Bad bosses worse than smoking for the heart

by 09 Mar 2012

Forget high blood pressure, being overweight, or having a sedentary lifestyle; the biggest cause of heart attacks could just be having a complete idiot for a boss...

Yes, that's right: having an incompetent, unfair and inconsiderate boss can now be added to the list of heart disease risk factors.

That's the finding of Swedish researchers, who say that having a boss with these characteristics raises a worker's chance of having a heart attack by as much as 60%. Researchers from Stockholm University surveyed 3,000 male, mostly well-educated workers between the ages of 19 and 65 (average age 42) over a three-year period starting in 1992, performing medical tests, analysing medical history and exploring their bosses' workplace performance (including how good the boss was at communicating and giving feedback, managing change in the organisation, setting goals and delegating tasks).

The researchers then checked the subsequent 10 years’ worth of data from a national registry of hospital admissions to see if any of these workers were listed as having suffered or died from heart disease.

The conclusion was that a bad boss is bad for your ticker.

Key findings

  • The longer an employee worked for a bad boss, the more likely the worker was to have a heart attack
  • If they'd worked for that manager for four years or more, the extra risk increased by 60%
  • Working for a bad boss was actually more of a risk factor for heart disease than smoking, lack of exercise, or being overweight
  • Employees whose managers exhibited positive skills were up to 40% less likely to suffer heart attacks and angina than the general population

What was it about a bad manager that increased the risk of heart disease? Most likely the stress caused by poor decision-making, which not only causes confusion about an individual's roles and responsibilities within the organisation, but creates conflicts amongst employees. Stress has been proven to elevate the levels of adrenaline in the bloodstream and the ‘fight and flight’ hormones like cortisol, both of which raise the blood pressure, making the heart work harder and create more strain.

Lessons for HR?

There's a message for managers in these findings, say the authors.

An organisation needs to prioritise improving managers’ skills to make sure they treat employees with consideration and respect; set clear and achievable goals; hold realistic expectations; communicate and give feedback; include subordinates in decision-making; delegate authority and manage change effectively within the organisation. If they can do this they'll be rewarded with a healthy workforce with high levels of productivity and low absenteeism.

Even once they’ve all got great bosses though, employees should still be advised to keep off the ciggies.


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