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Employee stress, burnout, and poor health are at an all-time high, which is not only bad for employees themselves but also costly for organizations and society. A workplace factor that is key to employee health is their direct supervisors’ leadership. Through guidance, support, and inspiration leaders may positively impact employee well-being, but they may also hurt employee well-being, for example through laissez-faire or abusive behavior or destructive critique.

 

To date, however, we lack systematic knowledge which leadership behaviors affect employee health and when and how they do. Although scholars and practitioners recognize the importance of leadership for worker health, and many primary studies report on empirical associations between some form of leadership (e.g., transformational or ethical) and a single indicator of employee health (e.g., emotional exhaustion), the overall literature is scattered and lacks integration.

 

Recently, some reviews have started towards this much-needed consolidation. However, these first attempts to integrate the literature were either qualitative in nature and thus susceptible to researchers’ subjective judgment (e.g., Gregersen, Kuhnert, Zimber, & Nienhaus, 2011; Skakon, Nielsen, Borg, & Guzman, 2010), or were limited in scope, addressing only specific forms of leadership or health outcomes, for example (e.g., Montano, Reeske, Franke, & Hüffmeier, 2017; Schyns & Schilling, 2013). No studies have yet provided a more comprehensive quantitative integration showing which leader behaviors are most impactful in terms of employee health, both positively and negatively. Hence, we cannot yet conclude which leadership behaviors have an effect on worker health or which ones are most impactful; and what indicators of health (short-term or longer-term; psychological or physical) they affect. In addition, this work has not zoomed in on workers whose health is particularly likely to be affected by leadership: those with low socioeconomic status due to low education, low income, precarious work, or job uncertainty.

 

We argue that overlooking this group of workers is problematic. Workers with low socioeconomic status often do precarious work under stressful conditions with less autonomy and control in their job than more advantaged workers and they are particularly vulnerable for developing chronic health conditions. Hence, they tend to be more dependent on leaders and may both particularly benefit from constructive leadership and suffer extra from destructive leadership. Optimizing the leadership behaviors that these workers’ supervisors show through selection, creating awareness, providing training, and engaging in systematic performance management could thus help prevent socioeconomically disadvantaged workers’ health from further deteriorating through avoiding destructive or passive leadership and improve it through the beneficial effects of constructive forms of leadership. Lamentably, however, previous work has not attended to the specific needs and situation of socioeconomically disadvantaged workers, and hence we lack systematic knowledge on the leadership-health link for this group that could feed into evidence-based organizational stress and health management, and the development of appropriate responses of policy makers as well as of best practices in shaping daily supervisors’ leadership behavior.

 

In the LEADhealth project, for the first time we build comprehensive knowledge around which leadership behaviors matter most for health of workers, particularly those with low socio-economic status. We determine how different constructive, destructive, and passive leadership behaviors relate to health in terms of psychological (e.g., psychological well-being) and physical (e.g., health complaints and symptoms) as well as short-term (e.g., immediate affective responses) and longer-term (e.g., burnout) health consequences, and examine how workplace factors (e.g., job type, job autonomy, task complexity, task interdependence) interact with leadership to shape socioeconomically disadvantaged workers’ health. As an analytical strategy, we use meta-analysis, as this allows us to quantitatively integrate the existent body of primary research in which the association between any form of leadership and any form of worker health was quantified. By showing which leader behaviors are most conducive or detrimental to health of workers with low (as compared with high) socioeconomic status, LEADhealth opens up novel avenues for the promotion of these workers’ health through preventing destructive or passive leadership, and fostering constructive leadership. By collaborating with Douane and other organizations, and via a science-practice transfer workshop, the knowledge on health-relevant leadership behaviors this project generates can be transferred to practitioners, and novel interventions to prepare leaders in organizations can be developed.

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