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Leadership and Collaborative Working

The impact of managers' leadership style and their power to shape working conditions give them a vital influence over employee health and well-being. Managers provide key resources, such as social support, which is particularly important in view of its stress-mitigating effects.

Managers' work situation

Managers have a significant influence on how work is designed and employees' health. However, their leadership roles also pose challenges that affect their own situation at work.

What does the research say?

The following points are evident from the Employment Survey 2018 (Erwerbstätigenbefragung 2018) conducted by the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung, BIBB) and the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, BAuA):

  • In comparison to employees without leadership functions, managers more frequently find themselves confronted with demanding scenarios, such as simultaneously having to supervise a range of different activities, coping with heavy pressure to meet deadlines and to perform, or having their work disrupted and interrupted.
  • However, managers also have greater resources at their disposal in an organisational setting, including extensive work latitude. This tendency becomes more pronounced, the higher up in the organisational hierarchy they are placed. The absence of these behavioural resources is found to be more stressful by managers than by employees without leadership responsibilities.
  • In comparison to middle managers and senior executives, lower-ranking managers report poorer general health.

What does this mean for practice?

Companies should keep an eye on the specific work situations and personal health of their managers, in particular those at the lower management levels. This group should be regarded not just as being responsible for working conditions, but also as being affected by them - an insight that should be factored into risk assessments.

Health relevance of leadership

Leadership has definite links with employee health. Management style relates to health outcomes, while the part managers play in shaping working conditions influences such outcomes indirectly.

What does the research say?

Analysis of the BIBB/BAuA surveys carried out between 2006 and 2018 and the Working Time Survey 2017 (Arbeitszeitbefragung 2017) indicates that:

  • There has either been a slight decline in the use of important leadership resources (e.g. the ability to share information) over this period or they are not exploited to any great extent (praise and appreciation).
  • 13% of employees frequently or occasionally find themselves confronted with destructive leadership behaviour.
  • A significant proportion of those affected view managers’ failure to mobilise resources as a source of stress.
  • Relations-oriented leadership is associated positively with employee health, while destructive leadership is a health risk.
  • Leadership behaviour has an influence on how employees perceive their wider working conditions. Where the prevalent leadership style is benevolent, for example, employees feel the demands made of them to be less onerous and believe they have access to more resources.

What does this mean for practice?

Organisations should make it quite clear that there will be zero tolerance of disrespectful, inconsiderate leadership behaviour, and put in place disciplinary measures to enforce this. Organisational parameters have a strong influence on the kinds of action managers take: for instance, a company's fairness culture, handling of errors and performance culture have definite links with employees’ well-being and influence the relationship between leadership behaviour and health outcomes.

Social support

Social support from colleagues and superiors is a key resource at work. In this respect, both support that is actually received and support that is subjectively perceived or expected has stress-mitigating effects. Such support may be emotional (e.g. empathy), instrumental (e.g. material), informational (e.g. advice) or it may take the form of recognition (e.g. expressions of appreciation or praise).

What does the research say?

  • The BIBB/BAuA Employment Survey 2018 suggests that it is very common for social support to be provided by colleagues, something that is reported by 79% of workers. Support is less likely to be offered by managers, being reported by 59% of respondents. Only 33% of employees say they receive frequent praise and appreciation.
  • The results of BAuA's "Mental health in the working world" project show that a low level of social support is associated with a heightened risk of burnout, depression and poor mental health, as well as poorer job satisfaction and higher staff turnover.

What does this mean for practice?

The support colleagues give each other should be recognised and encouraged. Managers can promote a positive social climate by regularly assessing the team climate, through the possibility of employee participation and regular team meetings, and by providing appreciative feedback. Organisations can also do their bit to help by setting clear, binding rules for communication and developing guidelines for good collaborative work.

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