Having a Bad Boss Is Bad for the Heart

Study Shows Working for an Incompetent Boss Can Raise Risk of Heart Disease

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 24, 2008

Nov. 24, 2008 -- People who consider their bosses to be unfair, arbitrary, inconsiderate, and generally deficient in managerial skills are at greater risk for having a heart disease event such as a heart attack, a new Swedish study shows.

And stress that workers think is caused by bad managers adds up, increasing risk of heart problems over time, the researchers report in the Nov. 24 issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Swedish scientists tracked the heart health of more than 3,000 male workers between 1992 and 1995. Their occupational health records then were matched with national registry data on hospital admissions and death from ischemic heart disease up to 2003.

During the monitoring period of almost a decade, 74 cases of fatal and non-fatal heart disease events such as heart attack, unstable angina, or cardiac arrest occurred. The more competent that workers ranked their managers, the lower their risk of serious heart problems.

The association between perceived leadership of managers and the risk of serious heart problems among workers increased the longer an employee worked for the same company, the study showed, suggesting that stress caused by bad bosses may increase over time.

The researchers suggest that companies take steps to improve managers' deficient skills, as rated by their subordinates, to ward off serious heart disease of workers.

"One could speculate that a present and active manager, providing structure, information, and support, counteracts destructive processes in work groups, thereby promoting regenerative rather than stress-related physiological processes in employees," writes Anna Nyberg of the Karolinska Institute and the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University.

Rating the Bosses

Participants used a rating system for their senior managers, grading them on such things as how good they were at communicating and offering feedback, their success at managing change, their ability to set goals, and how much they delegated.

Higher leadership scores were found to be associated with lower risk for heart disease, and the association was "robust to adjustments for education, social class, income, supervisory status, perceived physical load at work, smoking, physical exercise, [body mass index], lipids, fibrinogen, and diabetes."

In short, the study shows that bad bosses can be hazardous to the health, and even to long life, of the people who work for them.

In another recent study, the researchers say, employees who were exposed to what they perceive as an adverse psychological work environment were found to be at a 50% excess risk of cardiovascular disease. The results from that study, the researchers write, "have considerable clinical implications, especially since psychosocial stressors at work are relatively common."

The researchers say evidence is mounting that the perceived quality of managerial behavior affects worker health. Workers are concerned about "considerate behavior" of bosses, how well managers are able to stimulate employees intellectually, and their ability to communicate with those who work under their supervision.

Questions used to rate bosses included such statements as "I am criticized by my boss if I have done something that is not good" and others about how well managers communicate their expectations.

What was clear was that workers who felt their bosses had trouble communicating information -- not just negative thoughts -- were at increased risk of developing heart problems. Training of managers about how to do their jobs better might be a good start, the researchers suggest.

Show Sources


News release, BMJ Specialist Journals.

Nyberg, A. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Nov. 24, 2008.

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