ABS researchers Sofija Pajic, Claudia Buengeler, and Deanne den Hartog (Leadership and Management section) explore the relationship between leadership, wellbeing, and socioeconomic status. The study was conducted with co-author Diana Boer (Institute of Psychology, University of Koblenz-Landau).
The study specifically looked at the role of employee socioeconomic status (SES) in relation to leadership behaviour and employee wellbeing. Sofija Pajic explains: ‘We wanted to see what kind of impact the behaviour of direct supervisors has on the wellbeing of employees who differ in their economic and social status. This status is based on education, occupation and income.’
The impact of leadership
In general, the type of behaviour shown by leaders is significantly related to employee health and wellbeing. This holds true in a wide variety of contexts and situations. ‘Constructive leadership such as inspiring employees, caring for them, and helping them reach their goals promotes employee wellbeing. Destructive leadership such as not helping when needed, or being abusive or exploitative harms employee wellbeing,’ says Pajic.
Wellbeing and socioeconomic status
But when the researchers looked at the role of socioeconomic status, a more nuanced picture emerged. According to Pajic, ‘Both constructive and destructive leadership have a stronger relationship with wellbeing outcomes for workers with lower socioeconomic status. By this we mean jobs such as nursing, or blue collar work in manufacturing or the hospitality industry. The same leader behaviour has less impact on employees with higher status jobs (doctors, professors, IT specialists).’
The researchers offer an explanation for this phenomenon. Employees with lower SES tend to work in jobs where their work lacks resources such as autonomy and other positive and motivating aspects. They therefore have more to gain from constructive input given by their leaders. This means there is more to gain by installing effective leadership for groups of employees at the lower end of socioeconomic status. But importantly, these employees also lose more when they have supervisors with poor leadership behaviour. This makes these workers even more vulnerable.
‘It goes without saying that employee health and wellbeing are important for society,’ says Pajic. ‘We’re seeing more burnout due to work-related stress. This comes at a high cost for individuals, businesses, and society. Our findings also shed light on the wellbeing of employees with a lower socioeconomic status. This group is often underrepresented in organisational research.’
The research is part of the LEADhealth project financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw). The project aims to comprehensively investigate the role of leadership in employee wellbeing and health.
This particular study analysed 219 studies taken from various occupations, organisations and countries. The researchers also tested their hypotheses using survey data from 62,202 employees in the Netherlands. Pajic confirms that follow-up studies are being planned. ‘We have many ideas for future research. We’re hoping to contribute more to good leadership practices, a healthy workforce, and sustainable career development.’