was conducted by Swedish researchers at the Stress Institute in Stockholm and published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Researchers studied more than 3,100 men over a 10-year period in typical work settings. They found that employees who had managers with the following traits were 60 percent more likely to have suffered a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition.

  • Their managers were incompetent.
  • They were inconsiderate.
  • They were secretive.
  • They were uncommunicative.

On the flip side, employees who worked with "good" leaders were 40 percent less likely to suffer heart issues. And employees who felt that their supervisors treated them fairly had a 30 percent lower risk of heart disease.

The participants in the study, all males between 19 to 70 years of age, had their hearts checked during a period between 1992 and 1995. The researchers then matched these men with hospital records for heart disease illness and death up to 2003.

During the follow-up period, there were 74 cases of fatal and nonfatal heart attacks or angina or death from ischemic heart disease, the researchers found.

The researchers discovered something else of interest: The more competent the men perceived their managers were, the lower their risk of developing ischemic heart disease. In contrast, the less competent they rated their boss's leadership skills, the higher the risk for heart disease. In fact, the risk went up the longer a person worked in the same stressful conditions.

The study's lead scientist, Anna Nyberg, said "for all those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don't understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this develops into a health risk."

Well, being rude and uncivil, hoarding information, and not communicating with employees is certainly "behaving strangely." And such toxic leadership traits are on the rise.

Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg recently published a study on the growing incidence of toxic leadership in organizations across the world. Research and anecdotal evidence, says Veldsman, suggest that one out of every five leaders is toxic. However, his own research shows that closer to three out of every ten leaders are toxic.

Veldsman describes toxic leadership as "ongoing, deliberate intentional actions by a leader to undermine the sense of dignity, self-worth and efficacy of an individual. This results in exploitative, destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences."

Furthermore, he states that a toxic organization is one that "erodes, disable and destroys the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well being of the people who work in it in permanent and deliberate way."

As far as the Swedish study, Nyberg says it's the first study of its kind to provide evidence of what she calls "a prospective, dose-response relationship between concrete managerial behaviors and objectively assessed ischemic heart disease among employees." Translation: the longer you work for a toxic boss, the higher your risk of being hospitalized or having a fatal heart attack.

"Stress-related diseases are a large problem in our society," Nyberg told U.S. News & World Report. "The workplace is one area in which stress occurs and thus can be reduced. This study suggests that managers have key roles in determining stress-related factors at work, which means that psychosocial work environment interventions could be directed towards managers in order to reduce stress in employees," she said.

Suggestions for intervention

The research team provided interventions aimed at improving the psychosocial work environment and preventing ischaemic heart disease among employees by hiring and developing managers with these concrete leadership behaviors:

  • Having consideration for employees
  • Setting clear work objectives
  • Provide clear and realistic expectations
  • Provide employees with information
  • Giving employees sufficient control and power (ownership) in relation to responsibilities
  • Providing ongoing and frequent feedback
  • Including employees in decision-making
  • Delegating authority to employees
  • Supporting employees' development

Enhancing managers' skills by raising their capacity to do these things, says Nyberg, "could have important stress-reducing effects on employees and enhance the health at workplaces."

Published on: Aug 11, 2017
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