The Slow Burn of Poor Leadership

June 13, 2019
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

Recently, the World Health Organization added “burn-out” to the International Classification of Diseases.  They stopped short of classifying it as a medical condition; instead, they are calling it an “occupational phenomenon.”

Here’s how they define it:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Quite a while ago, we learned from the Centers for Disease Control that your immediate supervisor is more important to your health than your primary care doctor. If burn-out results from chronic workplace stress, we’re seeing that to be true.

And it makes sense. 74% of people say the workplace is the leading cause of stress. My co-author, Raj Sisodia, likes to share this statistic: on Monday mornings, there’s a 20% increase in heart attacks.

Last week, I participated in a webinar hosted by Vitality, a wellness program provider with which Barry-Wehmiller partners. My friend Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Dying for a Paycheck, was also part of the session called, “The Next Leading Cause of Death: The Workplace?” In conjunction with the webinar, Vitality also released the results of a study on workplace productivity they published in the Journal of Occupational and Educational Medicine in conjunction with researchers from Cambridge University and Charles University. The study assessed the influence of employees’ lifestyle, commuting time, physical and mental health, wellbeing, job and workplace environment on productivity levels.

Some key findings:

  • Employees lose the equivalent of 31.2 working days per year due to health-related issues. The top three direct and indirect influences are mental health, job characteristics and physical health.
  • Mental and physical health account for more than 84% of the direct effects on productivity loss.
  • In addition, 93% of the indirect influences are mediated through mental and/or physical health, meaning that even job or workplace factors, such as job satisfaction, support from managers or feeling isolated, ultimately affect productivity through mental and/or physical health.

“At first glance, the results may not be surprising as we’ve known for some time that the way companies operate has a direct impact on employee health, but also that employee health directly impacts the success of companies,” said Francois Millard, SVP and Chief Actuarial Officer at Vitality Group.

Of the Vitality study, Dr. Pfeffer said, “Workplaces are making people sick along with the managers who also do the same thing, adversely affecting people’s ability to work. And as the study points out, interventions to improve health that do not attack the root causes of ill-health are going to be less effective or ineffective. It’s particularly important to focus on health as an intermediate outcome and show the costs of ill-health, but even more critical to look not only at the effects on productivity, but the impact on people’s wellbeing.”

Let’s add to this discussion a number of statistics Dr. Pfeffer shared during the Vitality webinar:

  • Correlating hours worked per person and output per hour worked, productivity is highest when people spend fewer hours working.
  • Throughout 18 industries in the U.S., the use of overtime hours lowers average output per hour worked for almost all industries in the sample.
  • Since 1950, an increase in working time was always accompanied by a decrease in per-hour productivity.

In short, Dr. Pfeffer’s larger point is that when companies disregard the wellbeing of their employees, they end up achieving the opposite of the intended result.

However, when we, as business leaders, care about our people, we have can have a profound effect on their lives.

If 75% of the workforce are disengaged — among the 25% engaged in their jobs and thriving in their lives, 41% have lower health-related costs than “struggling” employees and 62% have lower health-related costs than “suffering” employees.

If caring about our people and their wellbeing can have that kind of effect, it only stands to reason that there would be a complimentary byproduct in the productivity in and performance of our businesses.

Right now, in the U.S., we have the lowest unemployment in 50 years, but we have the highest levels of anxiety we’ve had in decades. How can that be? Because we, as business leaders, continue to engage in leadership malpractice and disregard the wellbeing of our people.

The cure for burn-out, a lack of productivity, poor business performance? Care.

Try it, leaders. What do you have to lose? The way we’re working now is not working.

Because the discussion about wellness and the workplace is so important, we’d like to present an edited version of the Vitality webinar with Bob Chapman and Jeffrey Pfeffer. You can listen through the link above.


Related Posts

Bob Chapman / Jun 6, 2018
Podcast: Jeffrey Pfeffer
Bob Chapman / Mar 22, 2018
Are You “Dying for a Paycheck?”

Need help in applying principles of Truly Human Leadership in your organization? Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute is Barry-Wehmiller's leadership consulting firm that partners with other companies to create strategic visions, engage employees, improve corporate culture and develop outstanding leaders through leadership training, assessments and workshops.

Find out more at