The International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS), which is Norway, have studied which leadership qualities could help employees return from sick leave early. Being considerate, understanding and able to maintain contact with the sick-listed are the most important leadership qualities, according to the study.
"The manager has a key role when it comes to sick leave. He or she is often the best available measure for promoting health in these cases. A manager with good qualities can have a great impact on how long the employee is off sick", says senior researcher Randi Wågø Aas, at IRIS, which is owned by the University of Stavanger and Rogalandsforskning.
Norway has the highest sick leave figures in Europe, and the authorities are constantly looking for new measures to get numbers down. The latest research effort from IRIS on the topic studied the relationship between the employees who are signed off sick, and their managers. Part of this work has now been published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation.
Previous research has revealed a strong link between management and sick leave.
The risk of long term sick leave rises proportionally to the lack of support from the manager.
"That is why we think it is interesting to look at which qualities in managers are considered important", says Ms Wågø Aas. Researchers followed 30 people on long term sick leave over the course of eight months. Both the employees and their managers were asked which management qualities they felt were the most important in the follow-up work. Researchers got 345 descriptions of important qualities, which were naturally grouped in 78 specific management qualities. The three most often mentioned were Ability to make contact, Consideration and Understanding.
In other words, the study shows that people on sick leave first and foremost need to feel cared for.
"The employees find it important that their managers are understanding, supportive, attentive, empathetic, warm and friendly. When they are on sick leave, people are in a position of vulnerability. Many of them talk about feeling suspected, and say their problems are not taken seriously", says Ms Aas.
The 78 manager qualities which emerged from the investigation were divided into seven categories, which each represent a given type of manager. The one mentioned the most frequently, is nicknamed The Protector, who has caring qualities. Number two is The Problem Solver, who is the best at adapting. The third most important is The Contact Maker, and then it is The Trust Creator, The Recognizer, The Encourager, and The Responsibility-maker. Each of these types contains groups of qualities which emerge in the interviews. Ideally, managers with staff responsibilities should have a bit of each of the seven in them, but what is the most important will vary.
"The perfect manager can take steps which are tailored to the individual's needs. The survey shows that there are great differences in what the individual considers good follow-up. It is also clear that a combination of different management qualities is needed. A great many people need both a pat on the shoulder, and to be welcomed back to work", says Ms Aas. According to her, it also seems that contact ability is a necessary quality in order to achieve the combination of protection and problem-solving.
Researchers also found age differences in the individual's needs while on sick leave. Younger employees had the greatest need for protection and recognition, while those over 45 were more concerned with problem solving and being held responsible.
"Older people are probably more concerned with adaptation of their work environment, to make sure they can get back to work. Younger employees are possibly more vulnerable, and need more encouragement", she says.
A third important find in the study, is the difference in what the employees and the managers thought was important. The employees emphasised recognition and encouragement more than the managers, who were more concerned with accountability, and problem solving.
"If employees have different needs from what the managers are aware of, and this is not communicated, there is a big problem. It is easy to view management as mainly about adapting all practical and formal matters for the employee. For most employees however, it is more important to be understood and included. For instance, many managers think they are protecting the employee by telling them that they do not need to work. In reality, they are simply extending the sick leave, since the employee does not feel included. After all, many are able to do things even though they are ill", says Senior researcher Ms Wågø Aas.
IRIS will continue to study the interview material. They also wish to develop a feedback tool, which aims to improve communication between managers and employees on sick leave.
Here are the types of managers identified in the study:
1. The Protector
Protects the employee, understands the situation, helps and includes. Shows compassion, is discreet, warm and friendly.
2. The Problem Solver
Professional, solution oriented and creative. Can, among other things, change the tasks or in other ways adapt them so that the employee can continue to work. Takes responsibility, and gives individual treatment.
3. The Contact Maker
Gets in touch with the employee to inform of what is happening in the workplace. Is also interested in how the employee is doing, and proves a listening and able conversationalist.
4. The Trust Creator
Is discreet, predictable, attentive, honest and open. Creates trust and a feeling of safety.
5. The Recognizer
Behaves acknowledging, confirming and without prejudice towards the employee.
Shows respect and confidence.
6. The Encourager
Has a positive attitude, and is generous and happy. Motivates, inspires and is available. This type of manager has a sense of humour, as well as being just, patient, and encouraging.
7. The Responsibility-maker
Assertive, fearless, challenging, and direct. Is honest, to the point and not afraid to establish boundaries or confront. Gives the employee challenges and responsibility for his or her own situation.
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