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Can a Bad Boss Make You Sick?

(HealthDay News) -- If an inept or abrasive boss is ruining your workday, you may be taking that stress to heart, literally.

New research links having a poor supervisor to a higher risk of heart attack, and that's not all: people who don't like their managers also take more sick leave.

The findings, which come from surveys of thousands of employees in Europe, don't prove that bad bosses cause illness and heart problems, the report's author said. And the findings regarding heart attacks only look at men.

Still, the research does suggest that what happens at work doesn't stay at work, said Anna Nyberg, a postgraduate student at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and author of a thesis based on the results of the surveys.

"Our findings provide clear support for an association between managers' leadership and employee stress and health," she said.

Nyberg examined the results of several studies that she took part in. Among other things, she examined polls taken of almost 20,000 employees in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Poland and Italy.

Nyberg found that male workers in Stockholm, Sweden, had a 25 percent higher risk of heart attack over the 10 years following the survey if they'd said their bosses were less than satisfactory. The heart attack rates went up the longer that the employees had to suffer with bosses they disliked.

Also, workers who complained about their bosses took more sick time. "The amount of sick days taken by employees in our study was associated with how the managers acted, regardless of the employees' general health status," Nyberg noted. This "indicates that employees may take sick leave as a means to cope with stress due to destructive leadership at work and perhaps to prevent their health from becoming affected."

The researchers behind the various studies included in Nyberg's report adjusted their statistics to take into account other possible factors, but the link between bosses and health remained intact.

What about women? There weren't enough heart-attack cases over the 10-year follow-up period for the researchers to consider how bosses affected female workers' heart health, Nyberg said. But the trends around sick leave applied to both genders, she said.

One expert thought the findings had merit.

Dr. Redford Williams, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University in Durham, N.C., said stress at work -- such as that caused by a boss with poor leadership skills -- "arouses the body's fight/flight response, causing changes in stress hormones that increase blood pressure, inflammatory cytokines, blood glucose levels, even makes platelets stickier and more likely to clot."

Over time, this can increase blockages in the arteries and lead to heart attacks and strokes, he said.

In general, Williams said, "it's still safe to conclude that poor leadership has the potential to adversely affect the health of the led. It's likely that there are differences in how sensitive different persons are to these effects, but still clear that poor leadership is bad for health."

SOURCES: Anna Nyberg, researcher, Karolinska Institute, Solna, Sweden; Redford Williams, M.D., director, Behavioral Medicine Research Center, professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Thesis, Anna Nyberg, 2009